Movers and Starters is an exclusive series that profiles the individuals who drive Toronto’s startup community.
Tell us about yourself.
I studied Business at Queen’s University. After I graduated, I consulted and worked in a very corporate position for two years. I was an analyst at Bain & Company, which is a management consulting firm, and that job really whipped me into shape.
I had always been passionate in school–I was a cheerleader, I started two businesses, I TA’ed three classes and I did a bunch of sports–but then I started to work full-time and I ended up working from 9am to 10pm on a fairly regular basis. Part of my job also involved flying to Chicago every Monday. I was on the plane at 6am and I would usually work until 1am. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I didn’t have the endurance for that.
I left that job thinking I wanted to be a teacher. I looked at OSIE and some other places. While I was working on my applications, though, this idea to start a mortgage rate comparison website started to churn in my head. I still got my applications in, did the interviews and got accepted into teacher’s college, but I was so distracted by this idea that I decided to pursue it instead.
I knew some people who were interested in investing in the space and who were interested in investing in me. At the same time, I was in the middle of a two-month vacation in Hawaii. I had finished my job on October 15th, moved to Hawaii on October 25th, and lived and worked out of a hostel there; that’s essentially where RateHub.ca was born.
Why did you decide to go to Hawaii?
I wanted to learn to kite surf there. I originally booked a trip to Cabarete in the Dominican Republic, but my mom freaked out when she found out. My brother called me and said, “Mom has already started calling me stressed out. You can’t go because I won’t be able to handle it.” So while my mom was like, “You can’t go!” my brother was more productive about it and said, “I did some research and Maui is amazing for kite surfing. Why don’t you go there instead?”
So I changed my flight and went to Hawaii instead, which turned out for the better. For starters, going on a trip by yourself to Hawaii is so, so safe–it’s the safest part of the United States. While I was learning to kite, I spent two or three hours of each day working on what would become RateHub. I was brainstorming ideas, calling potential developers, and I pitched the person that would end up being one of our major shareholders from the hostel’s pay phone.
I came home from Hawaii on January 1st and I started working on RateHub full-time from there.
How long had you been kiting surfing before going to Hawaii?
I didn’t know how to kite surf before I went to Hawaii! A lot of people say that entrepreneurial people love kite surfing, and that they’re well positioned to take on the challenge of learning how to do it. I think there are a lot of people who are well positioned for it, but learning to kite surf does come with a really frustrating learning curve. It takes you a long time before you can actually go out and ride back and forth on the waves. When you’re a beginner, you launch, you get flown down wind, and when you do land on the shore, all your stuff is tangled and then have to do the walk of shame in front of all the more experienced kite surfers. You have to be determined to want to learn and be willing to endure the challenges that come with that.
It seems like you have an entrepreneurial streak–where do think it came from?
I’m one those people who believes there are some elements of it that are in you, but that you also need to bring out and build what I call your “entrepreneurial confidence”. I guess I always had that starter thing in me. If I ever wanted to do something, I did it, because I’ve always tried to assume there will be a positive outcome–which is something I got from my mom.
For example, I took Economics in my first year and I slept through most of the classes. I ended up paying $200 to learn the whole course in two days from a great TA. I saw that there was nothing like that on the Commerce side, so my best friend and I spoke to the director of the program and came to an agreement to bring a similar course to Commerce students.
Registration for the course started at 5pm at the Commerce Centre in Queen’s, and I will never forget the massive lineup that formed. At the end of the day, I had wads of cash sitting on my lap. I think we made something like $6,000 dollars, and that was just to teach a course over one weekend. It’s a very powerful thing when you go from having an idea to collecting the money from that idea; it’s like a drug and you start to tell yourself, “I can do this”.
Where did the idea for RateHub originate from?
