This September marks Hive’s 6 year anniversary! To celebrate, I sat down with our awesome founders, Pat and Ian, to share their story of starting a company and building the team that makes Hive what it is today. If you want to hear more about Hive’s journey and all the crazy moments and lessons learned, keep reading!
Anima (A): Let’s get started! Tell us a little bit about yourselves
Ian and Pat: *silence
A: Who are you?
Ian (I): We’re both blonde - one natural, one unnatural (Pat’s the unnatural one)
Pat (P): Let it be on the record we are both blonde today
I: Sigh, who am I? I grew up in Kitchener, went to school at UWaterloo for biochemistry, never used it again but it’s still pretty cool. Then I met Pat when I was running this water filtration project.
P: Fell in love
I: Fell in love and here we are. I like to run, I’m engaged, I just bought a new house, how’s that?
P: My story’s pretty similar to Ian’s. I also grew up in Kitchener, went to UWaterloo for Computer Science which is slightly more relevant than biochem. But I don’t think it really matters what you did or didn’t go to school for.
I: Both of us did co-op [where you intern for someone else] and E Co-op [when you create your own venture in lieu of co-op] which is how we met
P: We liked some parts of co-op, but really hated other parts, and knew we wanted to do our own thing by the end of our co-op terms
A: So you both knew you wanted to be entrepreneurs?
I: We both knew we didn’t like working for anyone else really
P: We both hated being told to do dumb sh*t at work and hated having to deal with bureaucracy
I: None of my other co-ops had kombucha
A: That’s fair, a deal-breaker honestly
P: Ian had a proper consulting company for the last two years of school, and I had also been doing web consulting since high school so we were both on that wavelength and we knew you could make a lot of money working on your own. But at the same time, there’s something cool about working with other exceptional people because it’s more fun, you get to do bigger things, and you don’t have to do everything by yourself all the time, or be on all the time. It was also around the time when The Social Network came out and everyone wanted to be the next Mark Zuckerberg and create their own start-up.
I: And here we are, the next Mark Zuckerbergs
A: You just have to wear the same clothes every day
P: That’s what Ian does
I: Pretty much, I like to wear all different shades of grey
A: Some could even say 50 shades of grey
A: So how did Hive start?
P: So this is how the story goes, we started in a computer lab at UWaterloo
I: We started in a garage in Silicon Valley
P: No, no, we started in a computer lab. The story goes, we set up a landing page to test our idea for this project that later became Ticketlabs. It wasn’t even a company yet, just a project we started on a handshake deal. An hour or two after the [landing] page is live, Ian’s literally walking into an exam, and we get a cease and desist from 4 separate people... for this shitty little landing page!
A: 4 Cease and desists?
P: Okay it was more like 2 or 3 and a club owner said he would report us to the RCMP for fraud. But hey if you scare enough people, you’re doing something right… or something really wrong.
I: Either way you’ve got their attention
P: That was pretty funny. That little project led us to meet a couple of great guys that really understood how events and promotion worked, and we built Ticketlabs as a platform for them to sell tickets to their shows. Between our product working well and them introducing it to other promoters and nearby venues, we had decent traction pretty quickly. As student entrepreneurs, the next logical step was to try to get into UWaterloo’s Velocity program and pitch our company at the Velocity Fund Finals for a $25K cheque. We pitched well, we had more traction than anyone else... but we weren’t even in the top 4 companies that qualified that term. I still think we should’ve won...
I: But then we got into YCombinator a few weeks later...
P: Which was even better! Velocity does a ton for the ecosystem and we always want to support them as much as we can. Pitching and not winning VFF in 2013 was really hard - it was one of the first no’s we got from people we really looked up to. But, it’s the same story as when you’re fundraising.
I: Everyone’s telling you no
P: Everyone’s telling you no. You’ll see people around you that are in the same position as you getting yes’ and big cheques from the best investors and a year later they fold their companies. It’s such a crapshoot trying to pick winners in the beginning, that if someone is telling you no, it usually just means, “I don’t know enough yet to say yes.”
I: It’s just feedback - figuring out which part of what they’re saying has value is the important part
P: But you get no’s from everyone, from investors, your customers, people you’re trying to hire
I: But they mostly don’t know anything about your business
P: If they knew enough to be right all the time about your company, they’d be building the company. So that was interesting. It wasn’t easy at the beginning. Mostly because we had no f*cking idea what was going on, we just knew we could create really great web products.
