I realized recently that I had never actually gone into depth about ‘The Merchants Guild’ in a blog post. Moving forward I’m starting with customer validation and sharing information. Because of this a post like this would be a good resource to have.
All About The Merchants Guild
For those that don’t know: The Merchants Guild is my current idea for the business I have been working on in my time at UIT. A summer of Live Action Role Playing (LARP) inspired The Merchants Guild. LARPing requires all sorts of gear and equipment: from swords and shields to clothes and camping gear. Most people create unique characters to play and want to have their character fit a certain image or ascetic which makes finding the right gear very important.
The LARP online community loves to make and sell things to special order or to try and make things themselves. However; the current methods of finding and buying from online sellers are weak. There are weaknesses in some websites like Etsy that have LARP gear on them, but since the website isn’t designed for it there are weaknesses in the system. The other common solution is to use Facebook groups for buying and selling which is almost always a nightmare.
I experienced all of these pains myself. I had tried to buy things and been unable to find what I wanted. Commercial solutions were too generic and seemed really expensive when you were only compromising. I also tried to make and sell my own gear but customers locally were few and far between. So I sought out to try and making a website that would fill the gap for a marketplace that fits the needs of LARPers and LARP crafters.
To that extent I created The Merchants Guild. Although it is still in development it has been improving steadily. The website allows people who produce their own goods to share their creations and also allows buyers to post requests which anyone can use to contact them about fulfilling orders.
Recent developments include the creation of an API which is not only improving the current Merchants Guild website but also paving the way for future integrations into other LARP sites and programs.
Me and the Merchants Guild
The Merchants Guild keeps me excited all the time. Normally anything that starts as a school project gets dry for me. Even if I like the idea and want to keep going with it. Maybe it is because I’m always working on it, or maybe because I’m always working on LARP.
When I started UIT I liked the idea of learning business but I was completely uninterested in starting a start-up. We talked a lot about having ideas that you know you have to do, and you have to be the person to do them. Thats what The Merchants Guild is for me. It is the idea I know that I have to be working on.
It is very exciting to have a project you can be passionate about and that those around you are also excited for. I’m very happy to be able to move forward and develop this with the hopes of helping LARPers globally who have experienced the same pains as me.
After the Christmas break, I teamed up with Dave Hachey, a fellow UIT student, to work on the technical side of his startup idea. The idea is a two-sided market for locally produced commodities. Typical markets such as Kijiji only show you one side of the market: the sellers. This idea allows you to view and be a part of both the supply, and the demand. Think of it like a stock market, but totally relative to your location, and for local goods and services (for example apples, firewood, or plumbers for hire).
Submit a bid, asking for a good or service, and name your price. The higher you’re willing to pay, the more likely a potential seller will be willing to contact you. Submit an offer, offering up a good or service, and again, name your price. In this case, the lower you’re willing to sell for will be what attracts potential buyers to your listing.
I signed on as the technical co-founder, to help bring this idea to life. I’ve heard it before, that you need one person with the industry experience, and one person with the technical know-how to make this type of idea work. Dave has the many years of working in the stock market as well as operating a small farm, and I have the passion and drive to build a platform like this. Together, we’re building BidSquid – you can see the simple landing page I’ve put together, which is live today!
Another thing that’s gone on at UIT is the communication classes, taught by Ian McNeil. We’ve covered public speaking, dealing with the media, and interviews. There was a lot of really solid advice jam-packed into two months, and I’ve already had the chance to use what we learned in the real world.
Just the other day I was on CBC radio with Mike Targett, to talk about my experience at hackathons, to promote UIT’s hackathon they just had (which I unfortunately missed!). I had the chance to make use of some of the interview tactics I learned in Ian’s class, and there are definitely going to be a lot many more. From doing interviews on radio to just dealing with answering questions in everyday life, I feel like it will be a long-term improvement to how to better answer and ask questions.
I was always a coder, and I always will be. I always pictured myself working at another company, writing code. But looking back, I think deep down I always wanted to do my own thing. In fact, you can actually still see the website for my ‘company’ I had when I was maybe 13 or 14 years old, called OxygenSoft.
