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Much has been written about how artificial intelligence has the potential to help companies find and connect with consumers. Less covered have been the business-to-business possibilities.

GrowthGenius Inc., a Toronto startup, is using machine learning to help companies get sales meetings with their ideal customers, says Will Richman, co-founder.

“We build a list of folks that you want to reach out to, then craft a hyper-personalized, one-to-one message,” Mr. Richman says. “So at the end of the day you’re just dealing with warm, qualified conversations.”

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Mr. Richman, whose earlier venture was the coding academy Bitmaker Labs, has lived – and worked with – some of the same people for years. “Pending cleanliness and music tastes, I would do it again,” he says.

Mr. Richman was interviewed for I’ll Go First, a new podcast series about entrepreneurs produced by The Globe and Mail.

Will Richman, CEO and co-founder of GrowthGenius in his Toronto office.

Michelle Siu

Not many people can claim they’ve created not just one but two successful businesses. Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

Not exactly. Right out of school I worked for a bank, and we helped family offices and high-net-worth individuals manage their money. I was really excited about finance for the good part of half a decade. I think I moved on to entrepreneurship when I came across Y Combinator out of the United States. Paul Graham started this incubator accelerator to help young people start companies. And I found myself missing days of work to come and work on ideas.

How did you manage that? How did your boss not fire you?

I was “sick” a lot. But yeah, that’s kind of how it started. I wasn’t really aware that entrepreneurship in this way was an option. My dad had started a couple of companies, so it seemed plausible. I left my job after just over a year.

That’s quite a gamble.

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I think when you know you really don’t want to do something, it seems like you don’t have a choice.

So you left to create what company?

Me and my co-founder of what eventually became Bitmaker Labs were living together at the time, both working in finance, and we were working on a bunch of ideas. One of the things we wanted to build was basically a “men’s lifestyle Instagram” where you could buy the things you were interested in. It had a terrible name – we called it Nifty Lifestyle. It was kind of like an aspirational blog – it was all the stuff that we wanted, and hoped that our friends would want, and we would help them make those purchases.

But we hit a roadblock. We couldn’t actually build the tech to get the platform up and going, and so we had to learn how to build it. So all of a sudden we were web developers. I went to Chicago for a couple months to learn how to program. And then during that time we realized that basically all our friends wanted to learn how to build technology as well. And so we ended up saying, hey let’s build this in Toronto and see what happens.

Will Richman, second from left, with his co-workers and roommates, left to right, Ryan Nahas, head of sales, Duncan McCall, head of customer success, and Brandon Pizzacalla, co-founder and chief operating officer.

Michelle Siu

You lived with your co-founder. And now you live with some of your employees from GrowthGenius. How does that work?

The four of us who live together now have a shared history. We’d all lived together on separate occasions. So I’ve known my business partner and co-founder of GrowthGenius, Brandon Pizzacalla, for the good part of 15 years. We went to high school together, and we lived together in university, and we’ve lived together for the past three odd years. So it’s kind of like we are in an economic marriage. So as long as you have the same values and complementary skill sets, you’re good to go. Pending cleanliness and music tastes, I would do it again.

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If you’re always with the people from your startup, can you have a personal life?

It’s a good question, this work-life balance thing. I think Jeff Bezos [of Amazon.com Inc.] has an interesting way of putting it. It’s about the integration of life and work: If you can blend the two you can work and live at the same time. It’s a tough line to walk, but if you pick who you work with carefully, I think it works.

Did you fall into the trap of only hiring people you could be friends with?

Initially, yes. You have to consider diversity of opinions, thoughts, backgrounds, everything. So initially you do kind of need to be friends with these people. I think for the first 10 to 15 people you need to be able to spend almost every waking hour with them, but as the company grows you don’t have enough time to spend with everyone. So then you want to build in that diversity. At the same time, we do disagree on just about everything. So even as friends we trust and respect each other. It seems to work so far.

Your LinkedIn page lists “Backpacker” under Experience. You decided to get away after you left Bitmaker.

