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Maddy Hearne, right, co-founder and CEO of First Class Conferencing Facilitation Inc., and her business partner McKenzie Day, CTO, in Ms. Hearne's Toronto home on Nov. 12, 2020.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

When Daphne Simon needed to organize a virtual conference for 170 attendees, she turned to a team of 20-year-olds to handle the technology.

She called Maddy Hearne, a second-year business student at Ryerson University in Toronto, who co-founded a virtual meeting business, First Class Conferencing Facilitation Inc., in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The idea came about when Ms. Hearne stepped in to help her mother, Diane Gee, a labour mediator and arbitrator, set up and run a meeting on Zoom. Ms. Gee told some friends and soon her daughter had her first paid clients.

By late spring, Ms. Simon, executive director of the Society of Ontario Adjudicators and Regulators, was shifting to an online plan for the organization’s 32nd annual conference, which is held in the fall. She worried about how to sort out personalized links for an as-yet unknown number of guests and juggle the attendance of close to 20 speakers along with breakout rooms for virtual networking.

“I’m not a Zoom virgin. I do dance classes, painting on Zoom. It’s not like I know nothing about the technology,” said Ms. Simon, noting that as she weighed all of the logistical concerns, “I realized I needed to find someone to do the technical side.”

Less than eight months after launching, First Class Facilitation, as it is also known, has more than 60 clients around the world, including numerous Canadian arbitrators and large law firms, and Ms. Hearne said last week the company is on track to bring in revenue of $500,000 by the end of the year. It has helped customers run Zoom mediations, arbitrations, hearings, collective bargaining sessions, shareholder meetings and even law student job interviews.

“One of the worst parts of meeting virtually is the technical issues that the presenter has to address and try and fix, and it stops the meeting,” she said. “We want to make sure that your meetings can run as smoothly as possible and as easily as they do in person and maybe even better than in person.”

Toronto is home to a large number of legal technology startups, but Ms. Hearne said her company happened into the space because of her mother’s work as an arbitrator. It turns out it’s an ideal fit because legal meetings often have many technical requirements, including breakout rooms and the need to share documents or ensure confidentiality.

Now with 20 employees – all students as well – Ms. Hearne and her co-founder McKenzie Day, who is in his third year of a computer science program at Ryerson, are already looking to the future.

“Our biggest issue, at least right now, is how can we survive post-COVID? We’ve been working on expanding our business and really trying to establish how video web conferencing can be something that people can use even post-COVID,” she said.

William Kaplan, an Ontario-based mediator and arbitrator, has transitioned his practice, which includes class action, employment and labour law mediations and arbitrations, as well as collective bargaining, completely to Zoom. He was one of First Class Facilitation’s first clients in early April.

“They do all the technical stuff. Sometimes it is pretty straightforward, but sometimes we have people joining from all over the world. These guys are great at bringing people in, dealing with connectivity issues, helping people participate,” Mr. Kaplan said. “They have done everything for me from simple cases with a few lawyers and witnesses to class-action mediations with people all over the world, multiple virtual rooms, and endless hallway talk.

“It is pretty impressive that these two kids saw an opportunity in the market and then built a business around it," he said, adding he believes the pandemic-perfect business model can transition to a post-COVID world "because it is such an efficient way to bring people together.”

Ms. Hearne is staying in school for now but plans to see how far she can take the startup.

“It’s always been my passion to run a business and be a CEO of a company. This is such a great learning experience for me and as long as our clients want us, we will be growing and really working to make this as big as it could be.”

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