Community Helps Drive Startup’s Success
Daniel Blair has a few balls in the air and that’s how he likes it. In a very short few years the graduate of the Business Information Technology Program at Red River College has gone from being a developer “who just wanted to build things” to founder and CEO of his own startup, Bit Space Development. The company, which focuses primarily on helping clients bring their ideas to life through innovative technology solutions, including Virtual Reality (VR), was established in 2015.
Blair already had a VR authoring tool, Panoplā (Pano-play) out in the world, but it was his participation in Innovate Manitoba’s Launch’Pad Startup Skills Workshop in June 2015 that opened the new enterpreneurs eyes to the businesses’ greater potential. He said, “The Launch’Pad Workshop taught me things that I hadn’t learned during my time in business school and helped me see opportunities for where I could take my business as well as where I might get some funding.”
From the Workshop Blair went on to Pitch’Day 2015 While he didn’t make it into the winner’s circle, he definitely made connections and learned even more.
“I’d done my market research but this got me thinking more about my business plan and focusing on the right markets,” he said.
Blair had also just participated in RampUp Weekend 8 where he connected with his now business partner Michael Farris. Farris won Best Prototype at Ptich’Day for Geofy, which uses location-aware games and rewards for smartphone users when they walk into a participating business. The two saw the synergies for their business ideas and decided to join forces under the Bit Space banner.
In addition to Panoplā and Geofy, there’s now RealPano, which is the more sophisticated and monetized version of Panoplā. Customers sign up for Panoplā for free but will pay for additional services. Subscription fees will apply right off the hop for both Geofy and RealPano, which are in soft launch phases. Blair’s focus, as learned from his time in the Workshop, and through Pitch’Day and RampUp is to build a minimally viable product and get to market. “So it’s lean and mean, invest a little bit of money, validate and keep going.”
With a $15,000 Futurpreneur start-up loan in place – which resulted from his participation in the Launch’Pad Workshop – Blair says he’s otherwise 100 per cent bootstrapped in funding, adding people and services as the technologies start to pay off. In terms of investment, he said he hasn’t wanted to waste anyone’s time and is just now beginning to talk about options. “We didn’t need a lot of money to get started and we’ll scale up when we feel it’s responsible to do so.”
“Right now we’re relying on the revenue sources we’re earning by working with awesome clients and building things people want to pay for,” he said. “
This may change when RealPano, takes off. Blair shared that the expanded VR authoring tool is the result of feedback at Pitch’Day where he started to see that he needed a more specific solution than Panoplā for a more specific niche – in this case the real estate market. When Blair’s research showed that homebuyers are 80 per cent more likely to view a listing where they can see the home, he knew he was on to something. He believes that the $160/month fee is more than manageable for realtors if the technology helps them sell more homes.
“RealPano makes it so easy for them to create quality virtual tours that they can use it for all of their homes not just the really expensive ones,” Blair said.
RealPano provides a complete do-it-yourself option for realtors who otherwise can spend upwards of $1,000 per listing to shoot, edit and post a virtual tour. And while it’s designed to be DIY, the RealPano team is available to help the agents in real time. An added bonus, Blair said is that he and his team have tested the hardware, will make recommendations, and will even give the actual camera to agents who sign up for a yearly contract. Users can have up to 30 virtual tours at a time. Comfree users can also use the tool by just signing up, paying the $160 monthly fee and then unsubscribing once the house is sold.
Blair hopes that someday RealPano can be expanded into the education and tourism sectors. “Imagine being able to take your students to Mars or other places through a virtual field trip?” he said. Videos, photos and links could all be embedded and purchases of tickets to events could also be done through the tour. Similarly, tourism outlets including destinations and hotels could provide a sneak peek of their properties by virtually taking people to places they may have always dreamed of visiting.
Blair said that RealPano isn’t a global project just yet but he doesn’t anticipate it will be difficult to expand it into new markets once the Winnipeg pilot is completed. The target is to have 100 paying RealPano users in 2016.
Geofy will be primarily targeted at restaurants when it launches later this summer.
Team in the Community
The Bit Space 12-member team, located in Innovation Alley (McDermot Avenue), is comprised of a mix of developers, marketing, and business and innovation specialists. Numerous students from the Business Information Technology program are apprenticing or have found jobs with the company. This is just one of the many communities Blair has helped to foster. He’s also been involved with the ACE department at RRC that requires that students do an industry project as part of their education. “Having students work on some of these cool projects for clients is really a stepping stone for them to become entrepreneurs as well,” he said.
Blair said he doesn’t recall a time when community wasn’t important to him. “No one is here alone,” he said. He credits organizations like Innovate Manitoba and StartUp Winnipeg for helping to build communities that are incredibly powerful in supporting startups and entrepreneurs. “Here in the StartUp Winnipeg space, I can walk down the hall and talk to another CEO, so I’m learning from someone else who’s already been through it, rather than just through my own trial and failure.”
When hiring, he looks for people who want to help in the startup and broader community spaces.
“Winnipeg is pretty tight knit so I want people working with us who care. If someone needs help moving offices, I want my team to help. If there’s an event going on and we have the capacity to help we will,” he said. Bit Space also runs three users groups specifically for developers and some not-for-profit organizations.
“We’re also donating some of our time and products to educators,” Blair said, adding, “Hopefully when we’re bigger we can donate some of our profits as well.”
Next up for Blair is a talk he’ll be delivering to the TEDxWinnipeg community in June. “I’m talking about Virtual Reality (VR) but not just in the sense that we have a cool new toy. My message is that we can use this new medium to build the most immersive storytelling experiences you can imagine. This is a disruptive technology that is going to take people places they never imagined were possible.”
Innovate Manitoba’s work in the community
“It’s worth going to the Innovate Manitoba events even if you just have an idea,” Blair said. “You’ll go from being an entrepreneur thinking about that idea, to considering how you’re going to raise money and you’ll get connected to the community of other startups.” It’s this, Blair believes, is the real key to success. “When you have a group of companies working together, you’re going to have success because of those connections.”