Aydin Mirzaee was shovelling driveways at age 12, day-trading and building websites with his brother in his teens and founded his first startup at 21. He sold his second to SurveyMonkey before his 30th birthday in 2014 for more than US$50-million.
Now, the 34-year-old Ottawa entrepreneur is hoping to do something really big with his latest startup, an enterprise software firm called Fellow Insights Inc., which makes a product to help managers and subordinates plan and manage one-on-one and team meetings online. He calls it a co-pilot for managers. And he’s getting a boost from the biggest tech name in the city (and country): Shopify Inc.
It was Tobi Lutke, CEO of the retail software giant and an old friend, who first suggested Mr. Mirzaee build a feedback tool that integrated with Slack, the workplace communication platform. He agreed to have Shopify become the guinea pig customer for the Fellow app, helping the startup refine its strategy and tweak the product, and now more than 3,000 Shopify staffers use it. “I feel like we were incubated at Shopify,” said Mr. Mirzaee.
When Mr. Lutke tweeted about Fellow’s launch last October, several tech companies across North America signed up. Others, including Canadian tech companies Vidyard and North, got early access on recommendations from their Shopify contacts. “We have great usage of the tool with almost 70 per cent of our employees as active users,” said Lisa Brown, Vidyard’s vice-president of talent.
Two-year-old Fellow, which will officially launch its product later this year, is announcing Thursday it has raised US$6.5-million, led by Inovia Capital, with participation from Garage Capital and Silicon Valley-based Felicis Ventures, one of Shopify’s early backers.
“I was looking for a company that could help managers manage their teams better … for a very long time” until learning about Fellow, said Felicis founder and managing partner Aydin Senkut. “If a company like Shopify rolls it out across the company and adopts it very fast, it speaks to how good the product is from the get-go.”
Mr. Mirzaee is one of three co-founders launching their third company together. Mr. Mirzaee is the CEO. Younger brother Amin is chief product officer, while Sam Cormier-Iijima, Amin’s friend from his days at McGill University, is chief technology officer.
Amin wanted to be a Wall Street investment banker and Mr. Cormier-Iijima studied music. But Mr. Mirzaee, who grew up in New York but moved to Ottawa for university, enlisted the pair in 2006 while he was at Nortel Networks to help him build bOK Systems, a startup that attempted to get around expensive mobile per-minute costs with a simple hack of Skype. (It was “a glorified phone scam,” said Amin, the more outspoken of the Mirzaee brothers.) The startup didn’t get far before competing firms started raising venture-capital money. Mr. Mirzaee, who didn’t know anything about raising money, posted a video on YouTube to pitch to venture investors, earning him unwanted notoriety for his naiveté; one tech blog labelled him “Lonelydork15.” (He has since removed the clip.)
That bruising experience gave Mr. Mirzaee an idea for his next venture: an “anti-social network” called Chide.it where people could post works online and invite others to criticize them. That idea flopped, but working with mentor Eli Fathi – a veteran Ottawa tech entrepreneur – and his two co-founders, Mr. Mirzaee pivoted the fledgling company, eventually developing an online survey that they pitched to federal departments starting in 2008. By 2014, Fluidware was generating $10-million in annualized revenue when SurveyMonkey – now called SVMK Inc. – bought it.
Mr. Mirzaee stayed on at SurveyMoney for two years before leaving in 2016 to start another company. He began brainstorming but quickly got discouraged by his initial ideas, worrying that he’d peaked. Others had more faith. Karamdeep Nijjar, a general partner with Inovia, said his firm “would have given [Mr. Mirzee] a blank cheque. He was top of our list of entrepreneurs we wanted to back." But Mr. Mirzaee "wouldn’t let us invest” until he was ready.
Mr. Mirzaee eventually messaged his entrepreneur friends, asking whether they had a business problem they couldn’t solve. Mr. Lutke answered back, putting him in touch with his chief talent officer, Brittany Forsyth.
Working with Shopify, the co-founders developed the Fellow platform, which enables managers and employees to easily generate checklist items for meetings and follow-up actions. The tool suggests topics and monitors action items over time so people can keep track of what was promised and what was done. It syncs with calendars, e-mail and Slack and is designed to be simple and easy-to-use.
“It’s great that we can play a role, but frankly, these products we use have to stand on their own,” said Harley Finkelstein, Shopify’s chief operating officer – who met Mr. Lutke through Mr. Mirzaee when they were all young, unproven entrepreneurs in Ottawa more than a decade ago. “If Aydin was just relying on his relationship with Tobi and I, I don’t think this would have gone anywhere.”
The trio bootstrapped Fluidware and could have bankrolled Fellow’s startup themselves, but decided to raise venture capital this time. “Because we’ve had that previous success, we’re more comfortable with the idea of taking that risk and swinging for the fences,” Mr. Mirzaee said.
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