Abbey Gilhula was the Chief of Staff for both BlackBerry and Quantum Valley Investments, and Head of Ops for a startup that had a successful exit. She’s lived many lives and been a true witness to the evolving tech landscape in the region. She’s the co-founder of 1989 Creative Co. – a boutique brand that specializes in executing the vision and ideas for tech startups that are starting to scale.
What is it about the business of tech that most excites you?
I started my career in semiconductors and we had chips in the very first RIM product called the “Bullfrog” or Inter@active Pager. This idea/invention was groundbreaking back then and changed all our lives. Every day I see parallels between the start of my career at BlackBerry and early stage startups. The ideas that are being generated from this Region, ideas that make companies more efficient and people’s lives better, make your head spin. Being around these visionaries truly excites me – not only for their ideas but watching them successfully scale themselves and their dreams into a profitable business.
You’re part of the exec team at ApplyBoard – what drew you to this business and team?
I met ApplyBoard through the Communitech Rev program and their product intrigued me. The education industry is a seemingly untapped market when it comes to international students applying for school in North America. I was born and educated in Canada so I was unfamiliar with the difficulty that international students have accessing best in class education.
The co-founders of ApplyBoard experienced those struggles first hand as students trying to apply to schools in North America using the existing system. They turned those struggles into a solution and their software has made the application process easy, accurate and fast (I mean 60 seconds fast!) for both the student and the university. With 40+ people and huge plans to scale in 2018, ApplyBoard’s CEO Martin Basiri decided he needed some help getting to the next stage in the game so I was happy to join.
I believe in their mission to give people the power to access education around the world. Their platform is the only one of its kind in the industry so the possibilities are endless.
You spent years at BlackBerry through some big transitions in the business. What were the most significant learnings that you’re now bringing to the start-up community?
Working at BlackBerry was a very rewarding period in my life. I had a demanding role with high expectations at a company that was scaling fast.
Today, I like to help start-ups ‘bump up their game’. One of the most important takeaways was how to position an exec to sell themselves.
There’s actually a ‘magic sauce’ to coaching an exec to be the best CEO or leader they can be, while also helping them grow their business and hire the right people.
I enjoy helping leaders of tech startups develop strategic partnerships that will allow them to compete at a global level, and of course, show them how to ‘keep the trains running on time’ by building lightweight processes that can adjust as they scale.
Through the process of scaling, a good CEO should realize that great ideas are not the only thing needed for a startup to be successful – it’s all about the execution.
- Can your team get things done?
- Can you post a consistent stream of wins to the board?
- Can you keep focused, and keep selling your product?
It’s become a cliché, but execution really is everything. And good execution for a startup is all about the ops team. They keep the business focused and get shit done.
Working in the startup world is very demanding, what do you do to maintain high energy?
I believe that work life balance is critical to the success of a startup but striking that balance between the demanding needs of a startup and family can be tough. Bottom line, you need happy and engaged employees if you want to compete.
Creating a culture where your team is proud of where they work and they talk about those successes with their loved ones at home means you are doing something right. You want employees to be able to say “I love what I do and I have been lucky to be able to work at XYZ – so when I come home and I’m excited and energized by something that happened at the office or by a win, I share that with my partner”.
Tell us about your latest venture 1989 Creative Co.
1989 Creative Co originally started as a brand and marketing firm for small projects but since moving back to the Region its expanded into helping startups like ApplyBoard use fractional services for their business operations.
Most startups can’t afford full-time department experts as they don’t always have the funding or the department to manage. As they scale, they do need to start thinking and acting bigger, so offering C-level type services part time allows them to gain the experience and guidance needed at certain stages.
Whether its helping a CEO prepare for an investor pitch or launching a new product, or its time to start hiring the right people and motivating their teams, 1989 Creative is a local firm that is passionate about the startup community.
What are the most positive changes you’ve seen in the KW Tech Community over the last 20 years?
The growth is just astounding. The evolution of Communitech and Hub, that scale and growth, is a true indicator of what is happening here. Kitchener-Waterloo is the fastest growing tech community in the country and it shows. Not only do we have hundreds of startups born here each year, but we have the largest tech companies in the world opening up shop right here in our own backyard wanting to help build and invest in our tech community and hire our people.
Why Waterloo? What is it about this region that made you stay here as opposed to moving to the Valley?
I have worked in other communities and I think they struggle with the philosophy of work life balance and support. You get both here in the KW region which allows you to enjoy this amazing community and all that it has to offer.
We might not have an ocean or mountains like the Valley, but we have a community where you can start a great career AND start a family. We have space to build homes and businesses ($1.2 billion in building permits expected for downtown Kitchener alone by 2019); we have the new LRT expected to launch this spring (everyone cross their fingers); we have an explosion of restaurants and bars; we have the best schools; and, we have the most supportive tech Hub that exists in the world today.
More and more students graduating from our universities are looking to stay to be a part of the enormous success in the Kitchener-Waterloo startup tech industry rather than leave. It’s the ‘vibe’ and the people here that make it great. Smart people attract other smart people.
What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs looking to hire leaders and establish a sustainable culture?
Hire ‘doers’. You need those leaders that still understand what it’s like to push a broom but bring the experience and the drive to want to help build your company and execute your vision. Look outside your own organization and use fractional C-level help from time to time at each stage in the game.
If you want to create a sustainable culture you need everyone’s buy-in. Talk to your team, communicate your vision and strategies, get input and make sure everyone is on board. People are your most important commodity. The more your people are aligned, the faster you will succeed.