I can’t see myself being some kind of business guru one day, and I know that my domain is in the technical side of things. But as a coder I always preferred to build something from the ground up, rather than starting off from something that’s already established. I always felt more acquainted with the code and the product itself by the time it was working. And I think it’s almost the same way for entrepreneurs – rather than starting off working at a company somewhere, it’s the want to build something from nothing.
During reading week, I attended the Propel ICT selection camp to pitch a company Riley and I are working on, and I managed to get a spot in the 2017 cohort. Our software allows the crowd of an event to send song requests to the DJ from their phones. Going to selection camp alone was an interesting but somewhat stressful experience.
What is Propel?
Propel is a startup accelerator in Atlantic Canada. They offer three different programs depending on how far along your company is. We applied for Launch, which guides entrepreneurs through the early stages of validating, developing and launching a startup.
It all started in UIT when everyone in the class had to make a mock application to Propel, we were all also encouraged to send them in but it was optional. We didn’t expect a response when we sent our one minute, poorly-edited video to them.
They must have liked it because after about a week Riley received an email saying we were in. That was exciting.
We had come across a problem. In October, Riley booked a trip to England for two weeks in February. Selection camp was during that time. It was too late to cancel his trip, and they couldn’t change the day obviously, so the only option was for me to go alone. That was spooky.
When selection camp rolled around, I was pretty nervous. I wasn’t really sure what I was doing, but I figured I’d try my best. Selection camp starts with all the companies delivering an elevator pitch to the whole room (the spooky part), followed with interviews by eight different groups of two mentors for eight minutes each. For those keeping track at home, that’s sixty-four minutes of interviewing and only one of pitching.
February 22nd, 2017 – Dawn of the final day
I’m pretty sure time was moving a little slower while I was waiting to pitch, but when that time came, it went better than I expected. I didn’t think I’d remember the whole thing, but I managed to get it all out and it was under a minute too. It went perfectly. The interviewing was next which I was no problem for me.
Interviewing for over an hour doesn’t sound fun, but that wasn’t the case. All the mentors/judges were super nice and offered a ton of ideas for our company. Everyone seemed to like our idea from what I could tell. Even if we didn’t get into Propel, just getting a chance talking to all these established business(wo)men was incredibly valuable for the ideas they offered. They did all ask pretty well the same questions, but that was to be expected. How many questions could they really ask a kid who doesn’t know much about business other than he has an idea for one?
After being interviewed by all the groups, we were done and people started clearing out. I said my goodbyes and went on my way. Two days later Riley got an email saying that we were in. We were both super happy, and it is definitely an accomplishment that I’m quite proud of.
All in all, selection camp was a fun experience that I would absolutely recommend stays in the UIT curriculum for future years, even if it did seem a little overwhelming/scary at first. Hopefully we make millions (or just one million, I guess we could settle for that) and get the chance to come be judges in the future.
“So what are you doing after high school?”
That’s a question you’ve answered before, but it probably took a long time to think of the final answer. Luckily for me, throughout my high school years I kept hearing about this new startup called “UIT Startup Immersion”, you’ve probably heard about it. After seeking out as many options as I can to have to widest range to chose from, it didn’t seem like a lot of options and UIT was the only program to jump out and gain my full attention.
Of course, I did pick UIT and fast forward until now and I’m about halfway through the program. And it’s going very well. I am learning programming quicker than I thought I ever would and I’m meeting loads of important and interesting people in the tech industry. And I am actually doing a lot of public speaking, which to be honest I thought I’d never have to do in life. I’m still not a huge fan of getting up in front of a group of people but I suppose I’d have to say I’ve gotten a lot better at it.
“So what am I doing after UIT?”
As the end of the UIT comes closer, I’m asking myself the same question I asked last year but it’s now “What do I do after UIT?” Most graduates at UIT will either move forward with their startup idea, or even join an existing company. However, personally I’d like to stay in school to gain more educational experience. Now I have the same options I’ve had before minus UIT. Since CBU doesn’t have a Computer Science Program, and I also don’t wanna leave Cape Breton this year, I chose the Web Development program at NSCC.
