As youngsters, Tobiasz Dankiewicz and Michal Martyniak delivered flyers to homes in their London, Ontario neighbourhood.  Sure, they made some decent pocket change, but the best tip they received was finding out how much people loved getting those sales flyers which were packed with weekly deals.

Flash-forward to 2013: Dankiewicz and Martyniak, University of Waterloo Mechatronics Engineering grads, are the masterminds behind Reebee – an app that allows users to browse relevant flyers from their area retail outlets on their smartphone or tablet.

To help make Reebee a reality, the co-founders turned to VentureStart, a program funded by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario). FedDev’s Scientists and Engineers in Business (SEB) initiative contributes $7.5 million to VentureStart. The program provides emerging entrepreneurs in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields with training, mentoring and seed financing to develop their ideas, commercialize their products and grow their companies.

“Our Government recognizes that innovative ideas, combined with a culture of entrepreneurship, are the key to Canada’s long-term prosperity,” said Peter Braid, Member of Parliament for Kitchener-Waterloo. “Our investments in innovative start-ups like Reebee will help them grow and succeed, creating high quality jobs in our community, and ensuring a prosperous future for Canada.”

VentureStart, co-ordinated by the RIC (Research, Innovation, Commercialization) Centre in Mississauga, is delivered through 13 provincially funded Regional Innovation Centres in southern Ontario. This includes Waterloo’s Communitech, where the Reebee founders received mentoring from an Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR).  Through FedDev’s support, VentureStart is helping program participants increase their business and management skills and their capacity to create successful companies and career opportunities.

Dankiewicz and Martyniak could foresee the appeal of a “digital news stands for flyers” in an industry where print to digital, especially mobile, is a common trend. Retailers are seeing a need to go high-tech to cater to specific consumers and many have started to experiment with mobile apps.  But, starting a business has its challenges and a great idea doesn’t necessarily translate into a successful company.

“Going from the idea phase to product launch was the most challenging part,” said Dankiewicz. “We had a sound concept, but no users that could persuade retailers to participate; no retail content to offer consumers; and no applications in the app store.” This is where VentureStart could make a difference.

Duncan McDowell, Reebee’s assigned Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) helped the entrepreneurs work through the important Critical Factors Assessment (CFA) funding review and pointed them in the right direction to get the market research data they needed to strengthen their submission.  “Ultimately, it was Duncan’s belief in our team and product that helped us get approved for VentureStart funding,” said Dankiewicz.

While the app was in its infancy, VentureStart funding enabled Dankiewicz and Martyniak to hit the ground running.  With the $30,000 in seed funding, Reebee creators could hire engineering interns and make connections in the industry.  They were also accepted into Y-Combinator, a prestigious program for budding digital entrepreneurs based in Silicon Valley, California.

The co-founders found themselves wearing many hats in the start-up process. “As engineers, we had to adapt and learn new skills quickly and efficiently,” said Dankiewicz.   “When it was time to incorporate, we put on legal hats to learn the basics of corporate law. We wear developer hats when programming, sales hats when selling, customer service hats when talking with users, and finance hats when managing finances.”

These skills are honed under the guidance of EIRs like Duncan McDowell, who have years of business experience and impressive credentials. “It’s pretty special when you get to see two raw talents like Tobiasz and Michal go from a basic prototype, to being accepted into Y-Combinator,” said McDowell. “Without early stage funding programs like VentureStart, it would be much more difficult for companies like Reebee to ever achieve such high levels of success.”

The pair is already seeing the rewards of their efforts. “Every day we receive tons of incredible feedback from our users,” Dankiewicz said. “It’s extremely rewarding knowing what we’re doing is being adopted in tens of thousands of households across Canada. It’s encouraging to wake up in the morning and see that thousands of users have already used the Reebee app before you even finish breakfast, and tens of thousands join throughout the day.”

User experience gives them the incentive and encouragement to continue with the app’s development and continually improve it. So far, users have given Reebee high marks. With 4.5+ star ratings on both the Apple and Android app stores, Reebee currently stands as the best retail flyer app available and surpasses most dedicated retail apps. Launched for iOS (Apple App Store) and Android, the app has national distribution and reaches over 70,000 Canadians through Reebee installs. The entrepreneurs also have working agreements with thousands of retail locations.

Dankiewicz and Martyniak are determined to set a new standard for how retailers engage with their consumers by offering a platform that enables a personalized experience. The self-described persistent Dankiewicz says, “Our vision for Reebee is to be the go-to solution for consumers to engage with local retail promotions. The same way kijiji and eBay made a mark in the buy/sell space, we envision Reebee being the shopping discovery and management tool that consumers rely on. On the retail side, we want to give retailers a platform for engaging consumers on a regular basis while providing timely and accurate insights that are not possible by other means.”

These are ambitious goals, but the Reebee co-founders are well on their way to success. A unique idea, the smarts to implement it, and mentorship/funding programs like VentureStart have given the former flyer carriers an explosive start in the high-tech business world. 

by Sandra Desrochers

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Duncan McDowell