15-Year-Old Canadian Entrepreneur Brings His Startup to Market

While most of the teens at the Shad Valley tech and entrepreneurship camp in July focused on their science projects, Alex Gillis might have been a bit distracted by the business he’d started two months before.

He is now launching the business, which places a small electronic monitor in retail locations like coffee shops to track the customer traffic and spending, and provide data on customer behaviour. Gillis and his partners call their service Bitness and the little device the Bitness Beacon. And he hopes to have them in scores of locations by the time he’s midway through Grade 12.

“I definitely have the goal of getting 100 customers by the end of next year,” the 15-year-old Haligonian said in an interview shortly after his first sales call at a metro Halifax coffee house. “I really want to get a few chains on board.”

Gillis is now entering Grade 11 at Sacred Heart School, and he already strikes you as an entrepreneur worth listening to. On a humid August afternoon, he’s clad in creased trousers and a dress shirt. He has already pitched his business model at Volta Labs, the Halifax startup hub. And the fact that he attended Shad Valley — a competitive national program that selects only accomplished high-school students — shows that he’s one to watch.

He began to toy around with a serious business in the past year, when he set up a company called MicroCent Technology, which is now the corporate umbrella for Bitness. (Because he’s too young to be a director of a company, his mother owns the stock and has a board seat.)

He brought in a classmate, Aristides Milios, who is helping develop the company in return for equity. And they signed up Troy Nelson, a hardware specialist who divides his time between San Francisco and Moncton, to make the Bitness Beacons. Nelson will receive a cut from the licensing of the beacons.

“Having a three-person team work on this with no money has been crazy,” said Gillis. “We’ve put a total of 200 bucks into this. Now that’s bootstrapping.”

The way the product works is to place a Bitness Beacon in a store or coffee shop — one is all you need for a regular-sized coffee shop. The customer pays $99 to license a beacon, and then pays $45 per month per store (for a regular-sized location) for the service.

The beacon tracks anyone who enters the establishment with their cellphone set to receive Wi-Fi signals (which is most people with smartphones). It can track who lingers at the cash register (signalling a sale), who stays in and who leaves. It can track the number of returning customers. The system assigns numbers to customers and does not identify them by name, thereby preserving their privacy.

The service includes an easy-to-use dashboard that can tell the business owner what are the peak times in the establishment, which helps with staffing and in arranging promotions.

Gillis said the first sales call went well and he hopes to sign up the customer soon. He is especially keen to sign up a few retail or restaurant chains, because that will help to impress investors.

The company is now hoping to raise $50,000 in investment to buy more beacons and hire a salesperson.

This article first appeared on Entrevestor.