Rising to the top one degree at a time

Written by Jacqueline Leung

City MOGULS: Founder Profiles Series

Stories of strength, growth, and resilience. A spotlight series featuring founders and leaders from across Canada and the US whose stories and experiences will inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs.

A conversation with Stuart Lombard, CEO and Founder of ecobee, a technology company transforming the smart home.

Type “smart home” into Google today and you’ll get a slew of results. You’ll find everything from light bulbs to heaters to security cameras sold by some of the biggest brands in the world, including IKEA and Google.

Type “smart home” into Google 13 years ago and you may have displayed one result. Maybe.

The story of ecobee starts in 2007. The company was started by Stuart Lombard, a former VC partner who found himself making several intentional lifestyle changes to reduce his environmental impact. He outfitted his house with a solar roof, started driving a Toyota Prius, and programmed his own thermostat to save energy while away on vacation, all while thinking how expensive it was to go green.

Lombard ventured on a path over the next decade to help people reduce their environmental impact in practical ways.

Today, ecobee is an industry leader and innovator in home technology that helps consumers save money and conserve energy. It was the first in the world to introduce an internet-connected thermostat back in 2009. Since then, ecobee customers across North America have saved enough energy to take all the homes in Las Vegas off the grid for a year!

It’s not easy being first

It’ll be hard to find a home these days that doesn’t consist of at least one smart home device; the Amazon Echo comes to mind as a common one. But the concept of a smart home wasn’t common until recently, so it’s no surprise that Lombard wasn’t exactly met with open arms when he started pitching ecobee to investors.

“Who gives a crap about thermostats?”

Lombard remembers a lot of rejection and a lot of VCs looking at him with pity. “[One VC] told me ‘life is short, do something else,’” the CEO remembers.

But Lombard didn’t do something else.

“We knew that the business was good because we were able to double our revenue every year,” Lombard said. “There were clearly consumers who wanted this kind of tech.”

Ecobee has since raised over $150M from investors like Amazon and BDC.

But in addition to having to convince investors to back an unfamiliar idea, Lombard was starting a business in a Canadian market that was known for adopting new technology at a slower pace, especially in comparison to its American neighbours.

Lombard advises entrepreneurs who are building something new to focus on customer-led innovation and to spend a lot of time and sales and marketing efforts in the US.

“We always set out to serve the North American market,” Lombard said. “Canada is a great place to build a business, but the speed and flow of communication in the US is really important to learn. [Entrepreneurs should] spend a lot of time in the US because you really have to win in the US if you win at all.”

When your competitors include Google

Since ecobee is consistently ranked a top thermostat amongst smart home competitors, you may not realize that Google and Honeywell are a couple of ecobee’s biggest competitors.

“Some people say having a strong competitor pushes you to be a better company,” Lombard said with a laugh.

So, how do you become a better company than one of the best in the world?

“Obsessively focus on customer satisfaction,” Lombard said. “We used to read comments then put suggestions into our products. Not all customer feedback is as important as others, but if you set a really high bar for customer experience, you’ll win with word of mouth.”

One of ecobee’s core differentiators versus both Google and Honeywell is a feature built from research of customer complaints. When ecobee found that customers were unsatisfied with how their heating and cooling systems left hot and cold spots in their homes, the company created wireless room sensors that measure temperature and occupancy to make it comfortable in the rooms people actually use.

Bottom line, if it’s a market worth having, there will be competitors.

Creating opportunities out of setbacks

Growing up, Lombard’s dad taught him to be self-sufficient; that a person should be able to make anything they need.

“It was hard to be a teenager who just wants to hang with friends and not make something we could just buy at Canadian Tire,” Lombard remembers.

But Lombard’s dad was insistent, and when Lombard was 12, the father son duo built a foldable canoe that still works today.

That canoe would be the first of many things that Lombard would go on to create.

After graduating from Queen’s University, Lombard didn’t know what he wanted to do so eventually started a job with CAE Electronics in Montreal.

