Startup Chooses BC Over Silicon Valley, Scores Deal with NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks

Janice Taylor is keen on shaking up the social networking concept.

Where the likes of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram focus on the “me, me, me,” Taylor’s Just Be Friends network places the emphasis on family and community.

According to a recent study, 80 percent of people feel they don’t belong to their local community, and almost 33 percent don’t recognize their neighbours. Taylor, who launched Just Be Friends after being chosen by Oprah to join her in the legendary Australia episode/tour, wants to change these stats. JBF’s mission is to help build sustainable neighbourhoods by connecting people – online and in the real world.

“Just Be Friends has been my brainchild for five years,” explains Taylor. “I created it initially for adult women to meet other adult women for positive healthy friendship and that was the initial premise. Six weeks after I launched I was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as one of her 150 select people who were making a difference.”

Being selected by one of the world’s most influential people is far from easy. So how did Taylor convince Oprah to buy in?

“Basically I sent an email to her and I said to her: ‘This is my story. I was raised by a single mom in poverty and I’m a child of the village. I’m a single Mom to two girls and I want to give my life a sense of purpose and I want to utilize my story to help others so I created Just Be Friends in order to bring women back together in some capacity and at the same time to bring back positive healthy friendships as a model to kids.’”

“At the time my little girl was having some issues at school and I felt like, ‘Gosh I don’t know these parents, I can’t solve this problem, this doesn’t make sense,'” she continued. “In the old days parents would sit on the couch, parents would be over here, you would get the riot act, and the kids would be like okay, okay, lets just be friends. Because parents, we’re all on the same team. I’ve noticed there is a shift in our culture where there wasn’t necessarily parents being on the same team anymore and weren’t raising their children like a village.”

Solving the problem of community disconnect with technology, an issue exacerbated by an increase in our dependence on technology, would appear to be the ultimate paradox. But this didn’t dissuade Taylor from tackling the issue head-on.

“I thought if I’m going to solve this problem I’m going to have to to use technology and I can’t ignore it. The problem has been pervaded by technology. We think that because we are connected in a virtual world that we are connected, but we are really not. It gives us a false sense of security. I thought it’s pervaded the problem. I thought the very tool that pervaded the problem is going to be the tool that solves the problem. That was basically my hypothesis and I had no idea how I was going to do this,” she says.

Taylor’s brush with fame isn’t limited to her time spent with Oprah in Australia, at least in the eyes of those following the world of tech. Taylor spent four months in Silicon Valley, where she often met with the movers and shakers in venture capital.

“It was crazy,” Taylor says. “By the end of 2011 when I thought I would quit, the Consulate of Canada, our Consulate General, was based in San Francisco. I was the first group of women to be mentored in Silicon Valley. I went and moved there for four months and immersed myself in the culture and met every tech entrepreneur you could think of and said, ‘Hey, can I have a coffee?’. I said I’m from Saskatchewan and I want to know how to make a tech company.”

After securing significant first round funding, Just Be Friends could have easily set up shop where Apple, Google and most tech companies are headquartered. But Taylor chose BC’s Okanagan Valley as her home, and has based her operations in Kelowna. Jeff Keen, former CEO of Accelerate Okanagan, convinced her to check out BC’s Interior.

“He had invited me to come for a visit. I hadn’t been here since I was a kid in the Flintstone era. It took me 36 hours and I said ‘I’m going to move.’ I met Lance from Club Penguin and other entrepreneurs, and I flew back to California, packed up my car and I moved here two weeks later,” she explains.

Although this concept may go against the grain of what we perceive social networking to be, there are some big players jumping aboard that will help Just Be Friends be the online solution of choice for families wishing to make a difference in their community. Just recently, NHL’s five-time Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks is officially joining forces with Just Be Friends to kickstart the revolution of social media as a means to building stronger communities.

“The Chicago Blackhawks are excited to partner with Just Be Friends to a create a community building and youth engagement app that combines animation, gaming and technology,” says Peter Hassen, Sr. Executive Director of Marketing for the team.

“We actually pitched to the them [Chicago Blackhawks] this notion of youth engagement and community building,” Taylor explains. “I said, ‘You could be the leaders, through your aspiration brand, drive youth engagement. Fans could engage with the team, their love of the team, all of that… but you could really drive social behaviours as well, and it could build the neighbourhood.’”

Another big selling feature for teams like the Blackhawks is the ability for Just Be Friends to create a whole new revenue stream for them. By engaging their young fan base from ages six to 13, it can produce a whole new generation of fans using new technology while staying authentic to the brand.

“With gamification, we can release challenges where Duncan Keith can say ‘This is how I skate backwards,’ and then the kids can say ‘This is how I’m trying it,’ and get points,” Taylor says.

Since the technology has already been built, the future for skinning the app for other leagues and teams is unlimited. For Taylor and her team of 12 employees, there are plans to do this on a larger scale. Currently, Just Be Friends is working closely with several professional teams to come on board as well.