A: How did you two meet?
P: This is a funny story. I was forced to go to a networking event by our E Co-op advisor Wayne Chang - who’s basically royalty at UWaterloo - so I could get my co-op credit. Why were you there?
I: Same reason as you probably
P: We were both standing there going, “I don’t want to be here,” and Wayne looks at us and says “Hey Pat and Ian, you both don’t want to be here, why don’t you guys talk to each other.” We start chatting. Ian says, “there’s something I’m thinking of doing, like kickstarter but for concerts, the economics seem logical. There are lots of markets with enough demand to justify a show, but the agents and the promoters don’t know that enough demand exists to take the booking risk - if the fans could shoulder some of that risk everyone could be in a better spot.” I thought wow that’s neat. The next day I woke up, thought the idea was still super cool, and we went and got a coffee or something. That’s where the landing page came in, we made a random website called Ticketlabs, which wasn’t even functional. It was just a button with a pop-up and we measured how many people clicked the button. It was for a concert that didn’t exist.
I: At a venue that did exist
P: And for an artist that did exist
I: And they all got pissed off
P: All the way up the chain. People who understood the industry came to us and said “Who do you f*ckers think you are??” They told us what would work and what wouldn’t work, and said, “why don’t you build a ticketing site that’s way better than all these other sh*t ones that we have access to now, and we’ll sell everything through you.”
I: So we started solving problems that they said they had and building the features they wanted
P: It was cool because we had revenue from day zero. I remember sitting in Communitech flipping the site live, and our first sale comes through and we’re like, “wow we just made 25 cents in processing fees!”
I: And by the end of E Co-op we had processed quarter million dollars in ticket sales in 4 months
P: That was enough to get into YC
[Picture of Ian in his natural habitat]
A: Why did you switch from a ticketing company to an email marketing company? How was the switch?
I: YC always knew we weren’t going to do ticketing long-term. They took a bet on us because we were smart and relentless and could build things really well and quickly. They told us halfway through the batch that we weren’t going to succeed selling tickets. You need to have a lot of money and be able to front hundreds of thousands of dollars to land meaningful venues. It’s not a product-led market, but capital-driven, which wasn’t what we wanted to do.
P: During the process though we were capturing a lot of cool data because fans would sign up for events with Facebook, so we got to see their likes and preferences. Our data let our customers see that people in some random city in the middle of nowhere were really into their artist’s music. People started using our data to plan their tour stops.
I: It was really cool but you could only take it so far. We couldn’t really tell people all of the things that were interesting about their data
P: People thought the data was really cool. We pitched to a lot of people, but they didn’t know what to do with the data and didn’t want to pay for something that didn’t do one thing (or really anything) super well.
I: The whole time we were doing this, we had a sh*tty emailer feature buried inside our product
P: Literally just a text box
I: But people were using our social data to do crazy email targeting and they were getting super high open rates from this type of segmenting because you couldn’t do it on other platforms
A: And that’s how Hive was born
I: That’s how Hive became alive, we just wanted to keep doing what we were doing and have fun doing it
A: What was the most challenging period in the last 6 years and what’s been the most fulfilling?
I: First few years were definitely rough. I lived and worked out of our office in a loft downtown Kitchener and everyone else in the company had their own apartment in the same building. I wouldn’t recommend it, you should probably not live in the office.
P: We had to sit down with the whole company at one point and say, “we’re not making any money,” because we were literally charging $3/month in our early days and we thought that was a reasonable amount. At one point we talked about increasing the price to $9/month and we thought that was crazy! But unless we started actually charging people something, we would’ve had to fire everyone in six months.
I: Hive would’ve died, Hive would not be alive
P: We somehow packaged the features together, based on what our smartest customers were using at the time, and we were able to get profitability
I: It took like 6 months and we got pretty close to the edge
P: Then we moved out of the condo office, and we recognized a few things. Dropping out of university and working with all your best friends is great at first - but it gets really hard, especially when it comes to managing them and providing hard feedback.
