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VeloCity: The story of a startup

Sean Van Koughnett

Founder, VeloCity

Director, Student Success Office

In the spring of 2007, the first iPhone was about to be released, Facebook was taking off, and a startup called twitter had just made a splash at SXSW. The “next big thing” (and how to cash in) seemed to be an unavoidable topic of conversation at the conference I was at.

From these conversations, three simple things occurred to me that led to the idea for VeloCity and gave me the conviction to make it happen:

–       The “next big thing” often starts in the minds of students – (e.g.RIM, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Dell, Apple, twitter etc. uWaterloo has always attracted students with this type of founder potential.

–       The opportunities for digital media startups had never been better. The “app” ecosystem was emerging (although the Apple App store was still a year away), smartphones were evolving, and the internet was maturing. Someone with only a laptop and an idea could do some really cool things.

–       Innovation is a social act. My master’s research had focused on how innovation is fostered. I knew we would be successful in supporting our student entrepreneurs if we created an environment where ideas and talent could collide and grow, both serendipitously and by design.

From there, it clicked. What better environment for student collaboration and community than in a dorm? What better place than at uWaterloo and what better startup community in Canada than Waterloo? What better time than now, in the exploding arena of digital media?

The idea was hatched for VeloCity, the world’s first digital media “dormcubator”.

Preparing for take-off

In the summer of 2007 I ran the concept by Bud Walker (my boss at the time). After 40+ years on campus Bud is still the most forward-thinking person we have. He bought in immediately, and suggested the Minota Hagey residence as the location. Buy-in from Chris Read (my current boss, and director of Housing at the time) and conversations with a few of the Deans followed.

The only concern? What if students drop out to pursue their startup? I argued that it was a risk worth taking. I also argued that we were actually providing an opportunity to stay in school while doing a startup, not encouraging students to drop out.

The next year was a whirlwind, getting this startup off the ground. Branding, residence renovations, budgets, partnerships, programming, student recruitment, hiring. Engineering students Kunal Gupta (now CEO Polar Mobile), Ray Cao (now CEO, Loose Button), Gaurav Jain and Impact (the student entrepreneurship organization started by Kunal) provided invaluable assistance and insight as the concept came to life.

Risking more than just money

A big challenge was that applications for residence start 8 months before move-in, so recruiting students for our first term in September 2008 actually needed to start in January. And VeloCity needed to attract a critical mass of student talent and partners from the get-go if it was going to survive.

So I really had about 4 months (September to December 2007) between the “go ahead” and the “get-go”. I didn’t have a residence to show off (renovations didn’t start until May).  I didn’t have a crop of students who had been through the program to spread the message by word of mouth. I didn’t have the details of the application process or the program itself worked out. I didn’t have other stakeholders who could vouch for the awesomeness that would be VeloCity.

And if it didn’t work, I was risking something more valuable than money – I risked tarnishing the university’s reputation for excellence, built by thousands of students, alumni, faculty and staff over the last half century.

All this at risk, and I was selling something that didn’t exist yet.

I was selling air.

Selling air

VeloCity was a weird duck. It was part of a university, but not part of a Faculty or academic unit. It sat on the boundary between the institution and the startup community. It wasn’t something anyone else was doing, so it was going to need a powerful message – a compelling brand – that both explained the concept and motivated people to get involved.

The messaging was simple and hinged on the concepts of potential and possibility:

“Imagine 70 of Waterloo’s most talented, creative and entrepreneurial students living and working together on the next big thing.”

The message resonated with both students and partners alike. The downside was that some students were intimidated by this message (“Well I’m not good enough to be one of the 70 best…I won’t apply because I don’t belong”).

Impact, the student entrepreneurship group, mobilized their crew to help get the word out among students. We blitzed campus with posters, set up booths in high traffic areas, and did presentations in key classes. I spoke with a few high profile companies and they liked the concept, so I convinced them to be “partners”, although I had no idea what that meant. But what I did know was that having Google, Apple, RIM and Microsoft logos on our site from day one gave us immediate credibility.

What’s in a name?

Names were kicked around within the department I was overseeing at the time, now known as “Creative Services”, uWaterloo’s in-house design agency. (And a quick shout out to Christine Goucher, Melissa Martinez and Sara LeBlanc, who created the VeloCity identity).

“Powerhouse”. “Goldmine”. “The Hive”. “Velocity House”.


Just: “Velocity”.

And let’s design it in away that “city” stands out. Because we want to evoke a sense of action AND a sense of place.



The launch and the beginning

On the day of our launch in September 2008, in true startup fashion, the scaffolding from residence renovations was removed just minutes from the start of our open house. The first cohort included Eric Migicovsky, founder of Pebble. The following term, Ted Livingston, founder of Kik, was a resident.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing in the beginning, but we improved the program every term. I realized I wasn’t the right person to run the program, and handed the reigns over to Jesse Rodgers in 2010. He was instrumental in securing funding from the Ontario Centres of Excellence. He also facilitated an unbelievably generous donation from Ted Livingston in 2011 and pushed for us to establish a presence at the Communitech Hub when it opened.

Onwards and upwards

Over the past year (with incredible support from the university, our students, alumni, Communitech, OCE, the Accelerator Centre, and the startup community) director Mike Kirkup (brought on in January 2012), operations manager Nancy Heide and the VeloCity team have taken the program to new heights, launching our highly successful Garage and Campus programs.

More exciting things are on the horizon, and I couldn’t be more pleased to have VeloCity as part of the Student Success Office, where I am director. My role has shifted to clear obstacles (and sometimes myself) out of the way so that VeloCity can continue to flourish.

It’s fitting that we launched just days before Lehman Brothers collapsed and the global financial crisis hit. Because to me, VeloCity served as one very small example of how future economies should be built – by enabling talented people to build things of lasting value through innovation and entrepreneurship.

Here’s to a bright future.