Michele Romanow: Toronto needs the confidence to say it’s our time
Toronto tech veteran Michele Romanow understands the many sides of the entrepreneurial journey.
She’s started businesses like Buytopia, which built an app, Snapsaves, that was later acquired by Groupon. Now a co-founder of Clearbanc — a new financial solution for startups — she also keeps tabs on Canada’s rising startups as a Dragon on Dragons’ Den. Read on to see her global idea for tech and innovation.
How did you get involved in tech?
I started my first business in undergrad, which was a sustainable coffee shop called The Tea Room on Queen’s campus while I was getting my engineering degree; that experience made me realize I was better at building businesses than I would be at building bridges.
I then met Anatoliy Melnichuk in my third year. I’d been a good academic and good at working hard. Anatoliy was the perfect risk taker, selling things door to door and marketing himself.
We talked it over and decided we had to go into business together.
We brainstormed “the next million-dollar idea,” and came up with caviar and fish farming. We built an entire fishery from scratch. It was dirty work. We made a bit of money, then the recession hit.
I went to work in the corporate world in 2010 as director of strategy for Sears, getting exposure to what was then the largest e-commerce outfit in Canada with over $1 billion in online sales.
I got to learn everything about retail, so when Anatoliy and I got back in business together in 2011, we launched BuyTopia after a meeting at the Starbucks on King Street and Yonge Street in downtown Toronto.
We were the 18th competitor in the space and didn’t raise any money, but we fought it out every day and got really good at user acquisition.
From there, we spun out SnapSaves, the company that was acquired by Groupon in 2014. I joined Groupon for a year and a half, during that time also joining Dragons’ Den.
Now I’m working on Clearbanc to help bring more financing options to entrepreneurs, a need I saw from my own experience and my time on Dragons’ Den.
You have 3 hours to make someone fall in love with Toronto – where do you take them and what do you show them?
First thing is we go for an amazing brunch somewhere cute and quaint – Little Italy, Ossington, or King West.
Then we go to the AGO or ROM, two of my favourite buildings in Toronto.
After that, a walk down University Avenue to get to the water. If I had more time, we’d sail around the city.
If I had a whole day, we’d end it off by going to dinner on College Street West.
Elevate Toronto is founded on three principles (#DiversityIsOurStrength, #DisruptTogether, #ItsOurTime). Which one resonates most with you?
All are very important, but #ItsOurTime resonates the most.
At the end of the day, startups are about getting timing right. I’ve been early and I’ve been late with businesses and timing is almost as important as anything else.
There’s so much momentum that makes it our time because of the other two; we value diversity here and are very collaborative. Now, we need the confidence to say it’s our moment.
What is your “global idea” for tech and innovation?
My global idea is to make it easier and fairer for entrepreneurs to get access to capital.
When I first started on Dragons’ Den, I appreciated that businesses were being started very differently – many process payments and acquire customers entirely online. This now seems obvious, but this is the first time it’s happening in a measured way.
This also makes for perfect underwriting data. On Dragons’ Den, I’d see tons of great businesses with good unit economics that simply were not VC businesses.
However, if you are a small business that’s making money you still have to go write a business, go to a bank, and get capital only if you provide a personal guarantee. This is fundamentally unfair.
Loans are onerous for small business because they have the same payment no matter what. We need a new model that means your creditor is a growth partner. They get more when times are good and less when times are bad, but are still paid back capital plus interest over time.
What should the world know about the Toronto tech community?
Just watch us. Toronto has been growing really steadily to build all the infrastructure, talent, and diversity for tech success. There will be monsters coming out of the Toronto tech space.