Two months ago Neal Belovay and his brother Keith had a good thing going.
The startup they co-founded in 2016 – PicThrive – was living up to its name helping adventure companies deliver quality photographs to adventure seekers. PicThrive had a healthy roster of customers in Canada, the U.S., New Zealand and Australia, and more were signing aboard. The startup had 11 employees, an office in downtown Kitchener, and the future? Well, it looked bright as a spring day.
And then COVID-19 darkened everyone’s doorstep.
The coronavirus, as it has done with so much of the worldwide startup ecosystem, rapidly laid waste to PicThrive’s tourism-dependent customers, their revenue and, it seemed, the future, too.
“It decimated it,” Belovay says flatly.
Employees were laid off. Work relationships were put on hold. The office was packed up and movers carted everything away.
But it turns out the movers missed something. Turns out they left behind the Belovays’ can-do spirit. Turns out the thing that is still intact is a determination to make a difference, even in the midst of losing everything that they had sweated to build over the past four years.
And so Tuesday, the co-founders will launch a new venture called Thanks Collective.
Thanks Collective is a website that gives people a way to say thanks, with words and money, to others who have made a difference in the midst of the pandemic, or just a difference in general.
It might be a front-line health worker. Or a grocery store clerk. Or a delivery driver. Or someone who just needs a helping hand, and to feel a little better. And who among us doesn’t fall into that category these days?
“The big message is it’s a place where you can do more than just say thanks,” says Belovay. “It’s about giving gratitude. And what we know about giving gratitude is that it leads to happiness, not only in the person giving gratitude but also for the person receiving it.
“I think there’s lots of that need in our community right now.”
PicThrive’s former team members have, on their own time, stepped up and made the Thanks Collective website and provided back-end coding for the new venture. The site itself is operating on a cost-recovery basis.
It’s not quite what the two brothers had in mind when they decamped their former home in Vancouver for Waterloo Region with the idea of bootstrapping their own company but, well, Belovay knows that entrepreneurial success doesn’t always happen in a straight line.
“It’s a wild ride, but that’s what startup life is,” he says. “All you can do is just go with it and problem-solve.”
Problem-solving is what led the pair here. Both were familiar with Waterloo Region: Neal studied communications and business at Wilfrid Laurier University; Keith studied computer science at University of Waterloo. Neal, after graduation in 2008, got into banking, but decided corporate life wasn’t in him and took a year off to travel, trying his hand at skydiving, rock climbing, zip-lining and the like.
Along the way he realized something: Everyone who was part of every adventure activity he had taken part in wanted pictures of their adventures. The problem was the tourism outfits he had encountered had poor, user unfriendly photograph solutions, laboriously loading them onto a CD-ROM or USB drive.
“You would have this amazing five-star [adventure] experience and then everything would just fall down when you tried to get the photos,” he says. “It was clunky, it was time-consuming, people would leave without their photos and get really upset.”
So Neal got hold of his brother, who was working as a software engineer at Amazon, and said something along the lines of, “You know that business we always wanted to start?”
PicThrive’s solution was to make use of the cloud and tablet kiosks. A click of a button sent photos taken by the tour operator to their customers’ phones. Tour operators would then reap the positive reviews posted by their customers on TripAdvisor, complete with the pretty photographs delivered by PicThrive’s platform.
Everyone was a winner.
And why build it in Kitchener rather than their home in Vancouver? After all, Vancouver, like Waterloo Region, has a thriving tech scene.
“It did, but [real estate] unaffordability killed it,” says Belovay.
After a positive stint at a travel tech accelerator in Denver, the brothers were looking for a place to build their company that had a similar vibe and community support, a place with access to good tech talent – and affordable real estate.
And then they recalled their university days in Waterloo Region.
“So we came out, checked it out and met with some people here and it was the real deal,” says Belovay. “We did some research as well, met with Communitech and a few other local startups, and then we picked up shop and moved, and it was the best decision we made.
“My brother was like, ‘Why didn’t we do this sooner?’
“We were able to build a great team. The support that the community provided is like … it’s hard to put into words. It has helped us overcome big roadblocks and share ideas and help each other out. It’s unique.”
That support included taking part in Communitech’s Rev sales accelerator program. It was that same local support, and working with their Communitech growth coaches Rod Foster, Heather Galt and Ellen Johnson, that put the brothers in position to revamp their company once the virus hit, support that helped them realize that what they loved about the tourism industry was the front-line people – like the tour guides who created the experience and went above and beyond for their customers, often under-appreciated, often underpaid. They realized those tour guides had much in common with the front-line health-care workers helping battle COVID-19.
“So that kind of transitioned into us looking at the community. The cashier now working behind Plexiglas. The bartender who’s now delivering food to the trunk of your car.
“And we wanted to help out the community that’s helped us.”
And so Thanks Collective was born.
“We wanted to create a way for people to help these people that are going above and beyond, people who are creating these unique experiences and memories for us and risking their lives at the same time,” says Belovay.
“The big thing is it’s just helping out the community do more than just say thanks, and give back to people that we believe are under-appreciated, and hopefully grow a happier healthier community as a result.”
More than two months ago, Neal and Keith and their team had a good thing going. More than two months later, even in the wake of COVID-19 and the collapse of their company, the thinking is they still do.