Toronto’s Shifthub disrupts SMB scheduling space with help of Extreme Startups

Bruce Dorland

November 6, 2012

What’s it like to run a startup at Toronto accelerator Extreme Startups? How do you get in and how do you thrive? We decided to go there ourselves to get an insider opinion from James Woods, CTO of Shifthub, a mobile employee scheduling platform for small to medium sized businesses (SMBs).

The offering: find a sweet spot where you stand out

James, a former Director of Product Management at Xtreme Labs, a company that creates custom mobile products, runs Shifthub alongside founder and CEO Jeremy Potvin. Shifthub is a platform where small and medium sized businesses (SMBs) can create and share staff work schedules, while also allowing employees to check in when they’ve started their shift, switch shifts with others and notify if they are sick. Essentially, it takes the tedious, time-consuming activity of scheduling and turns it into a simple and mobile-friendly part of a business’ workflow.

Traditional competitors in this space range from the Excel spreadsheet to enterprise software vendors like Toronto’s Workbrain (acquired by Infor). But while these providers focus on large enterprise, Shifthub saw an opportunity to take a subset of an enterprise offering and carve out a product focusing on SMBs and business problem (scheduling). This offering falls into a sweet spot that includes being low cost, easy to use and fast to implement, while also being nimble enough to scale as a business grows.

The inspiration: observe pain points and craft a solution

The idea for Shifthub came from Jeremy’s experience in the fashion industry, as both a clothing store owner and agent for high-end fashion brands. Scheduling, he continually noticed, was a huge pain point for SMBs. In parallel, James was working as Director of Product Management at Xtreme Labs. When Jeremy told him his idea, not only did James like it, a name also came to him immediately: Shifthub.

In late 2010, the two began collaborating and Jeremy learned to create mockups, hired developers and put together an MVP (minimum viable product).  While things continued on the right track, in mid 2011 Jeremy enlisted the team at Xtreme Labs to polish their product and bring it to mobile.

When an opportunity to join Extreme Startups rolled around in summer 2012, James and Jeremy applied and were chosen. While they already had acquired 150 customers, they saw this as a big opportunity to accelerate their business.

The evidence: test your idea with the right people

How did James know that their offering would work? They insisted on speaking to as many business owners as possible.

“When we talked to people and told them, ‘Did you know there’s a better way?’ their eyes just lit up,” says James, also noting how underserved small business owners are when it comes to technology. “When they understand that their employees have the power in their hands to call in sick or trade shifts, view their schedules, or check into work, a whole new world opens up to them.”

It also doesn’t hurt to get something into the hands of a potential customer early, even if it’s just the paper mockup that precedes the Alpha version of your product.

The vision: tell a story that helps people “get it” 

To get someone to believe your startup idea will work “you’ve got to sell them on the vision,” says James. Looking out onto the retail-lined streets of Queen West from the Extreme Startups office, he illustrates his point: “Looking up and down this street. All of these people schedule staff and they do it in a very painful way and in a way that’s not efficient. Shifthub offers them a way to make their workflow much smoother,” he says. “When we’re talking about our roadmap, the tagline we’re using now that seems to resonate is that we’re a communication platform built around scheduling. People really get that.”

The accelerator: how to choose & be chosen

Getting into a Toronto accelerator like Extreme Startups can be a big boost for any startup, but competition is tough. What can you do to improve your chances of being selected? James makes a few suggestions.

First, most accelerators look for the “one-two punch” of a really strong technical cofounder and a really strong business cofounder.

Second, being part of the tech community is hugely important. “You need to make sure people have heard of you somehow and that means contributing to the community,” James says. “Contributing means helping people. It means taking that meeting or phone call.”

Third, and most importantly, accelerators look for ideas that are disruptive. “Anything that’s disruptive and changes people’s workflow could be considered a trend,” he says, “And enterprise, HR, CRM still have lots of room for disruption.”

As for selecting the accelerator that’s right for your startup: it’s all about fit. Think of an incubator as you would an investor. Most accelerators take equity in your company at the end of it, so your choice should be based on how much they will help advance your business goals. Some of these considerations include the accelerator’s access to funding, the calibre of technical guidance and mentors, and their ability to give product direction. As James suggests, you have to do your homework on their past successes and their network: “You want people who will put you on the fast track to success, make introductions, push you, guide you and give you real, honest feedback.”

N.B. Also check out this video of Shifthub CEO Jeremy Potvin talking to TechCrunch journalist John Biggs at the recent TechCrunch Toronto Meetup, held Monday, November 5th at the Steamwhistle Brewery.

Which other local startups have huge disruptive potential for the SMB space? What other fields out there are ripe for disruption? Share your thoughts with us by commenting below.

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