Written by Andrew Seale
Toronto is not humble.
“It’s good we have humility and obviously, we should, but we’re not humble,” says Ben Zifkin, founder of Hubba – the world’s fastest growing B2B network connecting craft brands and retailers. “When we get people coming up and saying ‘why don’t people know about you?’ – I don’t care what you think… it’s your decision if you know about us or not – we’ll get there, I’m not worried about it.”
Not to give you the impression that Zifkin is arrogant or abrasive, this is after all the same Ben Zifkin touted as Toronto’s “Nice Guy” founder; a board member of nonprofits Ladies Learning Code and the Upside Foundation, a charity where companies can donate equity. He’s also a lead backer of Canada’s first LGBTQA+-focused entrepreneurship summit Venture Out and a revolving number of other entrepreneur-focused causes.
Yes, Zifkin’s a nice guy; he just thinks the archetypal “quiet Canadian entrepreneur” is out-of-touch with the reality. There’s fierce competition in the city amongst Toronto’s best and brightest 20 to 25 companies poised to be the next success story, and Zifkin wants to keep Hubba up there at the front. “I’m a hyper-competitive guy (and) when I see other people raise funding, I’m cheering for them…. it’s weird,” he says adding that his (informed) suspicion is the attitude is symptomatic of the Toronto ecosystem.
On the one hand, he explains, Toronto is a large enough centre to have a global impact but it’s small enough that as an individual contributing to the community, you can still make a difference.
“Which is why we do things like Ladies Learning Code or Venture Out – those actually move the needle,” he says. “If you did those in New York or London or L.A. maybe not so much… it’s quite competitive there, (whereas) all of us know we can have an impact here and know that if others are successful, we’ll be successful.”
When it comes to understanding the dynamics of other startup centres, Zifkin has no shortage of experience. The guy has pretty much dipped his toes in all of them putting in stints in Silicon Valley, London, New York and Singapore.
As an early employee at Workbrain – a Toronto-based workforce management software company – he travelled the globe building out solutions and tackling pain points at some of the biggest corporations. He left that to co-found his own company Axsium Group, focused on strategic consulting and systems integration for major companies before being acquired and taking a post in the newly-minted business overseeing operations in the U.K.
But he felt the pull to try something new, to build another startup.
“(I) could have stayed in London, could have gone to the Valley – we have a great network in the Valley – and I lived in New York, I loved New York, even Tel Aviv was on the table,” he says. This was six years ago, so Toronto’s ecosystem was only half developed, yet still, it was his home city that caught his attention.
“There was the huge talent pool but not a ton of scaling companies… I knew the first 50 employees I had would be better than 50 anywhere in the world,” he says. “Now there’s a good crew of scaling companies here… it rivals other great places in the world if not better – I’d do it again if I had the choice.”
Six years on, Hubba has doubled in size every year and grown to 65 employees. The network has 60,000 companies on it with their products in 140 countries around the world.
“You could be a small organic pet food company that sells in twenty stores and by virtue of being on Hubba all of a sudden you’re in 2,000 stores all over the world because these retailers found you,” he says. “You could never do that at a trade show or pounding the pavement.”
Essentially, they’re quickly becoming the linchpin of the scale-up for tiny businesses looking to expand their reach.
“It changes their world and you do that for one company that’s great,” he says. “We have 60,000 companies on the platform… they start doing it on that scale and it actually economically moves the needle for countries.”
Sound familiar? It’s no surprise Zifkin’s personal and entrepreneurial goals converge. He’s a needle mover. And he likes to surround himself with needle movers.
“As a founder, you just sit there and say who do I want to come to work with every day and if I want to get better at something who can I just pick off the street that can make me better?” he says. “If you’re going to build something you need good soil to do it.”
Photos: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)