In Jan. 2014, serial entrepreneur Chris Carder became the first entrepreneur-in-residence at the Schulich School of Business. He is currently the Co-Founder at Kinetic Café, a design and technology lab that he started with co-founders David Dougherty and Gary Fung
Question: You started Kinetic Café in 2011 with your co-founders. What kind of work do you do there?
Answer: Kinetic Café is a design and technology lab that goes in and helps presidents, CEOs and founders take on their biggest challenges or opportunities and we do it as this as outside entrepreneurial SWAT team. We come in and work with them and their teams.
Clients give us these big missions that are fundamental to the future of their company. They’re looking for that type of connectivity and engagement from a group that they don’t get from their traditional ad agencies, marketing, PR firms, mobile shops, web developers.
Q: Who are your typical clients and what are their expectations?
A: Currently we have about 25 active clients. This isn’t a company that’s about to pump out like 4,000 mobiles applications next year. But we will put out 25 to 50 game-changing applications or new technologies and experiences. Senior leaders in companies say to us: be my lab. Be my place where you go off and make magic.
For example, Aldo is one of our big clients out of Montreal and we’re not only building out all their mobile applications and designing that entire experience – of what it’s like to be an Aldo customer in a mobile world – but we’re also designing their store of the future in New York City.
Q: Why do clients turn to you, over traditional marketing agencies?
A: We approach things like a startup would. For example, when we won the contract with Aldo, before they even hired us, we went out into Toronto and interviewed 400 customers in front of their stores. When we showed up at Aldo’s head office, we were armed with information from hundreds of people on what they thought about the company, how they currently manage their shoe collection, how they pick out the right pair in the morning with the weather, etc.
That’s the way a startup would approach it, and like a startup, we’re scrappy. We’re on the ground talking to people, learning rapidly in the market, testing and trying things. While we’re working with a client we’d be prototyping something and then taking that product out into the streets and showing people and getting feedback and inviting huge groups of people to do context labs in here and showing them what we’re mocking up. It’s a rapid iterative process.
Q: You weren’t always an entrepreneur. In fact, you started as a journalism student at Ryerson University. How did you get into the startup space?
I got spoiled. I went to work at an experimental community magazine back in 1993 to 1995. They took six journalism students from different programs across the country and the office was right in Regent Park. We lived right in the community and had to find our own apartments. We didn’t live in public housing but our office was in a converted public housing apartment unit. Our mandate was to write about the lives of the people in low-income neighbourhoods from the perspective of being there, with them all the time – not just dropping in when there’s a shooting or a problem with the drug trade, but living there and being there with them practically all the time.
As journalists, we had an incredible about of editorial freedom and creativity in what we were allowed to do. We were watching TV Nation with Michael Moore at the time a lot and we coined this term for ourselves. We called it “interference journalism,” and the idea is that we would change something in the community – we would tell everyone in the story that we had made the change and then we would write about what happened as a result of the change we made.
The idea of going to work for a traditional newspaper and having an editor tell me go to this, go do that – I couldn’t stomach it. So I decided at the age of 24 to make my own magazine, and was fortunate enough to have met, at that same magazine in Regent Park, my partner – an incredible visionary developer, designer and systems engineer. And he said “you don’t need to put this thing on paper. You should put this on the Internet.”
I didn’t have any money, so I put in on the Internet and I wanted to build a series of them and about 14 months later I sold the online publication – a sports and politics magazine called The Competitor – to Telemedia and the Fan 590. The Fan didn’t buy it because they wanted a magazine about sports and politics, they bought it because the technology that we had been built, including the sports interaction tools for fans, were extremely valuable to them. They didn't have a website at the time, so they could basically convert our site overnight.
And that was my first taste of business. We kept building it up over the course of a number of years and eventually converted it into an e-mail marketing platform called ThinData and then in March of 2008 we sold it to Transcontinental – now TC media.
Q: How did you go from the sale of an online marketing business to starting a digital lab?
I went to work at Transcontinental for two and a half years, and then left four months after that. A mutual friend introduced me to David Dougherty, who was building Trapeze at the time. I asked him: “if you were to build something new, what would it be?” He told me that his vision for a company was to work with the highest leaders of organizations; not to create marketing campaigns to cover over the deficiencies of the products, services and experiences they were creating, but to attack those things at the root. And build new products that people wanted and that worked and were beneficial and valuable to the world.
When we went to the white board and mapped it out, we wrote these crazy audacious things: “when the presidents and founders of our largest clients face the five biggest questions and challenges they have in the history of their business, they will demand to have a member of Kinetic Café in the room with them.”
