Supporting employers and workers through technology: An interview with SPOT App
EDGE sat down with Darren Perlman and Asher Lichtman of SPOT App – an app designed to help people find jobs and companies find employees – to talk about the impact they’re having and how their entrepreneurial journey is unfolding.
How did you come up with your idea for SPOT App?
Darren: The idea was actually inspired by a hospital stay. I suffer from Crohn’s disease, which can be debilitating, and unfortunately in 2018 it got to the point where I needed surgery. While I was recovering in hospital, the person in the bed next to me — who had just undergone his fifth operation — told me he’d been unable to work for the past 10 years because of his disease, which was very similar to mine. I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to live a relatively normal life, and not be impacted the way my neighbour in the hospital had. But it made me wonder — what if things get worse for me? At the same time, I started to think about others like my neighbour — how could we make their lives better?
That’s what started us on the journey — me and my co-founder and partner, Asher, who was working for the Ministry of Community and Social Services at the time helping marginalized Canadians and newcomers to the country that had trouble finding work.
How do you market your business, and which tactics have been most successful?
Asher: We are bootstrapped. We have HubSpot, and where we’re focused marketing-wise is building sequences to target the industries we’re going after. The customer profiles we’ve concentrated on are where there’s a need for general labour — transportation, logistics and warehousing. We’ve added in Google AdWords as well as a campaign sharing to create traction. We were able to access grant funding and have been focusing on how to use those dollars to maximize our marketing campaigns. The last piece we’re working on now is building more content around what SPOT is — blog writing about our social-impact story to create more awareness and visibility as well as SEO traction online.
What are your plans for expansion over the next couple of years?
Darren: While things are constantly changing and the areas of focus are shifting too, for 2021, with our foothold in Ontario, our plan is to expand our client base here. A lot of our Ontario clients also operate facilities across the country and have a need for services in cities like Vancouver, Alberta and Manitoba. By 2022, we want to be operational in every province, and from there it’s a question of where our social impact can be greatest.
Although everyone always says the US is the next logical place to go, if you look at the numbers when it comes to upskilling and displaced people, you start looking at Europe. The UK, France and Germany have taken in millions of refugees over the last decade from the Middle East and Asia, and a lot of these refugees haven’t had the opportunity to work yet — they’re still trying to get settled. Our technology would be perfect for a lot of these countries so that’s where our next focus will be. That being said, the US always makes sense, but we’ll see where the next year takes us!
EDGE focuses on impact entrepreneurship, so we’d love to know about the social impact that SPOT has been making. What are your long-term goals for impact?
Darren: At a core level we’re trying to change society by giving opportunities to those most in need, specifically marginalized Canadians, newcomers to the country and persons with disabilities. Traditionally, these groups experience obstacles in forming foundations to careers. In many cases, individuals rely on government assistance that doesn’t support the cost of living because they’re unable to find meaningful jobs and face multiple systemic barriers.
Our technology looks to break down those barriers while providing support — working with individuals as well as Employment Ontario. We aim to work very closely with these three communities and impact as many lives as possible, because right now Employment Ontario offices are only helping about 10% of those receiving social assistance. Which means 90% of our target demographic in Ontario is not getting the help they need. Our technology aims to alleviate that pain point and put people not only into meaningful jobs and roles, but to find them full-time employment in a career they can develop long term.
How has SPOT been affected by the pandemic?
Darren: It actually gave us some time to work on the technology a little bit more and add in some features. We spent the first five months of the pandemic perfecting it, bringing it further along the lifecycle, and went live last August.
But the last few months of this recent lockdown have affected us, because we didn’t have any learnings from the first lockdown. We were still in production then, building our technology and developing our relationships, so what happened in January and February this year when things got slow was an eye opener but allowed us to work on strategy. Now that restrictions are being lifted and people are going out again, we’re starting to see things pick up.
During the pandemic we’ve been able to help displaced workers — those who had careers in retail, food or travel. It’s predicted it will take years for those industries to recover, and they’re still not at capacity right now. People who worked in those industries don’t want to sit at home. They want to be out there actively building their skills and adding experiences to their resumes. We’ve been able to help them do that. We’ve got great stories about people who didn’t know what they were going to do because they’d worked in one industry their whole lives, and we’ve placed them in new industries.
To date, we’ve placed 28 people in full-time jobs, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but for a startup that’s less than a year in the marketplace, that’s a pretty big accomplishment. This shows us that as we scale up we’ll hopefully be at 280 placements by this fall, and then 2,800 next year. We’re just going to build upon that number and help people recover from this pandemic.
If you had one piece of advice to someone just starting out, what would it be?
Asher: There’s a saying — a jack of all trades and a master of none. You have to be agile and willing to take on extra roles and responsibilities in order to make sure the job gets done. The attitude is that you just don’t say no. One of our mentors told us those eight-hour days are gone! There’s always something else to be done and, as a team, we all have to take on that responsibility to ensure the success of our business.
Darren: This is a science experiment, entrepreneurship. You’re not going to do it right the first time. You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to stumble. As they say, it’s a roller coaster, and there are highs and there are lows. Just like a science experiment, as you perfect that formula, sometimes it’s going to blow up in your face and you’re going to get dirt everywhere. Other times, that formula is going to be right, and that’s the best part of being an entrepreneur, because you feel like you really accomplished something.
Tell us about a time when you experienced conflict in your entrepreneurial journey. How did you overcome it?
Darren: Being a startup, people don’t take you seriously, especially at the beginning. A lot of doors get slammed in your face, and a lot of calls go unanswered. But the thing is, you’re breaking through, and as a new company or a new idea, you’re disrupting something that already exists. So, you just have to stick to it. Believe in your story, believe in your vision and you will get to that end result.
Asher: Our focus right now is building our pipeline of revenue, building our customer base, and ensuring that marginalized Canadians have a place to work in Canada. That is our mission. We’re having the conversations, telling our story and people are listening. We have a goal — we need to get Canadians back into the workplace, and back working to make an honest wage.
Find out more about how EDGE supports ventures like SPOT App through our programs here.