A deep understanding of its user base is a crucial ingredient for success for most start-ups – something that might be a challenge early on for a product that aims to resolve operational complexities faced by multi-location enterprises. But with a headquarters in Toronto and employees based in New York, London, St. Petersburg and Vancouver, some of the challenges Intelocate’s customers face are common ground for founder Yulia Vasilyeva.
“It’s one of the things I’m quite proud of,” says Vasilyeva, of her company's rapid international growth. “We’re all over the place and in four different time zones with a head office in Toronto. Usually start-ups start small and then expand but we had to do it the other way around. We have a lot of added layers of complexity that don’t normally happen that early on, and it forced us to find a really collaborative way of communicating.”
But enabling and streamlining coordination and communication between business locations is just the benefit Vasilyeva’s company drives for its enterprise customers. Less than two years after launching, Intelocate connects activities for clients across 18,000 locations in North America and Europe, providing chat- and task-based functionalities to improve everything from real estate management and maintenance operations to marketing activities for distributed businesses.
Even more impressive than those numbers might be the fact that Vasilyeva founded Intelocate with neither a technical nor a business management or operations background – after arriving in Toronto from St. Petersburg eight years ago with a journalism degree, she had an entrepreneurial drive, but no sense yet of where that might take her. “I really wanted to start a business in Russia but I didn’t have any specific ideas and I thought I’d come here to gain some working experience abroad and then go back and start something there,” she says.
A contract opportunity as a project manager integrating new merchandising technology for Bell, which landed just as Vasilyeva was considering her return to Russia, changed everything. “Why would they hire me with no experience in either technology or project management? But I had organized events so I did have organizational skills. For the first six months, I felt like I had no idea what I was doing.
“But when I started to get it, I started seeing things that I think I noticed because I was so new in the space. And what I saw was that every department had its own system for managing certain things. And then there were external vendors and suppliers. And then you have all the business locations. And I started thinking what if there was a system that was designed just to deal with the complexities of running a business with multiple locations? There are lots of great platforms for team collaboration like chat rooms and so on, but they fall flat when it comes to other needs.”
After her contract wrapped, Vasilyeva says she became “obsessed” with the idea of building a platform that would solve these challenges, building her first prototype with the help of a $60,000 grant from the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE). In May 2017, she launched a platform that had been fully reconceived from her initial prototype, claiming Office Outlet, one of the U.K.’s largest suppliers of office products (it was rebranded from Staples in 2016), as her first client. Retail chains such as HMV soon followed.
“We initially launched with Office Outlet to help them with general maintenance but within two to three weeks, other departments started joining. We had operations, marketing, HR, IT, customer support. They all started using the system to track different issues coming in from their stores,” she says.
And while you might not expect it from a founder who also won the top prize at ResolveTO’s pitch competition, Vasilyeva says her biggest enemy has been needless self-imposed doubts. “A lack of confidence can lead to fear,” she says. But Intelocate’s success has shown her that often insecurities are “fictional.”
“As an entrepreneur, your goal is to build a team of people who have the skills that are needed to put the pieces of the puzzle together. I think woman are great at that but we don’t always recognize it. You tell yourself I need all of these things before I can start a business. When I started Intelocate I was absolutely broke. Was it logically the right time? No. I don’t have a mathematical background, and that doesn’t matter. Sometimes you have to jump and swim and see what happens. Whether you’re a man or a woman.”
Photo credit: Zlatko Cetinic, Images Made Real