I took about a year to figure out what I wanted to do next. You know, from birth to age 22 we are conditioned to jump through hoops. You’re just running this race as fast as you can and you don’t really know why. And then at some point you kind of have a separation and you don’t have to work for a little bit. That’s a good time to think deeply about what you want to do for the rest of it. We started in Vietnam, and spent a month there, then Cambodia for a month, Thailand for a month. Then we did Europe for a good part of six or seven months.

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Will Richman: 'I’d love it if this was the last company I built. I think there’s too much of this serial entrepreneurship idolized by a lot of folks, and I think you really just want to build one company and do it right.'

Michelle Siu

How do you avoid burnout today?

We schedule breaks at different intervals. So once a week you should take a full day off and unplug. You should not reply to any messages. Then on a three-month cycle, you should take a week off. That’s maybe a little bit more than the average, but you should take four weeks off each year, almost evenly spaced, because it takes about three days to disengage, and then another three days for your body and mind to recuperate, and then I would probably advocate a sabbatical every couple of years.

You said your father was an entrepreneur. What was that like?

You learn that it’s often not as glamorous as you might think. You get to see the highlights of, you know, a big deal, or adding new teammates, or new product launch, but you also see that there’s a lot of hard work behind the scenes. He started a variety of businesses. One was a plastics import-export company, so he would go to Korea all the time. Another was as a business broker, so he was helping small businesses buy or sell other companies. It’s not a life for everyone, and it’s not a life always of big wins. So I knew what I was getting myself into.

What did your mom and dad think about you pursuing entrepreneurship?

At first they didn’t think it was the best idea. My dad would shoot down all my ideas. He’s really good at finding the flaws in my ideas, and I’ve probably pitched him over 100 things that I could work on. And when he starts to not be able to see the flaws, then I know I’m on the right track.

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What is your perfect day off?

Snowboarding.

How many hours do you work a day?

Fourteen.

How many do you sleep.

Six.

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Where do you see yourself in five years?

Hopefully doing the same thing, at GrowthGenius. I’d love it if this was the last company I built. I think there’s too much of this serial entrepreneurship idolized by a lot of folks, and I think you really just want to build one company and do it right. Looking for the next big score all the time isn’t a very healthy way to live your life.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Globe and Mail

About GrowthGenius Inc.

Headquarters: Toronto.

In business since: 2016.

Employees: 24.

Revenue: Not available.

The road to business failure is often littered with sales prospects that went nowhere. So why don’t more businesses focus only on leads that are most likely to turn into sales?

GrowthGenius Inc. is helping its clients do just that. Using predictive analytics powered by artificial intelligence, the Toronto startup taps into rich databases to find the ideal buyers for its customers’ products or services, explains Will Richman, chief executive officer and co-founder.

Algorithms tailored to each customer’s target market identify factors such as which prospects are ready to buy, the best time to launch a marketing campaign, and what kind of messages are most likely to receive a positive response. Once these are determined, GrowthGenius sends a series of messages to the most solid leads, via e-mail or LinkedIn. GrowthGenius has connected its clients to buyers at big-brand companies such as Uber Technologies Inc., Target Corp. and LinkedIn Corp.

Mr. Richman says his firm works with about 50 companies in Canada, the United States and Europe. Because of Canadian anti-spam legislation, GrowthGenius works only with customers who want to target markets in the U.S., where there are far fewer restrictions on sending marketing messages by e-mail or online.

–Marjo Johne

The Globe’s new podcast series, I’ll Go First

What is it like to be first in your industry? The one to disrupt the status quo? I’ll Go First, a new podcast from The Globe and Mail, takes listeners into the minds of Canadian entrepreneurs in leading-edge fields such as artificial intelligence, cannabis and cryptocurrencies.

What makes these leaders tick, not just professionally but in their private lives?

Episodes are published on Thursdays. Look for them wherever you find your favourite podcasts (including iTunes, Google Play Music) or on The Globe and Mail website at tgam.ca/illgofirst.

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