Now two and a half years later, 90 per cent of the client roster is presidents, founders and founding families who have given us these huge missions to work with.
Q: How did you become Schulich’s first entrepreneur in residence?
A: I didn’t go to Schulich, although of all the things I’ve ever done in my business career, this is the thing my dad is most proud of because he went to York University.
Initially I was asked to be a guest speaker at the school, and discuss what it was like to sell my business to Transcontinental.
I had a great connection with the students, and the reason for that was two-fold: The first is that I went in and told them all the mistakes I made; all my screw-ups and all my flaming disasters throughout my business career. I’m not afraid to tell them about the low points in my life, like the time the Repo man came to take the Shred-it box out of my office. I didn’t come in as some star-powered super executive. I spoke to them about what I learned over time.
The second reason is because everything that I've ever built I’ve had to scrap and scrape for. My whole mentality is: how do you go into any situation in life as the smallest player in the game and take down giants? And that’s the point in their life they’re in. They’re not sitting there with like a $50-million R&D fund, or with 10 employees, or with a giant client right under their belt. They’re in their inception stages of their business and trying to figure out how they're going to survive. They're wondering: 'How do I get that one key person whether it’s an angle investor or a client or a mentor – how do I get them on board and convince staff to come work with me?'
It’s all those in-the-mud decisions they’re facing; and that’s what I love talking about. The professor told me that I had the highest marks of any speaker that had ever come in and asked if I wanted to come back. So I returned a couple of times. And then one day I wrote him and asked if Schulich had an entrepreneur in residence. The professor said it was a fantastic idea, and connected me with Rob Hines, the school’s executive director of career development.
So I went and had breakfast with Rob, and it was the first job interview that I’d had to do in like 18 years since I worked for the CAA as a clerk standing behind the counter. Unfortunately there was a power failure in North York the night before and my alarm didn’t go off, so I woke up five minutes before the interview was supposed to happen. Fortunately Rob was very patient. When I finally made it downtown, I told him the story of how with my first business, ThinData, I survived the great Ontario power blackout with my partner by dragging extension cords from the roof of the Toronto Star building from a generator to keep our servers going for five days.
He loved the story and then introduced me to the Dean of the school, and eventually we said 'let’s do this.'
Q: What makes Schulich’s different to other entrepreneur-in-residence (EIR) programs?
A: Oftentimes the EIR is someone who’s in between their last company and their next company, and is looking for somewhere to hang out. Or they may be in a state of semi-retirement. Of course, all of those people make amazing contributions and are working their hearts about. But what’s unique here is that I didn’t go to them and say this is all about ‘Chris Carder being EIR.’ Instead I said: I’ve got this incredible team called Kinetic Café, I have startups I’m investing in that the Schulich students can work on, projects I’m doing, I’m an active vibrant part of Toronto's startup community.
Call it an EIR, but really you’re getting an inspired group of entrepreneurs and we’re all going to do this thing together. Our thinking was that we were going to partner up with Schulich and do amazing things.
Sure I can do the 'Chris has visiting hours and you can come and see him,' but it’s more than that. My job is not only to tell my quirky and inspiring stories on building a company. My job is to be the students connection point into the startup community and digital space. And because I’m actively working, my connections are constant, refreshing and current.
Q: What are the most important roles you have as EIR?
It’s a combination of things. A lot of people are looking for validation for what’s in their gut. From very simple things like 'I’m about to go into business with a co-founder and there’s this one thing that I can’t really get over right now.' And just to be able to say to that student, 'you know that your relationship with your co-founder is going to become an equally vibrant, crucial, and potentially glorious or destructive relationship as that with your spouse, right?' I don’t give them a patent answer ripped from the Internet. I listen to find out more about their business and give them my rule of thumb as to how I’d react in this situation. So there’s all that kind of practical stuff.
And then there’s the other part. The 'how do I navigate this big giant labyrinth of the startup business fund-raising community in Toronto?' It's not easy. In other cities, like Baltimore for example, the incubator, angel network and main co-working space may be in the same building. It’s not like that here. It’s a big spaghetti of different connections and relationships. People are competing all over-top of each other for funding. It’s a big crazy mess.
Having a startup community Sherpa who can save the students three months of aggravation is key. What I bring is a combination of historic, contextual storytelling – which gives students a way to relate to the decisions that they’re going to make differently based on my screw-ups – and an understanding of Toronto’s startup space and information on how to access it.
Q: What’s your hope for the future of the program?
A: In time I hope that this will grow into a more formal startup incubation program and getting something set up with Schulich, but that’s for the future.