Armed with two rounds of funding from angel investors (whose spouses loved the site), Bancroft and Tait have built a 55,000-strong subscriber list and launched local versions in Toronto, Calgary and Montreal. The now-profitable company has a staff of 18 and a two-pronged approach to generating revenue and profile: It eschews banner ads in favour of sponsorships (“Our demographic is banner blind,” says Bancroft), and makes a point of hiring local editors who bring their own social media followings.
Early on, Bancroft says, advertisers turned them away, dismissing VD as too niche: “Now, we’re the ‘niche with reach.’” Bancroft tells potential advertisers that it’s cheaper to lock in early because the subscriber base has been growing at a rate of 10% a month. —J.L.
KUNAL GUPTA Polar Mobile (Toronto) The Apple App Store didn’t yet exist when Kunal Gupta launched Polar Mobile in 2007. Few knew what an app was, yet Polar was trying to sell a customizable mobile publishing platform to magazines, newspapers, TV networks and even professional sports leagues. “It was a totally different time, and it was only five years ago,” says Gupta. “People asked us why anyone would download software to their phone.”
The 1,200 apps Polar has created since—for customers including Condé Nast, Time Warner, CNN, Shanghai Daily and The Globe and Mail—have been downloaded by 11 million users and served up 1.6 billion articles. But the media business has also become enormously more complicated. The universe of connected devices has exploded (Gupta carries around at least seven phones and tablets, and uses them interchangeably), and the way users get news has changed irrevocably. “More people are getting their news through an intermediary: Facebook, Twitter and other social networks,” says Gupta. Then there’s that old problem of figuring out how to make money delivering news online. Gupta thinks he’s cracked that one with Polar’s new MediaEverywhere technology, which allows companies to create a seamless identity for users that follows them from phone to tablet to computer screen. “Now apply that to advertisers,” says Gupta. “I should be able to ‘buy’ a reader through the newspaper and interact with him wherever he is.”
As MediaEverywhere rolls out, Gupta expects his 45-person head count to double. And he insists he won’t be tempted to follow many of his tech friends to Silicon Valley. “Toronto and Waterloo are becoming farm teams for companies like Google and Microsoft and Zynga,” he says. “These companies are purchasing our start-ups”—at least 19 in 2011—“and leaving Canada with no ecosystem for fostering the next big thing.” —Dawn Calleja
RYAN HOLMES HootSuite (Vancouver) The headquarters of Canada’s next tech superstar has bars on the windows. Just a few blocks from the East Vancouver headquarters of HootSuite Media Inc., the social media management tool favoured by U.S. President Barack Obama, the United Nations and some three million other clients worldwide, people sleep in doorways, bundled up in dingy blankets. “It’s actually a great neighbourhood,” says 37-year-old founder Ryan Holmes. “But we’re looking to move into a bigger office.”
Holmes is squarely to blame for his company’s cramped digs. Last year, he quadrupled the size of HootSuite from 25 to 100 employees, boosting revenues from next to nothing to $10 million. He expects his work force will reach 250 in 2012, conservatively forecasting $68 million in revenues. For now, Holmes must weave past a sales meeting staged around a foosball table and a stuffed cheetah wearing a pirate hat to find an empty boardroom. “We aim to be Canada’s next billion-dollar company,” he says, reaching down to pet the Lab/Rottweiler mix sleeping under the table.
Grandstanding like that doesn’t come naturally to Holmes, who grew up in rural Vernon, B.C., in a household with no electricity. (Holmes famously powered his Apple IIc with car batteries.) Early forays into online paintball sales, a pizza franchise and a brief, aborted stint at the University of Victoria led him to Vancouver, where, in 2000, he established a local tech incubator. After nearly a decade of duds, he found a winner in HootSuite, a web-based dashboard that enables social media power users to monitor multiple channels and accounts, including Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. HootSuite’s “freemium” model means it’s free for most, but companies can pay anywhere from $5.99 to more than $1,000 a month for beefed-up versions with extra support and analytics.