From ice cream to artificial intelligence

It’s likely that every president and CEO of a company has a war story or two about how he or she got there. It’s also likely that a lot of these stories include the phrase “back in those days…” For Jason Trask, president and CEO of TwoLofts Inc. in St. John’s, “those days” were his high school years and the soundtrack of the time was Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins. Trask, 26, began his career at the age of 15 in the early 1990s.

“I essentially set up a comic shop in my parents basement (in Corner Brook, Nfld.),” Trask recalled.

“The idea was that I wanted to buy more comics than my allowance would allow me to. My collection was worth between eight and ten thousand dollars, which was my profit for the shop.”

His next venture involved another need for the average teen-aged boy: ice cream.

“I had the Dickie Dee franchise for Corner Brook for the summer between high school and university, and had a dozen or so people working for me part time, and I did alright with that,” he said.

From the ice cream business, Trask graduated to lottery tickets.

“Newfoundland had the 1999 Canada Winter Games, so to help raise money for it they had a $1 million lottery,” he explained. “Tickets were $120. People could sell the tickets and get a commission, so I started a ticket distribution company called Winner’s Choice.”

Trask developed a formal distribution network, borrowed his parents’ van and visited every small town in the province selling tickets to convenience stores. Over the course of two years, Trask sold $1.5 million worth of lottery tickets.

“I paid for school, bought a car, paid for my living expenses – I did alright with it,” Trask said.

While doing his bachelor of commerce, Trask participated in a co-op program that took him to Ottawa to work with Industry Canada. This is where his entrepreneurial history took yet another turn.

“One day myself and my roommate and my girlfriend were chatting about used books. At our university, if you wanted a used book, you had to go to a huge wall of posters with books for sale. The problem with it was that you’d call people and the books would already be sold or someone would rip the poster down before anyone could write the number down,” he said. “We thought there should be a better way, and came up with the idea of a book exchange on the Internet.”

Trask and his friends wrote a business plan when he was in Ottawa, and he proposed launching the site as a work term for his degree. His friend removed himself from the initiative, so Trask and his then girlfriend – now wife – Krista Pennell took over. The one glitch to the plan was that neither Trask nor Pennell knew anything about programming for the Web.

“I took a 90-minute course on HTML when I was with Industry Canada, and that’s how we built the Web site. I came back to Newfoundland, showed Krista how to program, and I started selling advertising. We launched it and within 90 days we had 50 per cent of the St. John’s student population using it,” Trask said.

Trask and Pennell wanted to further their site, so they presented their idea to the Genesis Centre, an incubator in St. John’s.

“When we got in we were surrounded by other entrepreneurs, and so we started to expand and think bigger – world domination and that sort of thing. The concept parlayed to, which was the same concept with a bigger market.”

They hired programmers to build the software to use for the site; software which took almost two years to build.

“We were preparing to launch globally on Sept. 15, 2000. As we were approaching that date, we were doing research for our business plans and discovered that the group most using wireless devices were young people. We decided, based on this information, to make our site wireless. That’s when the light went on for us – there was a huge application for this outside of the student market. Instead of using it as a place for students to interact, companies might want to buy our software,” he reflected.

The combination of the wireless opportunity and the problems in the dot-com industry prompted Trask and Pennell to drastically alter their plans.

“We launched (in September 2000), and within days we changed the direction of the company. We called ourselves TwoLofts, and licensed our software to let companies collaborate.”

The couple moved out of the Genesis Centre into a 9,000 square foot office complete with new-economy office standard video games, a weight room, a pool table and a regulation-sized basketball court. Within 14 months Trask hired 16 people.

“For us, culture is more important than the product,” Trask said. “A good culture, and good people means a good product.”

TwoLofts produced Saturo technology, and have since built four products based on it: a collaboration product, a groupware product, a content management product and an e-learning platform.

Late in 2000, TwoLofts had to lay off six staff, and in early 2001 went through another round of layoffs. The company is now down to five people.

“We cut everything that could be cut without threatening the integrity of the products,” Trask said. “We cut 75 per cent of our expenses to make sure that we survived over a couple of months. We went out and managed to raise a few hundred thousand in new cash, and put ourselves in a new position to ride out the economic storm. We cut off our arms so we wouldn’t lose the whole body, so to speak. It wasn’t a very fun time.”

Currently, TwoLofts is making roads into the Chinese market with an e-learning program.

So, where does a guy who’s dabbled in comic books, ice cream, the lottery, the Internet and wireless technology go next?

“Artificial intelligence,” Trask said. “We’re going to start development of an AI capability that will integrate into Saturo technology. We’ll incorporate AI into remote delivery using wireless GPSA.”

In November, TwoLofts opened a second office in Halifax.

“Onward and upward,” Trask said.