I chose the program because it’s something I actually like doing. I could’ve went forward with the UIT credits and chose a BBA at CBU, however I feel like that didn’t interest me enough. While doing web development at NSCC, my experience from UIT might over qualify me for it however I feel like if I spent more time on coding over a longer period of time I’d definitely get better at it. Another thing is that I’m still not sure what I’m passionate for. I picked coding because I thought I’d be good at it since I’ve been on computers my whole life, but I’m unsure which type of programming I want to specialize in.
In the end, I chose NSCC because it’s close to home, it’s something I like doing, and it’s two years of time I can think about what I’m passionate for.
The first project we had to do was to create a portfolio from a template. Super simple, but back then it was bit more of a challenge. I was still learning the basics of HTML and what everything was. I think we had a week or two to do it, which was plenty of time. It turned out well, and was a good intro to UIT and the basics of developing websites.
After the portfolio we all made chat apps. Mine was a canvas with a chatroom to collaborate on math equations called Mathboard. We had two weeks to make this one, and it was written in JS and HTML. I used PubNub for the backend of mine because it was a lot simpler than Firebase for making a canvas. This project also turned out well and was where I really started learning a lot more about coding, particularly JS.
UIT isn’t just code!
Meanwhile, on the business side of the course, we’ve been following startups and learning the basics of starting a company and how to keep it afloat. Global Entrepreneurship Week is also a huge thing at UIT. For one week in November, we had events with mentors every day. I wrote a blog about it here, but to sum it up, it was such a fantastic networking and learning opportunity, and I’m super happy to have been involved even in the small amount that I was.
Global Entrepreneurship Week also marked the second week we were working on our next project, a software-as-a-service app. I remade Mathboard, but without a canvas and focussed on connecting users to tutors. You can make a room, and then that room is joinable by one other person who will be your tutor. Then after the tutor helps you, you can leave them a rating as you leave the room. Very simple concept, but I didn’t start early enough. During the last week before we had to present it, I came in on off days to get help from Rob (thanks Rob!). Thankfully, I had something put together in time, which also turned out alright. The website isn’t something I plan to continue with other than as a UIT project.
End of the semester
The last day of the semester we presented our portfolios again, but this time we updated them and added our projects. The last day of the semester was also cancelled by a storm. I still drove in to do my presentation. If that doesn’t say enough about how much I’ve enjoyed the semester, I’m not really sure what else I could say.
Next semester, we’re going to start another project where we use our own backend for one of our previous projects. I’m looking forward to getting started on that, but I’m going to use the break to learn more JS, because I feel like that is where I’ve experienced the most difficulty. As for this semester, everybody did not a bad job.
Launching a startup is, out of necessity, an exercise in impatience. Whether you start with no money or ten million dollars: if you’re working on it full time a startup has to be successful (or reach levels that allow it to raise money) before it runs out of money. Every founder should have a burning desire to get their product into the hands of reviewers/customers. I think a proper amount of impatience is a good thing. Today I’m going to write a “semester in review” from the perspective of an impatient startup founder.
In a Nutshell
Our recently completed first semester consisted of learning to code (centred around completing three projects), business class, networking, and extracurricular opportunities not specific to UIT or Sydney. I introduced the concept of impatience for a reason: the content need be relevant and at the right pace. Too fast is too fast and too slow is too slow: an impatient startup founder has little time for either. At the end of any non-optimal day or imperfectly relevant assignment the gnawing thought comes unbidden: “could I have made more progress towards my goals elsewhere or on my own?”. But then there are the days where I learn lessons and get support that would have taken a week of work alone! It’s such a tough task UIT has: not only must it teach how to start a startup, but it must do so to an impatient audience. I think I can answer my blog post 2 “Can you learn to launch a startup in school?” in the affirmative but have just identified the bigger challenge for the program and its founder-participants.