“I was really fortunate in that I had the worst boss ever,” Lombard remembers. “If I had a good boss, I may have stayed in that job and never started a company. As I was walking out the door, a colleague said ‘you should really check out this internet thing. I think it’s going to be big.’”

Lombard went on to start and sell two internet companies before joining JLA Ventures as a Partner and later starting ecobee.

“What you perceive to be a setback can be an opportunity,” said Lombard.

For students looking to start a business straight out of school, Lombard says ‘go for it!’

“I had this idea that when I was older I’d know something, but if you’re ready to work hard and can open up a book, start!” Lombard said that resilience and grittiness helped him build a 13-year-old company, “but it’s about the right level. You need enough to push through the challenges, but not so much that you’re willing to live with pain over a long period of time.”

When asked how he and his team stay motivated during tough times, the Founder admits that sometimes he dances around in funny suits.

Also, “we’re on a mission to help people live better. We are a mission-based business that’s having a real impact.”

And you can’t beat that.

Bridgit found success by looking for problems, not ideas

Written by Jacqueline Leung

City MOGULS: Founder Profiles Series

Stories of strength, growth, and resilience. A spotlight series featuring founders and leaders from across Canada and the US whose stories and experiences will inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs.

A conversation with Mallorie Brodie, CEO and Co-Founder of Bridgit, a software company focused on developing mobile and web-based solutions for the construction industry.

Eight years in business is no small feat. For Bridgit, a software company that develops solutions for the construction industry, the key is focusing on solving problems; talking to customers about solutions then figuring out ways to create those solutions.

“Don’t fall in love with ideas,” says Mallorie Brodie, the CEO and Co-Founder of the Canadian start up. “We’re always trying to research and find real solutions.”

Those solutions are now helping some of the largest contractors in the world manage projects and drive workforce productivity.

What is Bridgit?

In brief, Bridgit makes construction less complicated.

Bridgit builds mobile and web-based solutions to solve problems for general contractors and subcontractors across North America.

For those of us who are not familiar with the construction industry, that means replacing manual work (think taking photos, marking them up in Microsoft Paint, then emailing them to yourself) with digital software solutions, ultimately saving contractors a ton of time and money.

Bridgit was founded in 2014 not out of a great idea or personal pain point, but as a result of a lot of research and multiple conversations with leaders in the construction industry.

“Everyone is waiting for this ‘aha’ moment,” remembers Brodie, “but Lauren and I have based our products on research.”

Brodie met Lauren Lake, Bridgit’s COO and Co-Founder, while participating in The Next 36. During their time in the Toronto program, she and Brodie got on the phone and spoke to people and asked them about their pain points. The company’s first product, Bridgit Field, was the outcome of those conversations.

The founders have continued to build their business around this philosophy.

Growing With Bridgit

Fast forward five years, in 2019, the company launched its second product, Bridgit Bench, a solution that helps contractors manage their workforce capacity, skills tracking, and employee scheduling. It is yet another solution that was the outcome of dozens of conversations with customers.

Brodie remembers speaking to over 50 executives at construction companies to gather insight for their second product.

“We talked to an IT exec for an hour, and in minute 61, there was this idea of resource planning,” Brodie said. “Going into this meeting, we didn’t even know what resource planning was.”

But the team got to work doing what they do best – researching, asking questions, and iterating based on customer feedback – and created a solution that replaces manual work done on spreadsheets and whiteboards. Emails back and forth with the executives they already spoke with gave them confidence they were on the right track. The founders received several signed letters of interest that allowed them to raise capital to pursue what is now known as Bridgit Bench.

Last summer, in the middle of a global pandemic, Bridgit raised $9.4 million to advance features of Bridgit Bench, add new partner integrations, and overall increase the company’s aggressive pace of technology innovation.

Brodie said that they were fortunate to have started their conversations with investors before the pandemic got really bad.

