Canada’s Top Entrepreneurs Talk About Their Roots, Challenges, and Future

The finalists in the Entrepreneur of the Year category for the Canadian Startup Awards need little introduction. Wealthsimple’s Michael Katchen is disrupting how we invest, Axonify’s Carol Leaman is changing how we learn and League’s Michael Serbinis is reimagining how we track our health and wellness.

Below (in alphabetical order) is a discussion with each about their recent success, what’s next and what they might otherwise be doing with their lives if they didn’t have the entrepreneurial drive.

Michael Katchen, Wealthsimple

TV:Remind readers of how Wealthsimple got started. What’s your startup story?

MK: Before starting Wealthsimple, I worked at a startup called 1000memories, and we sold the business to in 2012. When that happened, the team I was working with came into a little money for the first time and wasn’t sure what to do with it. I’ve been interested in investing since I was 12 and offered to help them build a simple portfolio, which I did one evening with a spreadsheet. Their feedback was, “this looks like a great plan, but can you just do it for me?” And they became Wealthsimple’s first customers.

What problem are you trying to solve?

Our mission is to make financial services easy and accessible for everyone. It used to be that, unless you had a lot of money, you couldn’t get access to really great financial tools and advice. So that meant lots of people – and younger folks in particular – weren’t being served by the financial services industry.

We are making great investment advice accessible to everyone through technology. We’re also simplifying investing by making it human. So many of us find investing complicated and overwhelming. That leaves us feeling out of control. We simplify it so that you can get on with your life.

Who are your key customers?

While we have clients as young as 18 all the way up to 102 (for real!), most of our clients are young professionals. Around 85 per cent of our clients are under 45.

Why do you think you’ve been so successful to date?

I think we’ve been able to tap into something that other financial companies haven’t, because we approach money and investing in a very human way. We don’t talk to people about interest rates or oil prices, we tell human stories about money and how it interacts with the way people live their lives.

This has allowed us to connect with people who may not have otherwise been thinking about investing at all. We’ve also built a service that people love and are constantly iterating to make it better. We were fortunate to win the best financial services website in the world last year at the Webbys. Since then, we’ve already redesigned the website twice from scratch.

What has been the biggest challenge so far, and how did you overcome it?

We’ve been really fortunate to grow fast. To keep up, we’ve built a team of 75 people in two years. Hiring the best talent while building a culture alongside that growth has been really hard. That challenge has also been a big part of the fun.

What’s next for your company?

We just launched in the United States, so that’s keeping us pretty busy right now! Our long-term ambition is to be a global financial institution that helps people all over the world achieve their financial goals.

What’s the best part about being an entrepreneur?

I love working with amazing people to solve problems that I care about. The best part of being an entrepreneur is that you get to pick both.

If you weren’t an entrepreneur for some reason what would you do for a living?

Probably an architect. That would make my mom happy. She still asks if I’d consider it from time to time.

Carol Leaman, Axonify

TV: How did Axonify get started?

CL: I was actually running my last company when the founders of Axonify came to me looking for advice. They were senior marketing professionals who had “accidentally” conceived of a way to convey employee knowledge to one of their customers, which changed employee behaviour on the job in really positive ways. They didn’t know how to sell technology or software so I started to help them in my spare time.  Out of the blue, Google bought my last company and so I decided to buy this one!  We picked up the one customer, some sketchy code, two employees and started over with the idea.

What problem are you trying to solve?

We solve the employee knowledge problem. In a nutshell, employees do what they know, and if they don’t know they guess. We have a super cool platform that combines brain science, gamified, micro-learning, and a host of analytics to drive knowledge growth in a personalized way in topics that matter where bottom line results are concerned.  It’s a three-minute experience a day that employees love. They quickly get smarter, and it shows.

We get employees to sell more, stop having accidents, serve customers better, and we can measure the business impact.  No one else can tie knowledge to performance.

Who are your key customers?

We’re lucky to have some of the worlds biggest companies as our customers such as Walmart, Johnson & Johnson, O’Reilly Auto Parts, Toyota and Toys ’R’ Us.

Why do you think you’ve been so successful to date?