I: Especially when you haven’t really managed them for the first year, transitioning from that to actually giving real feedback and being critical is hard
P: And it’s also even harder on their side to give hard feedback or make hard decisions. After several fun but hard years, our first couple employees were ready to move on from Hive. It was so hard and took them months to build up the nerve and the confidence to tell us they wanted to go do something else - no one was happy in the interim. Having a level field where you can give feedback transparently to your manager is so important, and when you’re only thinking on a short timeline or you’re young and naive it doesn’t feel like a priority. You’re just thinking, “I’m having so much fun, making some money and building really cool stuff." Around the time we hit profitability, everyone was super burnt out. We would start working at 10 am, and wouldn’t finish until 2 am sometimes.
I: They’d have to turn off the lights at midnight and be quiet so I could go to sleep and then if they were still there at 2 am I’d kick them out
P: We were shouldering so much pressure because we felt like we owed so much to everyone but we didn’t have a business model or even a product really
A: You had a dream?
P: Of what? To have a job in like six months maybe? We weren’t being critical about our product or company because we didn’t want customers or employees to churn - we were taking on too much product, operational, and process debt and working harder than we had to because of it.
I: Then we had to stop and think about what we should be focusing on so everyone’s happy, figuring out what’s a healthy amount to work, and what we should be doing outside of work. It was definitely the most critical period - we had never had to deal with these things before.
P: But I think every few months you have to deal with something you’ve never dealt with and that just feels hard because it’s new - and afterwards you realize that it’s not that big of a deal
A: What’s been the most fulfilling?
I: Getting to work with great people and seeing them be happy. Feeling like they’re learning and growing in their role.
P: When you take a bet on someone and a few months in you think, “wow this person is really awesome,” and you see how much they’ve grown in that period of time in ways they couldn’t have done elsewhere. The people you hire are also taking a bet on you and hoping that years later they still get to do what they enjoy, and that they are constantly learning and solving the problems they want to solve. I think the other thing that’s dope is seeing our customers actually being successful and finding joy with what they can do with Hive. It’s really cool to work with growing businesses because these people are putting everything on the line too - when they are successful, we are successful and that’s pretty neat. Every day we can look at our customer’s Hive dashboards and see how our product has allowed their business to grow and support their employees and their customers. Wow... I’ve never articulated that point out loud.
I: Good one
A: Yeah good job, Pat
*Pat showing off his new mask
A: What would you say makes Hive better than other products out there?
I: I think it’s an intersection between understanding product and how people will use it, but also caring enough to actually listen to customers and figuring out what problems we should be solving (real problems) and building around those. Most of the products out there fall into either a bucket of it’s really easy to use, but you can’t do much with it, or it’s really powerful, but hard to use, and there’s not a lot that sits in the middle. We understand how marketers think and work and we’re empowering them do pretty technical stuff.
P: I think there are other products who seem to do what we do - but they’re spending their product cycles changing their fonts and illustrating monkeys... or rolling out another feature their power users need to attend a webinar to figure out how to use. I think they’ve lost touch of what’s important.
I: At least one part of it
P: Yeah either they’re solving problems no one cares about or are just not moving fast enough.
A: I think the coolest part about Hive is that when customers come to us with problems or ideas for new functionality, we’ll actually take the time to listen to them and try and see how we can solve their problem. You’re not going through ten different people before you actually speak to someone that has the power to help you.
P: And there are good examples of big companies who are still like that. Tesla for example, you can send an email to Elon, and he will include your suggestion in the next update. So I don’t think you have to stop caring once you get big but a lot of these companies are run by layers of people that just don’t care about product. They’re just trying to squeeze money out of customers and a lot of customers don’t think about that. But we have some really smart customers who come to us and say “we know Hive doesn’t have x, y, z yet...”
I: “But you’ll actually try and solve our problem”
P: And if one day something comes down the pipeline... let’s say email is replaced by the next channel... our customers know that we’ll still be there with something new and there’s value in that.
I: Yeah in these massive companies, how do you get 400+ CX (customer experience) people to care enough to escalate sh*t properly, and then the 40 product managers to triage and follow up deeply
A: You don’t
P: It's nuanced but it's hard. Anyone who’s worked at an averagely-good software company with 80-100 people knows what it’s like when there’s massive growth and you suddenly have 900 people. Things change and it sucks. At that point it doesn’t really matter what the customer wants or how great the product is - you have layers of people who are measured on their ability to take care of other people who are there for a paycheque. Who cares about what the customer wants? Their account manager who’s filling a revenue quota?
