“We’re aiming to help companies identify their informal influencers based on the activity levels they are generating,” says Chong.
Chong first realized the commercial viability of Speechbobble when it was still a research project being led by James Norrie at the Ted Rogers School of Management (TRSM) at Ryerson University in 2007. Norrie is one of the leading Canadian researchers on the influence of emerging technologies in organizations, including social media, and he remains on the Speechbobble team as an advisor for the company.
In 2008, they signed Rogers as a client and the commercialization phase began. The Ryerson Angel Network (RAN) was one of their first supporters. One of the many entrepreneurship opportunity programs offered through the university, RAN allows angel investors (investors operating outside of the stock market) to be exposed to high-quality, student-driven enterprises. When a student approaches RAN with a pitch, they give them one of four grades: 1) Great pitch, go straight to presenting to the angels; 2) Good pitch, some expert coaching offered before making a pitch to angels; 3) Okay pitch, some coaching offered and we’ll see where it goes; and 4) We’re not interested.
Steve Gedeon, a director with RAN and a professor of entrepreneurship and strategy development at TRSM, remembers Speechbobble’s first pitch attempt received one of the top two grades.
“The value of a company is based on its intangible assets, not its tangible assets,” says Gedeon in his office on the Ryerson campus. Next to his desk is a RAN promotional poster with Ryan Chong smiling next to a computer displaying the Speechbobble home page. “The standard things that show up on a balance sheet or financial statement are becoming increasingly unimportant when assessing the overall value of an organization… the biggest [intangible assets] are human capital and social or relationship capital.”
Speechbobble is one of RAN’s biggest success stories, and Gedeon believes that one of the reasons the project was so easily embraced by the angels was Norrie’s involvement. He says that Norrie is a big believer in student innovation. Norrie has been a part of many student enterprise initiatives in the past, perhaps most famously for his position on the Board of Directors with JobLoft.
JobLoft was a team of four students who presented their business plan for a job search website on the CBC show Dragons Den in late 2010. After dragons Kevin O’Leary and Jim Treliving had decided to invest, Norrie forcefully began questioning the value of the $200 000 investment that would provide dragons with a substantial share in the company. He questioned the direction they were proposing, asking the dragons if they have business degrees and taking a jab at Treliving for flying in that day on a private jet. Not surprisingly, the deal went sour. The team stuck by their professor because he was asking the questions they themselves were too afraid to ask.
While it may not have been one of Norrie’s most professional moments, it was motivated by his devotion to the student entrepreneurs that he takes so much time mentoring.
“Many of us [professors at TRSM] feel there is an obligation to help a next generation of entrepreneurs learn how to do it… not just theoretically in a classroom,” says Norrie. And the market for student entrepreneurs has never been better. Where as 30 years ago it took a substantial amount of money to start up a business, this is no longer the case.
“We have never faced a business environment with cheaper access to capital than we have today,” says Norrie.
Chong shares his view, especially as it pertains to the tech world.
“Anyone with development skills and the drive can create a web service,” says Chong. He knows the opportunities are out there for young business professionals, and it doesn’t compare to building your own company.
“I have worked in the banking sector, I’ve worked in the real estate sector for a lot of big companies and… I could never go back there,” says Chong. “You are typically required to do something very functional, very repetitive – not a lot of input in what you are doing.”
The market for social media business technologies is brand new, with only a handful of competitors- like Ning, Chatr and Lithium – but there is no clear leader in the space as of yet. Speechbobble has to learn how to move with the industry.