It was 2003 when Mike McDerment, a Queen’s University commerce grad decided to code a simple tool for himself that could create invoices, send them to clients and collect payment online. Realizing the potential of his tool, he launched FreshBooks out of his Toronto High Park apartment with two partners. He then moved into his parent’s basement for three years to focus on creating a business around the platform.
“Our office was the family television room and my dad would come down and watch TV between two of our desks,” he says. “There were six employees by the time we left – now we’re back in High Park and have about 250.”
Today Mike is the grand archetype of the startup superstar. He’s made it his mission to preach the gospel of entrepreneurial pursuit over the years and is fond of taking fresh-faced budding startups out for lunch to talk through their visions.
He’s also quite fond of his hometown, Toronto.
“I think it’s an attractive place to come for talented people, it’s a huge market for creative people and I think there are some companies emerging that give people hope that it can be done here,” he says. “I think we have a great environment here, the SR&ED credits and support for Canadian based companies really are huge advantages.”
It’s almost unrecognizable from the Toronto where Mike initially laid the groundwork for FreshBooks.
“There were almost no companies that were true startups, at least none we were connected to,” he says.
But in time a cohort sprung up, a small group of people aligned around the emergence of web 2.0. “That’s what got things connected.”
In 2005, Mike helped to found Mesh, a conference built around the ever-evolving digital landscape.
“We started having conferences coming to town, we had meet ups – things like (tech-geared) DemoCamp and BarCamp – and that’s when a community of people started forming,” he says. “Fast forward another five years and some of those people started companies and the overall ecosystem started maturing quite a bit.”
And some of those Toronto startups like FreshBooks, have gone on to see some success and fed it back into the community.
“It’s a whole process that’s been underway and you really start to feel the impact of something like that,” he adds.
As for his company, which has customers in over 120 countries, Mike will be the first to admit that he still has a lot to do. But he’s proud to call Toronto home.
“I think part of it is the desire to give back, if we can build a global technology company headquartered in Toronto that employs thousands of people, that to me is a wonderful contribution to the city I grew up in,” he says. “We have a lot of work to do, we’re not at our destination yet but we’re working towards it – there’s lots of building left to do and I think it’s really exciting.”
When it comes to advice for young entrepreneurs considering Toronto as a place to build their startup, Mike says skip the organic ecosystem growth and start your own community.
“Tell every smart person you know who’s interested in technology to move to Toronto as well and then start your damn company,” says Mike. “Just get on with it!”