“Obviously, there was this moment of fear that things would fall off the rails,” the founder remembers. “When we asked Autodesk why they didn’t pull out of the deal, they said that they were betting that even if things slowed down in the next two years, they believed this industry would be digitizing in the future.”

Autodesk, BDC, and Salesforce Ventures, are just a few of the investors that have bet on Bridgit. In total, the company has raised over $21.2 million since they launched in 2014.

Rising to the top in a man’s world

When asked whether the male-dominated construction industry made it difficult for a female-led company like Bridgit to break through, Brodie replied no.

“Both tech and construction are male-dominated,” Brodie said. “What was more of a barrier was the tech world. It has been proven that women don’t get as much funding at the idea phase. So, we were very metrics driven.”

In fact, in Canada, female founders only receive 4% of venture capital. In the U.S., that number drops to just 2.2%.

“We were looking for a pain point to solve and we were just there to help. There were actually no obstacles because we stood out. We helped solve problems,” Brodie said of the company’s experience entering construction.

The industry has since welcomed Brodie and her team with open arms. Last year, Bridgit was named one of Canada’s top growing companies by The Globe and Mail and Brodie was recently recognized on On-Site and SitePartners’ top 40 under 40 in Canadian construction list.

In terms of COVID-19, Bridgit was one of the lucky ones. The company didn’t feel the negative impacts that many other small businesses felt during the pandemic.

“With construction recently restricted and projects delayed, contractors have needed to shift their processes and are demanding the workforce data insights that Bridgit provides,” Brodie said. “We’ve definitely had moments when we felt tired or stuck, but I’ve never had a moment where I wanted to quit. After the customer interviews we did, hearing their actual pain points, we couldn’t walk away from this. We felt determined to solve their problems.”

To recap, Bridgit was not the product of a great brainstorm session, or an ‘a-ha’ moment, or even a personal pain point. Bridgit’s success is the culmination of curiosity, research, and problem solving. Imagine that.

How Marc Lafleur went from barely graduating high-school to CEO of a Dragon-backed business

Written by Jacqueline Leung

City MOGULS: Founder Profiles Series

Stories of strength, growth, and resilience. A spotlight series featuring founders and leaders from across Canada and the US whose stories and experiences will inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs.

A conversation with Marc Lafleur, CEO and Co-Founder of truLOCAL, an online marketplace that connects consumers to local suppliers and delivers locally sourced meat straight to your door.

“It started off with me being a bad student.”

Marc Lafleur, the CEO and Co-Founder of truLOCAL, is a determined, confident, straight-shooter. When asked why he started truLOCAL, he said he knew quite early in his life that he couldn’t conform – to school or to a regular job.

“What I’m interested in changes a lot,” Lafleur said. “Going through school and having to conform didn’t really vibe with me.”

Getting his first job in door-to-door meat sales was something that Lafleur could get behind. “It was the first time I was actually making money,” he said.

But after four years in that job, Lafleur knew it was time to venture out on his own. The Canadian entrepreneur said, “if I wanted to be happy, I was gonna’ have to start my own business.”

Third time’s a charm

Starting a business is hard enough – deciding to take the risk, putting plans in place, getting organized – but running a growing business is a whole new ballgame.

Lafleur struck out with two different companies before he co-founded truLOCAL in 2016. His first company was an instant messaging app that he started while still in school. When that company failed, Lafleur went on to start his second company, a sharing economy platform. The founder remembers making new mistakes at each turn, every time getting a little bit further. Ultimately, the second company failed as well, making Lafleur take pause.

“Why are these businesses failing?” Lafleur remembers asking himself. “We were always working on these businesses at nights and on weekends, never 100%. I was never able to take the step and quit full time.”

Until truLOCAL.

“Tech guys don’t want to sell meat. ‘Meat guys’ don’t know tech,” said Lafleur. So, he went all in.

Today, the Canadian company connects customers to high-end, locally-source meat products through a meat delivery service that operates in Ontario, Alberta, and B.C.

