Can you build a successful, scalable technology company in Edmonton? Local startup Mover thinks so, and yesterday they received validation of that goal in the form of $1 million in seed financing from an impressive list of American and Canadian investors.
“Absolutely” was Mover CEO Eric Warnke‘s response when I asked if he thought he could find the necessary talent and other resources to grow the company here in Edmonton. The tech landscape is a lot different today than it was five or six years ago when Eric was at Nexopia, the hot local startup at the time. “Realistically we’d have to double salaries if we relocated to the valley,” he told me. Not that Mover isn’t paying a fair wage, it’s just that the cost of living there is much higher and the competition for talent is much fiercer. “A lot of people ask us if we’re going to move, but there are good incentives to stay here.” The footer of Mover’s website carries the message “proudly made in Edmonton.”
Mover is barely a year old, but it certainly doesn’t lack history. Walk around the office on the second floor of the revitalized Mercer Warehouse building and little reminders of the past consistently pop-up. A Free Wi-Fi magnet on a metal divider, a Firenest coffee tumbler on top of the fridge, a Mesh Canada brochure hanging on one of the beautiful wooden beams. Even the Launch Party sign front-and-centre as you walk across the creaky floors offers insight into how the growing local tech scene made it possible for Mover to go from idea to reality.
In 2004, Eric was employee number four at Nexopia and wore a number of hats there over the years, everything from customer service to ad management. A few years later, while working full-time at the social networking site and also going to school, Eric found time to start and run an Internet café on Whyte Avenue. It was the Internet café that sparked an interest in wireless networks and led to the creation of the Free Wi-Fi Project. Through that initiative Eric met Mark Fossen, a former partner at ThinkTel Communications. The two decided to join forces and launched Mesh Canada in 2009. They sold it to a Calgary company last year.
In January 2012, Eric & Mark decided to participate in Startup Edmonton’s Startup Hackathon. They built a utility called Backup Box that helped users move files from one place to another (such as an FTP server to Dropbox), and eventually showed it off at DemoCamp in March. A few months later, they were part of GrowLab‘s spring 2012 cohort in Vancouver. Renamed as Mover, they refined the product and when they got back to Edmonton, realized they needed to grow. That’s when Ben Zittlau joined as a partner and the VP of Technology. He had previously worked on Firenest, a web-based tool for non-profits, and for a short time worked at Yardstick Software too.
In the space of a year the team has grown from four to ten. They’ve mostly hired people they know, and that was a deliberate decision. “Slowly but surely we’re putting Nexopia back together,” Eric half-joked. He stressed how important it is to hire strong people. “They had a lot of great people working at Nexopia.” Mover plans to stay in the Mercer Warehouse as long as possible, and already have their eye on some additional space on the second floor. “It’s walkable for almost everyone on the team,” Eric said. “There are great amenities here, and being downtown and close to Startup Edmonton is really great.”
I asked Eric to describe the culture at Mover. “Pretty awesome” was his response. The fridge is stocked with groceries in addition to beer, so that everyone on the team can have a healthy lunch at the office if they choose to (today the team had a craving for Oodle Noodle). The company is flexible on working hours and vacation, and employees get ownership options. Eric cited Box, Dropbox, and Singly as companies he admires with Jobber and Granify as local examples. “One day we’ll be the example others mention,” he added.
Mover has a strong technical team. Greg Bell, Graham Batty, and Sean Healy are all former Nexopia employees. Derek Dowling was a programmer for The Gateway. Jacob Straszynski worked at Mediashaker. Eric thinks they’ll add a few more technology folks, but where the new funding will really help Mover is with marketing and business development. Aside from Eric and Mark, there’s just marketing intern Aidan McColl at the moment.
Mover has quickly become a leader in the growing world of cloud storage migration and backup. With support for about a dozen popular services like Dropbox, Google Drive, and SkyDrive, Mover is carving out a unique middleware position for itself in a rapidly growing market. Steve Jobs famously said Dropbox was just a feature, not a product, but today the company has more than 100 million users who collectively save more than 1 billion files each and every day. And they’re just one of many options available to consumers and enterprises. Back in 2010 a series of Microsoft commercials featured the refrain “to the cloud!” Today more than ever, that’s exactly what’s happening, and Mover is hoping to play a key role in the space.
The plan was always to raise money. But like many technology startups, Mover was probably too ambitious last year in trying to build an impressive technical solution to a problem that not enough people have yet. The lesson was to focus on the areas in which they already had traction, Eric told me. “We’ve got this really interesting thing here, and we need some money to figure that out so that we can get to the next stage.” That approach, combined with a realization that it’s okay to say “I don’t know” to certain questions, led to the new investment.
Mover currently thinks about two primary categories of customers. There are individuals who are mostly self-service but have a wide range of needs. Then there’s enterprises, with lots of users and fairly well-defined problems. Both offer lots of opportunities and are expected grow significantly in the years ahead. Balancing the feature set between them is one of the challenges Mover will face. “We’ve got a fantastic backend,” Eric said, “but we need to make some improvements to the user experience.”
The team is well aware there is lots of work to be done. Every Friday afternoon they meet in the “conference room” for a retrospective led by Ben. Each person has the opportunity to share something positive from the past week as well as something that needs to be improved. The admin dashboard they’ve built is displayed on a large television and allows the team to monitor performance, identify potential bugs, and highlight areas of improvement.
Eric and Mark took part today and used the opportunity to talk about the new investment, thanking everyone for their hard work. “It was a team effort,” Eric said. “Each of you have played an important role in getting us to this point.” Mark added some thoughts about what the investment means for the company, and there were smiles all around. But that was the extent of the celebration. Minutes later they were back to discussing some workloads that had been flagged on the display. The message was clear: the investment helps a great deal, but it’s not the endgame. Mover has lofty goals and there’s a lot of work to be done to achieve them.