Assel Beglinova and Vadim Lidich had no idea where life would take them when they moved to Canada less than 10 years ago.
Beglinova, from Kazakhstan, and Lidich, from eastern Ukraine, didn’t know one another back then. But they shared a common desire to learn English, go to college and explore the North American dream that they’d learned about through movies and social media.
Today, the two new Canadians are creating their own version of that dream. As co-founders of a fintech startup called Paperstack, they appear to be on the cusp of great things.
In the past few months, they’ve won acceptance into three prestigious tech entrepreneurship programs: Communitech’s Fierce Founders Bootcamp; Google for Startups Accelerator – Women Founders program; and, most recently, Techstars' new Equitech Accelerator.
“So many people have helped us,” says Beglinova, Paperstack’s CEO. “We're very grateful. We have a huge community cheering for us, and that is very, very helpful.”
It’s been a long but rewarding journey for Beglinova, 27, and Lidich, 25.
Beglinov was just 18 when she came to Canada in 2012 to learn English and pursue post-secondary education.
“I think first of all it was curiosity,” she says when asked what drew her to this country. “I always watched American movies, but I didn't know how real it was. So, I was like, ‘This is so cool. I want to be like that.’”
She also cites her ambitious nature and the quality of education in Canada.
“I knew for me to achieve something greater, I have to be there, I have to try it out,” she says. “But I’m going to be honest with you: When I was coming to Canada, I didn’t imagine staying here; I wasn’t sure of how things were going to turn out for me. But then I was like, ‘I really love this place, I want to stay here.’”
She enrolled in accounting studies at Seneca College in Toronto and later found full-time work in banking. She also started an online community for people interested in entrepreneurship, called Tea Club Toronto.
Meanwhile, Lidich made his own journey to Canada in 2013. He worked on his English and enrolled in an international business program at Seneca College. He and Beglinova knew one another in passing, but they didn’t really connect until a few years later through Beglinova’s Tea Club community.
By then, Lidich says, he had worked in wealth management in Toronto and taught himself some computer coding. He launched a couple of startups, none of which took off. In chatting with Beglinova, the two acquaintances discovered a mutual interest in starting a fintech company to help “solopreneurs” like themselves with a variety of accounting and business tasks.
“She told me she was working on a fintech idea herself,” recalls Lidich, Paperstack's CTO. “And I'm like, ‘No way! I'm working on something very similar.'"
His idea at the time was to help new entrepreneurs incorporate their businesses. Beglinova was working on a platform to help a similar clientele with bookkeeping.
They combined their ideas in Paperstack, which initially focused on self-employed freelance and gig-economy entrepreneurs.
The partners, both of whom brim with energy and optimism, began a tenacious campaign of networking, pitching their concept and cold-calling potential investors.
They were looking for funding but, more importantly, they were looking for experienced tech founders who had been through the startup trenches and could mentor them and serve as a sounding board.
“Cold calling!” Beglinova laughs when asked how she and Lidich went about making connections. "I also participated in a lot of pitch competitions, even student competitions. We'd go there, sneak in there, pitch ourselves, but also take down the names of the judges and then follow up with them.”
Not everyone responded, but enough did. Some even took meetings and offered advice.
“The tech community in Canada is small but so strongly intertwined that throughout the years we managed to meet a lot of people and that laid the foundation of those introductions,” says Lidich.
The two managed to secure $250,000 in angel funding from a variety of individual investors this past summer, the two co-founders say.
“Ultimately, a lot of the invested capital came from people that we sought out or we asked for an introduction to,” says Lidich. “And we pitched them our idea and they really loved the concept, but I think they also loved working with founders that are ambitious.”
“Also,” adds Beglinova, “I wanted to say that the investors that ended up working with us, on top of making introductions, they also do a lot of coaching to us. It's always like, ‘Let me help you.’ It’s never about, ‘How much money did you make already? How many clients?’ It's more like, ‘What else could I do on my side to help you out?’ We're very, very grateful.”
Through this kind of mentorship, as well as the things they’ve been learning in the Fierce Founders and Google Accelerator programs, Lidich and Beglinova refined Paperstack’s focus. They are now targeting e-commerce sellers that operate on platforms such as Shopify, offering an app that helps them with their accounting needs and enables them to learn from their own sales and business data.
"We repositioned ourselves as a ‘fractional CFO’ for e-commerce sellers,” says Beglinova. “We automate your bookkeeping, we visualize your cash flow and then we take this data and provide what we call ‘fin-sights’ – financial insights.”
The Paperstack app has been approved by Shopify, Lidich says, and the company has begun to generate clients and revenue.
The two co-founders have just moved to Baltimore, Maryland for the next three months to participate in the in-person Techstars Equitech Accelerator. As with its other accelerator programs, Techstars takes an equity stake in participating startups in exchange for some working capital, instruction, mentorship, connections and a demo and pitch day in front of potential investors.
Lidich says the opportunity to keep meeting investors and mentors is invaluable.
“Your (network) will lift you higher than you'll ever lift yourself,” he says. “The people around us deserve probably more credit and a shoutout than we do because all we did was take their amazing advice and executed on it. We have been supported by an incredible community.”
In addition to growing Paperstack, both Beglinova and Lidich say they want to be an inspiration to other startup founders, especially immigrant entrepreneurs.
“I was pitching all the time, even though I speak with an accent,” says Beglinova. “That didn't stop us. So, if any immigrant entrepreneurs are reading this, please believe in yourself.”