There are three publicly traded companies in the United States that compare mortgage rates: Bankrate, LendingTree and QuinStreet. In Canada, there was one competitor at the time, so it seemed like I had an idea that didn’t have much competition against it and had great monetization behind it. I think there was also some element of just deciding to jump. I often meet people that have an idea or a prototype that they’ve been working on for a while, but they’re waiting to do something with it. The most successful people I know are the ones who are allergic to sitting still.
Obviously you had done some consulting work before, but it sounds like this was a space you were jumping in where you still had a lot to learn.
I knew nothing! I didn’t know what the most common rate was, I didn’t know how to calculate a mortgage payment, and I had never written a line of code. I should try to find my old business plan and look at it.
You know how on Goggle you can type something in and you will see ads related to your search on the top right? Google sells those ads through an auction system. I thought this whole business was going to be built around buying Google AdWords for 10 cents and selling them for 50 cents, then I found out that the AdWords I want to buy are actually $1.50. I could have maybe broke even buying them at that rate. So that was a good example of what I learned early on.
Was there anything beyond trying to learn a lot in a short amount of time that was particularly challenging?
I feel lucky in that I had a good business plan and the business came together quite easily compared to some others. I’d say my biggest challenge was maintaining a healthy lifestyle; managing friendships and relationships, working out, eating healthy, etc. I was so focused on the business in my first year that my friends had to tell me to go on a vacation so I could relax.
I hope you’re at a point where you lead a healthier life.
Yes, much healthier, but that also comes with staff; we’re at 11 people now.
Moving away from your work, what are some of the things that motivate and inspire your life?
I guess I have a vision for the kind of life I want to lead, and it’s not the nine-to-five; it’s spending a month in Hawaii with my family; it’s this life where, if I want to go away for four days, I can–but still be in a career that I’m inspired by. I think that’s one of the big things. I know a lot of people that have no love for the jobs they’re in. Work is something that they have to do, so I do appreciate that it’s something different for me.
What sparked your interest in kite surfing?
Some people just see kite surfing and think, “I need to do that!” I saw it, connected with it and decided that to learn it. I flew to Hatteras Island, which is off the coast of North Carolina, where everyone who visits is there to kite. Not only was that the first solo travel I had ever done, it was the first time I tried kiting. After that, I went on my trip to Maui for two months, and then I started RateHub. I didn’t take my first vacation until the end of my first year, when my friends and boyfriend could tell I was at my max. We were in La Ventana, I was reading a kite surfing magazine and noticed an article titled, “Want a VC deal? Go fly a kite.” I started reading the piece and it mentioned this kite surfing camp called Mai Tai that some of the most successful entrepreneurs attended every year. So I came back to Canada, and you know when you access that well of inspiration?
Yeah, so I had that moment. I started to think of what could happen if I went to Mai Tai – the people I could pitch and what I could pitch them on. I decided I needed to get an invite–it’s invite-only. After applying, I got a call from the organizers. They told me there was a 500-person waiting list but, because there weren’t enough women attending, I could go.
Yea! And now I make sure to go every year. Being around that level of talent is indescribable — there are people there who have sold their businesses for millions and millions of dollars. They’re all brilliant and I’ve learned a lot of things from them. The last time I was there, we talked about the war for talent that is out there. I think acquiring top-tier talent has historically been one of my weaknesses.
In the past, if I were to offer you a position at RateHub and you said that you felt like staying on at the Standard, I would have said I respected your opinion and I would have parted ways there. Knowing that you can influence people, not by manipulating them but by understanding what drives them, is something that I learned talking to the people at Mai Tai.
One of our last gatherings was in Utah and, when we were there, one of the venture capitalists told me about a startup that had tried to recruit a Google employee. The employee initially turned them down. But then the startup crafted this amazing visual deck for him, telling him why they would be a perfect fit for him. He ended up joining them because of that deck, and that lesson made me realize there are ways to get amazing talent on board.
You can catch Alyssa on November 21st and 22nd when she helps HackerYou teach a class on Digital Marketing Strategy.
Igor Bonifacic is a writer working for the Toronto Standard. You can follow him on twitter @igorbonifacic.