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Hamilton Economic Development

End result just the beginning for Mac-powered startup champs

Matt Gardner, left, and Jason Moore are two McMaster University students who have developed new software that is getting some interest in the education industry.

Taking a business venture from idea to first sale in just one weekend means there is no time for second-guessing.

“In 54 hours, there is no leeway to delay,” said Jason Moore, one of a five-member team behind Group Notes, an online collaboration platform that earned them the crown at Global Start-up Battle, beating out 137 teams from around the world.

Group Notes was brought to life at the Toronto Start-up Weekend — a 54-hour blur of laptop strokes, coffee and lightning-fast choices.

“You need a solution to everything in the next two minutes,” said Moore, one of three McMaster University engineering students on the Group Notes squad.

“You have to make a decision.”

In fact, the motto for the startup weekend movement (about 700 have been held in more than 300 cities so far) is No Talk All Action.

“In two minutes, we chose our target market. We chose to focus on education,” said Moore.

That seemed to pay off because by the end of the Toronto Startup Weekend the team had plenty of teachers supporting their idea, some even coughing up $50 to be the first buyers.

But there was little time to celebrate the big milestones: the first sale and the first coding success. They came within a minute of each other to some shouts and high-fives. Then it was back to work.

The rest of the weekend is best described as “chaos, mayhem and anarchy,” said Matt Gardner, the Mac engineering student who came up with the Group Notes concept. “It’s the fastest 54 hours you’ll ever see.”

Group Notes allows a group to work together online and leave notes and drawings on webpages that other group members can see, add to and edit. The idea is to prevent group members from duplicating each other’s research work and to allow teachers — from the elementary level to university professors — to get a view of how research was conducted.

“On every project there is this big, black box of research,” said Gardner.

“This gives a view into how the research was done. Teachers can even watch it live. They’ll know if a group didn’t start researching until a week before deadline.”

Moore and Gardner were joined on Group Notes by McMaster graduate student Greg Connell, who handled the business model, and Sheridan grads Matthew Gosbee and Graham Kennery, who wrote the code.

The Toronto Startup win earned Group Notes an automatic entry into the global battle, an animated marketing video, along with incubator space and consultations with startup experts.

With that win, the ride just got crazier. They had 24 hours to put a video together that would convince public voters to back their venture. None of them had video experience but got a hand from a film company located in a Toronto accelerator.

They frantically shot and edited the video and managed to get it posted to the Startup Weekend website with just 10 minutes to spare.

Then they spent seven days running around the Mac campus and Westdale for eight to 10 hours a day begging for votes and watching the tally. They had to make the top 15 in order to move on. It was so close they were in a McDonald’s at 2 a.m. currying votes just an hour before the public voting ended at midnight Pacific time.

The vote swings were enormous. Group Notes had been in fourth place and then dropped to 14th overnight in the final 24 hours. They eked into the judges’ voting round by 150 votes and then faced a week-long wait before learning they had won.

The victory gets them $20,000 in Google cloud services, $5,000 in legal advice from a top corporate law firm, $5,000 in public relations help and $5,000 for design.

They also get trips to San Francisco to tour Googleplex and meet with founders, mentors, and investors in January, and then to the Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Rio de Janeiro in March.

The pair can’t help but be taken by the contrast between their lives and those of the successful entrepreneurs they are meeting these days. Moore and Gardner share a Westdale house with five other students, all paying $280 a month. Their one extravagance is a “coffee bar” in the hallway between their rooms that features high-end brewers and fancy syrups.

One meeting brought them to the penthouse of a downtown Toronto condo building.

“It was gorgeous. The espresso machine was worth more than my house,” said Moore.

Despite the allure, they will continue living a stingy student life and hold off on bringing investors on board as long as possible in order to maintain their independence.

“You give away more of your company if you get early investments,” said Gardner. “They key is taking the money when you don’t need it.”

Though Moore and Gardner are both 23 and both grew up in Burlington, they did not meet until a second-year lab at McMaster. They are both working toward a master of engineering, entrepreneurship and innovation while finishing their undergrad degrees.

They quickly determined they work well together and have launched another company called Passit which promotes face-to-face referrals for brick and mortar businesses.

Their professors have been supportive of the pair missing class time, projects or exams and the global win has convinced both their parents that entrepreneurship might just work out for their sons.

Gardner says his mom likes to tell a story about his first venture in Grade 7.

“I realized at Costco that I could undersell the vending machines at school. So I was selling pop and chocolate bars out of my locker. It lasted about two weeks until the school shut me down.”

Moore did an internship at Gennum. Gardner was on the BlackBerry 10 team while doing an internship at RIM. Both say they learned a lot in the corporate environment.

One of the primary lessons was that it’s not for them.

They both said they felt voiceless and powerless in the big companies. Gardner watched a guy who sat next to him get laid off just a month after he had moved to Waterloo from Calgary.

“What we’re doing now doesn’t feel like work. It’s fun and we’re so happy when we have a day when we can do nothing but work on our companies.”

Article courtesy of Meredith MacLeod , The Hamilton Spectator.

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