A: How has the team grown and changed in the last 6 years?
I: I think every iteration of the team, we’ve become close friends with the people we’ve worked with, but just in a more cognizant way. We understand we have to be able to communicate and be transparent with each other which we didn’t have at the start. You just have to build in the expectation that you’re going to have to give each other tough feedback which we were really bad at in the beginning. A lot of the people we hired originally were very similar. Grew up locally in southern Ontario, went to the same university, or were in similar programs. Now we’ve got a lot more diverse opinions, backgrounds, and perspectives on the team.
P: As long as you're a good person, want to build something really cool, you’re smart and you love growing and learning, and you’re positive and you accept others’ differences - that’s more important than the superficial stuff. I want to work with people that teach me different things and show me cool stuff or make me laugh in funny ways. I think it’s more sustainable, builds better products and naturally creates better opportunities for everyone .
A: Why did you choose Kitchener, Ontario as the perfect location to base Hive out of?
I: A lot of it is that we grew up here and our families are here and it’s been sick to see it grow and develop in the last few years. There’s also a lot of great talent here because of the different universities.
P: We also just didn’t want to stay in San Francisco forever. Parts of it were really cool and fun but we wanted to come back to Canada because I think there’s something really cool about being in Canada and being a Canadian company - we’re directly shaping the community and region we’re choosing to operate in by supporting the people we choose to work with.
A: What are your plans for the next 6 years?
P: Ian’s going grey. Or I might go grey first honestly
I: Hmm next 6 years… still working with awesome people, not making tradeoffs we don’t want to make for growth, staying in Kitchener - maybe hiring more remote people, who knows. I want to be happy and still enjoying what we’re doing, building cool stuff for awesome customers, doing fun things outside of work and making sure there’s a good balance there. Maybe I’ll be married, have kids...
P: We’ll have to open up a Hive daycare? I think it’s important that we continue building really great things that make our customers really successful.
I: I think it’s good to keep it simple, I don’t want to make predictions
Some more quick facts from Pat and Ian
P: It’s always a sh*t show, always
I: And you never know if it’s going to work out. It’s always a rollercoaster, at first everything feels very high or very low, and over time it levels out. It’s learning that it’s all a part of it and that you have a job to do and you shouldn’t freak out on either side. You shouldn’t be celebrating all the time whenever something good happens or pretend the sky is falling when something bad happens. The key is to focus on the next thing you can do, regardless of if sh*t’s going well or not. If you can just do that and not die for a long time then it’s going to be okay.
P: Here’s a crazy story, one of the craziest roller coaster days, I love this example. Ian’s grandpa passes away and he realizes 45 mins before the funeral that he has to give the eulogy.
A: Why did you only know 45 mins before?
I: Okay okay this is what happened, my grandpa passed away and my uncle was supposed to give the eulogy. Pat lends me his car the morning of and I accidentally smashed his back window closing the trunk. An hour and $500 later, I’m getting the window repaired before the funeral and and my grandma called me saying, “Hey, your uncle's really sick, he’s losing his voice, can you run the funeral basically,” and I was freaking out.
P: Ian’s having a really awful day. He gets back to the office and Kanye West’s team inbounds us cold. We all freaked out because it would’ve been our biggest deal and it’s Kanye (circa 2015). And all Ian says is, “You guys gotta let me reply to the email,” and then gets up and goes to the funeral. But it’s always the same thing, something awful happens, something great happens, repeat.
I: You lose a customer, or don’t get an awesome hire that you want, or a pandemic happens but you just keep going and doing what you need to do
P: You just need to focus on the next thing and get on with it
A: Well thank you guys, this has been great! Any last words before we finish this off?
P: Happy Friday and wear your masks!
*Janarth (our newest developer hire) comes in: “I’m your favorite employee”
P: Excited for what’s to come
I: Some days are sh*t some days are great, but all will be well
P+I: Hive is alive
Love what you read and want to meet more cool people like Pat and Ian? Check out our open positions at hive.co/careers!