Roger Hardy + Sean Clark, CEO + CTO, Shoes.com
Adam Blasberg on location at Prohibition Bar in the Rosewood Hotel Georgia
Shoes.com has a typical startup creation story. In his Dunbar basement suite five years ago, Sean Clark set up a website offering shoes he didn’t own. He bought Google AdWords ads by credit card to direct Canadian shoe-shoppers to Shoeme.ca, and when the orders started coming in, he frantically drove around Vancouver finding shoes to repackage and send out.
But he had one benefit that would make him the envy of every bootstrapping entrepreneur: a partnership with venture capitalist Roger Hardy, who had already built and sold Clearly Contacts, the world’s largest online empire of contact lenses and eyewear. They had met in 2010 through a squash game, and Clark later worked for Hardy and opened up a Clearly Contacts operation in Australia.
Clark, who was used to driving across the U.S. border with his wife to pick up online shoe orders, wanted to offer Canadians the kind of choice and speedy delivery then available on U.S. sites like Zappos and Amazon. He trekked to shoe shows all over the world, talking directly to distributors and convincing them to shift from a traditional sales model, in which they sold inventory to retailers, and adopt a “drop ship” model, in which they ship directly to consumers who have ordered from Shoeme.
It worked. From its humble basement beginnings, Shoeme steadily grew, and in 2015 Hardy purchased the online properties Shoes.com and Onlineshoes.com and expanded across the U.S. The company, recently named the top performing e-commerce company in Canada by Internet Retailer, ships an average of 7,000 pairs of shoes a day.
The ever-expanding virtual racks (over 500 brands, 30,000 styles) could easily overwhelm a customer. Aiming to tailor choices, Shoes.com launched Smart Shopper in November 2015. The artificial intelligence technology, embedded in the site, picks up on the visual attributes that the shopper prefers and suggests similar products. “Over time, Smart Shopper will also know the designs you’ve looked at and know the sizes that have worked for you, and it will also inform us on what we should be showing you,” says Hardy. “So it’s all about trying to make it a really relevant shopping experience.”
While the tool is improving the conversion rate (that is, the number of browsers that click “Buy”), Clark says the goal is to create “more of a discovery experience than a transactional one.” That’s also the idea behind two new real-world stores: in Toronto, at Queen Street West and Spadina, which opened in July; and in Vancouver, at Burrard and Robson, which was set to open in September. The stores feature a coffee shop, WiFi and stations where customers can browse online. “We want people to come and stay and hang out,” says Hardy. “It’s less about retail, and more about connection to the brand.”
Trent Shumay + Ryan Peterson, CTO + CEO, Finger Food Studios
After an automotive designer sketches a new car, that design is typically sent to a modelling department, which builds a full-scale mock-up. It’s a process that can take weeks or even months—but Port Coquitlam-based Finger Food Studios is, along with tech giant Microsoft, working on a shortcut. After the sketch is made, a designer can snap on a computerized headset called the HoloLens, which projects a three-dimensional hologram of the car. “You can walk around this design, look at the esthetics as well as the physical properties,” says Trent Shumay, CTO of Finger Food. The company is one of eight firms licensed to develop software applications for Microsoft’s HoloLens—working with clients in the automotive, architectural and mechanical industries to help them use the headset in customized ways. Shumay started Finger Food in 2009 and was joined by CEO Ryan Peterson in 2011. They were initially focused on building mobile apps for clients including Pepsi and 7-11, before moving into “second screen” experiences and their present focus on “immersive connected experiences.” The company is currently building a 26,000-square-foot studio, called the Holodeck, for testing its virtual and augmented reality apps.
Lance Priebe, CEO, Hyper Hippo Productions Ltd.
In 2010, Lance Priebe founded his Kelowna-based studio to develop a game called Mech Mice. His team spent two years and millions of dollars on the project, only to find out that people liked it but wouldn’t pay for it. After that, his approach changed. His team would make “short sprints,” spending two weeks on a new game and then testing it on various media platforms. So in 2014 when a writer pitched what he thought was a terrible idea, Priebe said yes. AdVenture Capitalist was a game in the “idle” genre—that is, you don’t actually play it but set it up, let it run and come back to it later. To everyone’s surprise, initial feedback on the game, in which players set up companies and try to make money, was positive. Players would even pay for it. Now, AdVenture Capitalist is the company’s biggest commercial success—generating more than a million in revenue some months. “Nobody thought this game would work,” says Priebe, one of the creators of the massively popular Club Penguin, which sold to the Walt Disney Co. in 2007 for US$350 million. “So we tell our developers, ‘You can develop any game you want, but you only have two weeks to prove it.’”