Where do Canada’s technology entrepreneurs come from? Some are lifelong technology enthusiasts. Some start with a passion for business. And others come to technology indirectly – by studying philosophy and launching a laundry service company. Enter Ben Zifkin, founder and CEO of Hubba, a destination for digital product information.
On June 23, Zifkin spoke at a Startup Grind Toronto event about his journey as an entrepreneur.
I was intrigued to find that Zifkin studied philosophy at Western University. During his studies, he started a laundry service for Western students after recognizing that a certain percentage of students had disposable income they would normally give to local laundry services.
The result? A growing laundry business that continued to thrive after Zifkin graduated in 1999. The sales and management skills he developed through his early business experience would come to play in his future ventures.
The transition to management consulting
Consulting is an interesting industry because it brings together glamour, smart professionals and a constantly changing set of problems. In 2004, Zifkin co-founded Axsium Group in Toronto to enter the management consulting industry.
The Axsium approach was differentiated based on several factors. First, the firm offered a money back guarantee on their service, a compelling offer that may be unique in the world of management consulting. Second, the company offered both high level strategy and detailed implementation to clients. Best of all, the company was profitable from day one. Those profits enabled the company to reach
over one hundred consultants.
In 2008, the company was acquired. After the acquisition, Zifkin took on the responsibility to grow international sales.
During this time, Zifkin learned the challenges of international sales. “Australia has cultural similarities to Canada in many respects, but there are still nuances,” he explained. “I also noticed that British business culture was significantly different than Canada once you go below the surface.” Assuming that Canadian practices will automatically succeed elsewhere is a risky proposition.
The “LinkedIn of products”
Google built a multi-billion dollar business around organizing the world’s information and selling advertising against that resource. Despite Google’s success, there are still many opportunities to organize information for those who notice problems.
“A large percentage of product information – SKUs, product dimensions, product photos and so forth – on the Web is inaccurate. Solving that problem is a key reason to start Hubba.”
Through the event, Zifkin reflected on the challenge of describing the company.
“Fundamentally, I see myself as a product person. That was one of the reasons I was attracted to building Hubba, a data platform for brands, retailers and others to use to manage products.” From a technology perspective, it’s an interesting example showing how data quality and databases can become the foundation of a business. Technically, the Hubba platform includes Node, Express, and Mongo and runs on Amazon Web Services (AWS).
Growth is a top priority for Hubba. In less than two years, the platform has attracted over 10,000 companies as users and millions of dollars in funding.
“We have tested our email marketing methods and learned what works for us.” It turns out that occasional typos or misplaced commas actually increase engagement from prospects. It’s a creative way to stand out when many organizations emphasize letter perfect marketing. Zifkin has also given thought to focusing on metrics that matter: weekly active users are an important metric.
“At first, we were focused on getting companies to join the service. Today, we are focused on proving that people are coming back to the website and engaging with it.” The growth strategy also entails obtaining funding from a variety of sources including investors in the USA, Canada and elsewhere.
Hubba’s hiring strategy
Hiring and developing the right people at Hubba was another highlight of Zifkin’s comments. Talent alone is not enough.
Consider the following qualifying factor from a job posting for a Platform Engineer at Hubba: “You don’t suck as a person. No assholes, no matter how good your code is. We’re not kidding – don’t bring that into our house.”
Zifkin summarized his hiring philosophy to include two scales: a 0-10 scale for skills and a 0-10 scale for team fit. “I also focus on creating a culture where people disagree and bring new ideas.”
If Hubba sounds interesting to you, take note of Zifkin’s comment that he expects the company to add over two hundred employees in the next two years!