ICYMI, a lot of meat comes from the same place – large supply chains that make meat

cheap. What’s missing, Lafleur says, “is processing for smaller suppliers. truLOCAL is developing Canada’s regional supply chain to give more power to the producers.”

Four years ago, Lafleur said his team was just excited about being online, about getting 100% grass-fed, organic meat delivered directly to health-conscious consumers. But about two years ago, they discovered a part of their business that would make the greatest impact.

“We realized we were opening up entire provinces [of customers] for local suppliers,” Lafleur said. “We were enabling the smaller guys to sell to more.” The company has since built a dedicated platform – truLOCAL Connect – that gives producers an e-commerce shop to sell their products. A Shopify for local meat suppliers.

Entering the Dragons’ Den

Before Lafleur pitched on Dragons’ Den, he had pitched and been rejected about a hundred times. This was not his first rodeo.

Still, the founder remembers the experience being quite nerve-racking. “We were the second pitch of the season. The founder before us came out crying,” Lafleur remembers.

Lafleur and his team entered the Den with the goal to leave with a $100,000 deal. They successfully received offers from four Dragon’s and ended up with a deal with fashion mogul Joe Mimran and tech entrepreneur Michele Romanow. You can watch truLOCAL’s pitch here.

In addition to the cash deal, Lafleur said the experience taught him to pitch and speak slower and also gave truLOCAL exposure that was second to none. When asked whether he still works closely with the Dragons, the founder said, “we work with [Michele] closely and she’s always opening doors.”

Up next

The company’s next big task is to educate consumers about the misinformation surrounding meat production. Lafleur insists that the idea that all meat is bad is just not true. “There’s a proper way to raise it and then there’s a way that’s bad for the environment,” Lafleur said.

More Canadians are turning vegan to avoid animal products and because they believe the lifestyle is healthier and better for the environment. Since 2016, online searches for all things vegan increased by 113%, up almost 26% since just last year.

But Lafleur is up for the task. Entrepreneurship is “long and difficult,” the founder said. “If you are the person who doesn’t give up; if you’re stubborn, you’ll be successful.”

Expecting the path to be difficult has helped Lafleur get through tough days. The founder says he and his team have started to expect problems. “The big swings are hard, but when you start to expect the problems, it levels things out better.”

Getting to this point – truLOCAL is now a team of 55 and growing – hasn’t been easy. “Nobody teaches you this,” Lafleur said. “When you start, you’re an individual contributor. Every transition into a different role is hell. Looking back, it all sounds smooth now, but I had no idea it was going to be that way.”

On days that feel overwhelming, Lafleur focuses on a simple strategy: celebrate the small wins. Did you get up on time? That’s a win. You answered one email? Win. Lafleur wants entrepreneurs to know that feeling overwhelmed is normal, and sometimes, the goal is to just get through the day.

Building a 12-year-old business in a quick-exit startup culture

Written by Jacqueline Leung

City MOGULS: Founder Profiles Series

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Stories of strength, growth, and resilience. A spotlight series featuring founders and leaders from across Canada and the US whose stories and experiences will inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs.

A conversation with Toni Desrosiers, CEO and Founder of Abeego, the original beeswax wrap that breathes.

It didn’t take long for Toni Desrosiers to realize what she wanted to be when she grew up. At a very young age, the now-CEO and Founder of Abeego, was entrepreneurial. In a small village of 500 people, Desrosiers started her first business: a lemonade stand, before venturing off to shovel leaves, then snow, among many other hustles. She credits her entrepreneurial spirit to her dad, who is also an inventor and business owner.

One with nature

Desrosiers invented Abeego in 2008 while she was a practicing holistic nutritionist. She noticed that airtight (usually plastic) wrappers that are meant to protect leftover food are actually not letting food breathe (not to mention, are bad for the environment).