Our coding lessons this semester culminated in three projects: a portfolio, chat app, and SaaS app. I was super excited that I my SaaS app was a rough mvp (minimum viable product) of my startup idea! This was obviously highly relevant and generally learning about the engineering that goes into a site will serve me well while progressing down the founding path. But did I “learn to code” in three months? Certainly I can do some things but I didn’t acquire a full suite of training that would make me employable. This is no failing of UIT.. a bachelors in Computer Science is a 4 year degree for a reason. And I must remember we’re only a third of the way into the course! But overall, is learning to do some coding a perfectly efficient use of my time? As I’ve struggled to learn it this semester I’ve had my moments of doubt. If this is my one foray into the startup world it probably isn’t. If this is the beginning of a process and preparation for a life in startups it probably is a great foundation. The problem is: when you’re starting a startup you believe it will work (and act like it will) but you don’t know what turns the journey will take.
It’s been great to have some direction and instruction learning about LEAN canvasses and business models and having a curated feed of business content has been very valuable. This was the part of the program I most eagerly anticipated for the first half of the semester. But again, pace became an issue as I developed the foundation to be able to continue meaningful learning and planning in a more self-directed way.
- We didn’t get a lot of mentor visits this semester. And that’s by design and will change. That’s going to be one of the greatest strengths of this program. Making one amazing connection can turn any aggregated program review score to an eleven out of ten in a hurry. Having this portion of the program come later means I’m more prepared now to take advantage of good connections. I impatiently, but understandingly, say: “Bring it on!”.
- I’m in a young cohort with only a few participants really interested in starting a startup so there isn’t a sense of a “shared struggle”. I think this speaks to the need for me to meet some peers (and maybe a cofounder?) in Sydney and elsewhere. I’m probably being impatient as I’ve only just created my mvp, and opportunities are visible on the horizon.
- Sydney is in an isolated geographic location relative to our families, and my wife and I have a baby and plans for more. “Should I go to UIT?” was a question I was able to answer affirmatively for the relevant programming. But if we’re not staying in Sydney, am I in the best place to meet the most relevant network that will provide long-term partners, opportunities and support?
UIT has done a great job introducing me to some relevant local resources that have been wonderfully informative and supportive. The resources available in Sydney are matched only by larger population centres in the Maritimes. I couldn’t be happier with these opportunities but I don’t think they’re unique.
These three months have been a rollercoaster of excitement and doubt but I think that’s what it’s like to start a startup (and travelling in some earlier than usual winter conditions hasn’t helped). Being apart from my wife and young son has added a layer of pressure to make sure the sacrifices are worth it.
One down, two to go! After three and a half months of work class the first semester at UIT is finished. That’s one third of the time I’m going to spend here and I find it absolutely insane that this much time has already passed! Over the course of the first semester we’ve created apps, explored the creation process of a startup and the principals associated with working in a startup environment.
The first major project was to create a portfolio using CSS, HTML and to integrate bootstrap for responsiveness. While CSS and HTML were familiar for me bootstrap was a whole realm of new. Many of the works I’ve done before then used it but I didn’t question how and just kind of rolled with it. It was very nice to learn how it works so I’m able to implement it myself in the future.
I’ve learned a great deal about coding in my time at UIT to date. One of the biggest lessons I’ve taken away thus far is that it’s just like anything else. Practice makes perfect. It won’t magically come to you without it. The first app I created was my chat app, a fairly simple idea but also effective. But the app that means more to me is my service app. The idea was a song request management app for DJ’s and eventually automated song queues for bars and clubs. The end result of the project was below my own standards. I was unfortunately busy at the time we were working on the app and I let myself go and the app ended up being minimum. But I’ve since began looking at the code again and plan to work on it and build it into something that could become great. In the new year I’ll be doing some DJ work. So I feel this will be an excellent opportunity to test this app in the real world! I’m think of even maybe building it in Ionic for mobile and have a spate desktop app since the uses of each platform will never interfere because of the way the use is intended.
The takeaway overall this semester for me is simple though. I have to put more effort into my work at every given opportunity because I only get out of UIT what I put into it.