MEIC Digital Startup Guardly Heads to DEMO Conference in California
Appetite for disruption
On the eve of the biggest event in the industry, Toronto’s bootstrapping, game-changing digital-startup rockstars prepare to demo
Article BY Edward Keenan February 24, 2011 00:02
Photo BY Darren Klimek
Originally printed in Eye Weekly Feb 24 2011 issue
So this one time, Josh Sookman is in Kansas City for a tech conference. He gets off the plane wearing jeans, a grey blazer and his blue “I’m huge on Twitter” t-shirt. And, as a guy does when he finds himself in an airport terminal, he hits up Starbucks for a coffee.
So he’s standing there, waiting for his drink, when a stranger comes up to him and says, “Are you here for the startup weekend?” This guy is from Colorado—the two have never seen each other before. Sookman looks at him and says, “Are you kidding me? Out of a whole airport full of people, you pick out one of 100 guys who are in town for this event? How did you know?” And the guy says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world, “The t-shirt and the blazer, man.” Sookman laughs.
“I guess there is a style,” he tells me now, in a conference room at the Ontario College of Art & Design’s Richmond Street Mobile Experience Innovation Centre. “There is a look. And I had nailed it for that event.” As he relates this story to me, Sookman is actually wearing a brown collared shirt open at the neck with jeans—no blazer—but he still somehow nails it, the look of the digital-culture dude.
Sookman is the 27-year-old founder and CEO of a startup called Guardly, now in the process of creating something he described to me as “OnStar for smartphones.” His product will essentially give users a panic button on their phone: tapping it instantly alerts a network of friends of an emergency through email, social media and text message. It will send out the user’s location and photos of whatever threat he or she is facing, and allow that person to make a one-touch call to 911.
It’s been in development for about six months, and this week, Guardly will officially launch at the elite DEMO conference in Palm Desert, California—one of the software industry’s most celebrated international stages. Only a few dozen companies are hand-picked, via an intensive, top-secret process, to launch products at DEMO every year. In the past, the conference gave the world its first look at Adobe Acrobat, Netscape Navigator, Java, TiVo, E-Trade, Palm Computing, Picasa and mobile Skype. You could think of it as a kind of Digital Startup Olympics. And this year Josh Sookman and Guardly have been granted the extreme privilege of representing Team Toronto.
If you read the business press at all, you’ll know that something of an app-development gold rush has been taking place in Toronto over the past few years. The emergence of smartphones, and the exponentially exploding market for apps to run on them, has not only changed the way people live (we all now travel with GPS locators, cameras, email accounts and the accumulated knowledge of the world in our pockets), it’s changed the entire business climate.
Today, in a matter of months and with next to no capital, a software developer can create an application, sell it in the iTunes App Store or Android Market or BlackBerry App World and get rich (or at least comfortable) overnight. The small price of entry, and the potentially huge payoff, is attracting wannabe entrepreneurs by the truckload. Of course, the odds of success are stacked high against them: tens of thousands of new apps are flooding into the market every quarter, and only a handful will attract the kind of sustained attention necessary to generate real profit at a buck or two per download. Still, Toronto has jumped into this digital Klondike with both feet.
From the trivial to the useful to the potentially life-saving, there are, conservatively, 300 to 400 funded tech startups active in Toronto right now, most of which are headquartered in Liberty Village or the Financial District. And startup culture is quickly becoming institutional: U of T has set up a giant business innovation incubator, MaRS, that gives a lot of attention and advice to tech companies. Ryerson has its Digital Media Zone and OCADU has set up its Mobile Experience Innovation Centre incubator. The federal government, through its economic development ministry, FedDev Ontario, and the provincial government, through its Ministry of Research and Innovation, have been showering billions of dollars over the industry to help drive innovation and keep talent here in the city. At a big funding event at MaRS earlier this month, Ontario Minister of Research and Innovation Glen Murray described one new initiative—an open-data project—as being among “the most important things I’ve ever been involved in in my life.” Murray claimed his government was building “the first truly wiki-mobile-digital economy,” right here in Ontario.
For many, of course, this Wild West atmosphere and overblown rhetoric will recall the initial dot-com bubble. And while there are many similarities between the digital cultures of 1999 and 2011, there are key differences too. In the 1990s, huge amounts of money were being thrown at companies that were little more than a registered URL and an idea—paging Pets.com—and eventually a lot of that money came through public investment on the NASDAQ stock exchange. Today, the ease of building an app and the existence of a ready-made retail market in which to sell it (Apple’s App Store and others like it) changes the whole landscape.
Almost all the investment now comes from angel funders and venture capitalists, and initial investments are often tiny—$5,000 or $10,000. This level of financing is enough to let entrepreneurs actually build a product and prove its financial viability. Big-time investments are reserved for companies that prove they can be successful. From the investor’s point of view, you can put a tiny amount of money into a few dozen companies and you only need one or two to hit it big for your bet to pay off.
App developers themselves, meanwhile, inhabit that romantic area of the creative economy in which actors, novelists and musicians traditionally live: all their sweat and intellectual energy amounts to something like a lottery ticket—a small chance at very large rewards. And like those artists—and unlike the dot-com CEOs—it will be the public’s reaction to their efforts that make or break their success. No amount of high-concept snowjobbery will attract millions, but if people actually respond to what you do, glory and wealth await.