Pumping up a new business
By Phil Jenkins
Climb the stairs above the Dollarama store on Bank Street in Ottawa and you will find an open concept office space with a hammock in the front corner of the room, a scooter in a hallway and a workout gym at the back. You will also find uOttawa health sciences alumnus Lee Silverstone ping-ponging between desks where employees are hard at work writing new software programs and inventing hardware to bring exercise workouts into the 21st century. This space with the Silicon Valley vibe is home to a new company, Gymtrack, Silverstone and co-CEO Pablo Srugo’s creation. Gymtrack is less than a year old but bulking up quickly.
Silverstone and Srugo, both workout fanatics, came up with the idea for Gymtrack when they realized that the old handwritten checklist of exercises and repetitions that a gym member keeps and discusses post-workout with a personal trainer needed a lift into the digital age. With Gymtrack technology, the gym member wears a smart-watch-like device that identifies the wearer when swiped at workout stations or at banks of free weights, Nautilus machines or weightlifting benches. Sensors on the weights provide real-time feedback by capturing how many repetitions wearers have done, monitoring heart rate, calories, technique and progress through the entire workout. A Siri-like voice over a smartphone headset tells wearers to slow down or speed up repetitions and what exercises are coming next, and counts down to the end of rest periods. Once the session is over, wearers can interpret graphic presentations of all the workout metrics with a personal trainer, and determine whether they’re progressing or need to pump it up a little more.
The early success of the business is no fluke. Years earlier, as a second-year undergrad, Silverstone saw a poster for uOttawa’s Startup Garageon campus. Startup Garage, which operates through the Technology Transfer and Business Enterprise office, gives students the opportunity to experience entrepreneurship up close and start a business. It runs every year from June to August and offers space, mentorship, formal training, support and cash to students to launch their companies.
“I wanted to be an entrepreneur and go into business,” Silverstone says. “I saw the poster for Startup Garage, and that you could win $20,000…I still have that photo on my phone!”
After several false starts with business ideas, he and Srugo, who have known one another since they were nine years old, finally had their first business success through Startup Garage, MyTutor, a service offering help for Ottawa-area university and high school students in virtually all subjects. They recently sold that business, using the profits and what they learned from the experience to fund Gymtrack.
“A lot of mistakes entrepreneurs make are because they build a product in a bubble and assume people are going to love it. We have the mentality that the second you have an idea for a product, go out and talk to customers right away.”
They went out and pitched their idea for Gymtrack to more than twenty Ottawa area gyms.
“They all signed a letter of interest, and we said, ‘Holy crap, we’re on to something.’”
True to Startup Garage’s motto, “Students Go In, Businesses Come Out,” Silverstone says that once “Garage” and economic development group Invest Ottawa became involved, everything changed.
“Startup Garage was huge for us. It was our first outside money for the company and gave us the credibility we needed. I can honestly say that Gymtrack wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for them.”
Local investors put up $150,000 in seed money, and at an international startup festival in Montreal, a San Francisco-based venture capital firm called 500 Startups approached them and offered to take them on. Silverstone and Srugo moved to California for almost six months, gaining confidence, attracting investors and growing a network, while creating a buzz among digital publications such as NextWeb and TechCrunch, the go-to news sources for the tech-savvy venture capital crowd.
“We worked with some of the original employees of PayPal, Google, Facebook, Twitter,” Silverstone says. “They do the introductions to investors, they teach you to walk the talk. We raised a million dollars in three months.” Today that figure stands at $2.5 million.
Returning to Ottawa from California, Silverstone and Srugo set to work hiring people.
“In the beginning, we begged and borrowed. The first five guys working here didn’t get paid. They just asked for stock and not cash, and that’s always a good sign. I have a huge amount of respect for them and I’m indebted to them for the rest of my life.” The hiring pool is science, technology, engineering and math graduates from uOttawa and Carleton University. “We’re up front with them. You are going to work hard. It’s high pace, high stress, but you get to see the rewards for that.”
Gymtrack now has 26 staff, and is adding one employee per week on average. Silverstone and Srugo have attracted some key local clients, such as fitness centres at Algonquin College and the Soloway Jewish Community Centre, as well as a Greco Lean and Fit location. More partnerships are expected to be announced later this spring, as well as an expansion into the U.S.
These days Silverstone does everything at the office, from negotiating contracts with gym equipment manufacturers to testing the product in the office gym to sweeping the floor. There’s not much time for the hammock at the front of the office, for sure.
“Someone told me once that the key to success was to pick three hobbies,’ he says. ‘One that makes you money, one that keeps you fit and one that makes you creative. I’ve rolled all three into one.”
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Lee Silverstone and Catherine Gecci of Startup Garage try out one of Lee’s devices at a gym. Photo: Bonnie Findley.