Note to budding entrepreneurs: sending the dean of your university an email at 1 a.m. on a Tuesday is a huge gamble and thus not advised. Unless, of course, it pays off like it did for Brennan McEachran, founder of SoapBox and an early pioneer in Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone.
Even six years later, he still isn’t quite sure why he sent the email to Ryerson University’s dean at the time, Sheldon Levy.
“There were these tiny little things that I’d stub my toe on every single day and I didn’t have anyone else to tell, so I sent this really weird email figuring he’d never respond,” remembers Brennan. “The next day I woke up with a flashing light on my inbox, sure enough it was Sheldon saying ‘how’s Friday at 11?’ and I was like ‘oh no, what have I done.’ ”
To make matters worse, all the gripes he had, he could no longer remember so he set about crowdsourcing ideas from friends on social media, things the university could improve, minor grievances like having online waitlists for signing up for classes instead of having to sit there hitting refresh or sending out text reminders to let students know classes were beginning.
The meeting went well, with Sheldon being receptive to each idea the entrepreneurial student tabled. And then Brennan hit him with the “big one”; his pitch for what would eventually become SoapBox.
“I passed him across a mock-up and said: ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could give every student at Ryerson the same opportunity you’re giving me right now, the opportunity to take their best ideas and suggestions and feedback and give it to the school to make it the most innovative place in Canada?’ ” says Brennan. “His face lit up and he said, ‘I want to build this thing.’ ”
Shortly thereafter, SoapBox joined the freshly minted DMZ, growing the idea from student-focused to something major companies could use to elevate employee-led innovation, letting users vote on ideas to decide which gain traction. After helping to set the precedent for the DMZ, SoapBox eventually outgrew the space in 2014 and struck out on its own.
As of October 2015 it has raised $3 million and counts Coca-Cola, Bank of Montreal, General Electric, and Metrolinx among its clients. But Brennan isn’t quite sure any of this could have happened had he not caved to the initial allure of moving to Toronto from the small town he grew up in.
“There was something about the city that spoke to me,” he says. “The same draw that drew me in drew my co-founders in putting us at the same intersection at the same time – that definitely wouldn’t be possible without the city, it’s really where creative collisions happen.”
In the half decade since he came to Toronto, Brennan says he’s watched the city’s startup ecosystem evolve and take shape while the talent followed suit.
“Everyone always talks about the war for talent but the interesting thing in Toronto is yes, you’re competing for talent but this talent is almost so futuristic that the only people interested in it in the city are startups,” he says. “And it just happens T.O. is the perfect place because the engineer you want, wants to stay near his family.”
By Andrew Seale