“In nature, there isn’t anything airtight,” Desrosiers said. “It’s all breathable – peel, skin, rind – I wanted to make wraps that better mimicked nature.”

Not one to just sit on the sidelines, Desrosiers went ahead and invented the world’s first reusable beeswax food wrap. Nbd.

Today, Abeego sells food wraps made from beeswax, jojoba, tree resin, hemp, and cotton, all while maintaining a zero-waste production process.

“Together with my hard-working team of Abeego makers, I have found innovative ways to repurpose even minimal amounts of excess materials into new products like Abeebits (beeswax twist ties) or promotional items like business cards,” Desrosiers said.

The long game

“You can’t just invent something then expect people to buy it,” Desrosiers said. Speaking the truth.

Most entrepreneurs discover this early in the startup journey; convincing other people – customers, investors, employees – to believe in your product or service is one of the hardest things to do.

“For us, it was all about getting people to notice and understand.” Desrosiers remembers having to educate customers throughout the years. Now, having been in business for over a decade, Abeego has had to incorporate customer education into every pivot, every aspect of the business.

“When you invent something, you create a market, you nurture that market, and eventually, you harvest from that market,” Desrosiers said.

In Canada, over 30% of small businesses fail within the first five years. Abeego has been in business for over 12.

When asked what advice she would give herself back when she started Abeego, Desrosiers said, “enjoy the journey and celebrate your wins frequently. You’re not building a business. You’re living your life.”

The beauty of building something new is that you get to build it in a new way.

Desrosiers reminds aspiring founders that there’s no one way to be an entrepreneur. “You’re going to make mistakes, but those mistakes might actually be the right path,” she said.

Not all glitz and glamour

Having a solid foundation has helped Abeego get through the COVID-19 pandemic. Like most small businesses, Abeego saw a dip in revenue in the initial days of the pandemic and had to revamp its goals for the year.

Over time, Desrosiers began to see the pandemic as just another low point in the company’s life cycle. “I’ve never seen a business as going straight up. Low points for me are always foundation building time,” the founder said.

It’s those foundation building times that have allowed Abeego to stay solid during a time of uncertainty. The company had to lay off about a dozen people because of the pandemic, but has since rehired many of them and is now working on building processes to get ready for when business picks back up.

Today, Abeego products are sold in more than 300 retailers in North America and online around the globe, success that is largely credited to the company’s core value of living where logic and innovation meet.

In other words, Abeego treats logical decisions with curiosity – ‘Can this be done better, in a new way?’ And looks at innovation with a critical eye – ‘Will this new software help me make decisions faster?’

You’ll never see Abeego implement new technology for technology’s sake, even if an advisor or industry expert recommends it. Desrosiers warns new founders to be wary of asking for too much advice from “experts” who may pull you in different directions. “If I didn’t break up with my experts, I’d be in a totally different space,” she said.

Building wealth

Every business owner starts off with big goals, lots of excitement, and seemingly endless determination to do whatever it takes. But somewhere along the way, every business owner hits a wall, loses steam and feels like nothing else can be done.

For some founders, that moment comes and goes often. For others, that moment comes often but lingers. Desrosiers admits that there have been times when she has had intense breakdowns and has had to take a few days off. But, “I’m so persistent as a natural state,” she said she can’t see herself doing anything else.

“I think there are points when you should change, admit that it’s not working,” she pointed out. And when asked how a founder should make the difficult decision to call it quits, an emotional Desrosiers simply said, “put yourself first.”

“We keep telling these stories about entrepreneurs who skyrocket to riches,” the founder said. “But how about those entrepreneurs who build wealth – wealth in health, emotions, life, and money?”

Desrosiers reminds entrepreneurs that “if you’ve gotten far enough to launch a business, you are someone who has good instincts.”

Not everyone is willing to take the risk, to do the work.

“A lot of entrepreneurs sacrifice themselves and their safety. I’ve made a lot of sacrifices for Abeego, and now, Abeego owes me.”

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