We’ve been successful because we launched a solution right at the collision of three things: the emerging needs of the modern workplace learner, advances in cognitive science about how to create memory and technology that allows you to access people anytime, anywhere. We are completely disruptive to traditional learning solutions and can prove massive business results that come from knowledge acquisition.

What has been the biggest challenge so far, and how did you overcome it?

Our biggest challenge was getting large companies who have tens of thousands of workers to believe that letting employees play a game and answer questions for three minutes a day, would actually be better than sitting them in a classroom and “training” them that way.

The turning point for us was when we had two customers go public about the tens of millions of dollars in savings they got almost immediately from employee behaviour change. Other challenges have been typical — raising brand awareness when you’re disrupting a market, trying to be capital efficient, hiring great people in a competitive market…..but we’ve managed quite well.

What’s next for your company?

We just raised $27 million with JMI and BDC and 2017 is going to be a breakout year for us. We have several awesome product advancements we’re launching including predictive capabilities around human behaviour. We’re also doubling down on the “deskless” workers space. These are employees who often get little training but who can impact financial results dramatically if they’re knowledgeable.

What’s the best part about being an entrepreneur?

Making it up as you go!  I love the challenge of figuring out hard things, working on something exciting, seeing the results and working with such dedicated people who share your vision.

If you weren’t an entrepreneur for some reason (play along here, please) what would you do for a living?

A forensic scientist.  There’s something about figuring out a mystery that I love.

Michael Serbinis, League

TV: What’s your startup story for League?

MS: It was 2014, and we had heard a ton about the future of medicine. Amazing Star Trek-like stuff. Meanwhile, our experience with healthcare and health insurers is stuck in the stone ages. We imagined what the future should look like – a consumer-centric, personalized, preventative, always-on, digital world that was just better. The band got together again, and we started League to revolutionize a trillion dollar market.

What problem are you trying to solve?

The traditional way of doing health benefits is ready to be put out to pasture. Two-thirds of businesses use benefits to attract and retain the best people. Meanwhile, costs keep rising and nobody is happy—the experience is horribly out of touch with today’s consumer. We are building a next generation experience that’s all about empowering people to be healthy everyday. We provide an uber-like digital experience for people to enjoy their benefits with ease and flexibility, while giving businesses budget control and greater capital efficiency.

Who are your key customers?

Employers who place a priority on employee health and wellness, attracting and retaining the best people, and driving results.

Why do you think you’ve been so successful to date?

First, we are in it to win it. Second, while incumbents are a lot like the army rangers – predictable, rulebook bound, my teams have always been like the navy seals. Never underestimate the seals – a team of highly skilled people with shared, common purpose who are on a mission with life or death consequences.

What has been the biggest challenge so far, and how did you overcome it?

We started League with a consumer-focused mission, but in the end, found that our business model was a B2B model. We got there through a relentless pursuit of viability. Trying new tactics weekly, looking for signals, making bets on longer-term sustainability. One day we woke up, and we realized we were building a next-generation health insurance company. But we got there with daily and weekly adjustments.

What’s next for your company?

We’re putting it into high gear. We’re scaling the business. Expanding across Canada and into the U.S. with a new U.S. leadership team. The rollout starts this year.

What’s the best part about being an entrepreneur?

You’re the fun guy at a party filled with suits! Seriously though: waking up everyday and imagining a future you want—that’s better for you, your family, your friends, the world—and then going to work with an amazing group of people to realize that vision. Or more simply put: turning dreams into reality.

If you weren’t an entrepreneur for some reason, what would you do for a living?

It’s a toss-up between building next generation propulsion systems and buying a bar on a beach someplace where I am the bartender and the lead singer of the bar band, with my family playing backup vocals, bass, guitars and drums. Probably both, someday…

Choose Your Favourite

Which of these deserving young companies deserve to win in the Enterprise Transformation category? Make sure you vote for your favourites before Feb. 19 at midnight to have your say in which startups should win in their respective categories.

The winners will be announced at a live gala on March 2nd at Steam Whistle Brewery in Toronto.

Carol Leaman: Five Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Investors