Photo: Mike McCauley, BufferBox product manager for Google, in his team’s new space at the Tannery.

Lunch in a corporate cafeteria might not sound like the most appealing way to spend an hour.

Lunch in a Google office is another thing entirely, and not just because of the lavish array of menu options at a more-than-reasonable price (read: no charge).

If you’re fortunate enough to score an invite, as I did from BufferBox co-founder Mike McCauley this week, it’s also a great opportunity to soak up some of the uniquely Googlian energy that turned a student-led startup into a $50-billion-a-year behemoth in 15 years.

That energy continues to brighten McCauley’s smile one year after Google scooped up BufferBox for an undisclosed sum, then moved it a matter of metres, from the University of Waterloo’s VeloCity Garage in the Communitech Hub into Google’s Canadian engineering operations, housed in the same building in Waterloo Region.

After lunch (the squash-stuffed ravioli was a highlight), McCauley took me into the BufferBox space in the Tannery – complete with a workshop for tweaking hardware, along with a micro-kitchen equipped with a frozen yogurt machine – where his 15-member team can work without disturbing fellow Googlers.

We sat down for a chat in the meeting room, where McCauley caught me up on his life (he recently bought a house near Victoria Park, a five-minute walk from the Tannery), on his commitment to the Waterloo Region tech ecosystem, and on BufferBox’s progress since the acquisition.

AR – So here you are, a year after the acquisition.

MM – Yeah, it’s crazy. It’s just over a year now.

AR – How many people are working on the BufferBox team?

MM – I believe there are 15. We came over with nine. Still pretty small.

AR – What hasn’t changed about BufferBox in that time?

MM – We still have our name, and our general attitude for doing whatever it takes to make our idea a reality.

There are some amazing resources that are now available to us, being inside of Google, but there are also other things that come along with being in a big organization, and we understand that.

And so, I think it’s been important for us to continue to have that determination and that drive to really make our idea and our vision a reality, and to kind of rally the troops.

The troops are different now; they’re VPs instead of VCs, as they say.

But I think that’s definitely something that has not changed. The team is pretty much the same.

We’ve added a couple of amazing software engineers, but the fundamental team is still the same. The three of us founders are still as excited as ever about building the idea, and we’re still doing relatively similar things to what we were doing before.

I mean, with the branding from the consumer side of things, things have pretty much stayed the same.

AR – Where is BufferBox operating today compared to a year ago?

MM – When we were acquired we had 18 locations in Toronto, and now we have 28 in Toronto and 18 in San Francisco, so there’s definitely been some good growth.

Launching in the U.S. was a little bit of a different beast, for sure. It was a little bit easier to launch in our backyard.

I think the unique thing about the Bay area was, these (location) partners get pitched anything and everything, every day. And so, to try and get them to buy into the idea that you’re doing, and that you’re building, and that you ultimately see getting big, is much more difficult.

So, you go talk to a coffee-shop chain in San Francisco, and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, you and the other five guys who are going to walk through the door today and want to do something with us,’ whereas, in Toronto, it’s like, ‘Oh, this is interesting. We’d love to see what we can do here.

That was something that we didn’t anticipate, and it definitely meant a couple of extra hurdles to cross in being able to launch there.

But we did it, and on Sept. 30, we launched with 14 locations, and now we’re up to 18, most notably Staples. They used to have Amazon Locker, and now they have BufferBox. They have two stores in San Francisco and we’re in both of them, and we have Lucky Supermarket chain and Lucky Save Mart; they’re the same brand. They’re a national grocer, which is awesome, so we have their downtown San Francisco location.

We have a bunch of local coffee shops. That was one of the things we took a little bit of a different stance on, going to San Francisco. We looked to try and make some relationships with more local businesses, because we kind of felt like that was a good vibe for San Francisco.

In Toronto we have National Grocers, 7-Eleven convenience stores, GO Transit, bigger chains.

In San Francisco, we do have the 7-Eleven partnership expanded, and the grocery store and Staples, but we also have some awesome independent coffee shops and comic stores, unique boutiques and all these different ones.

So I think that’s been really neat and a lot of fun, of course.

AR – What else has changed in that year?

MM – There’s definitely been a focus on how we fit into the overall Google Shopping vision in what we’re trying to build, and I think the awesome part about the changes that have happened is, it’s allowed us to look bigger beyond just making a profitable business doing just what we’re doing.

It’s allowed us to think bigger and look at how we can change e-commerce as a whole, with BufferBox being a part of that, but also some other elements of Google Shopping, ultimately building to that grander, next-generation e-commerce vision.

I think that definitely allowed us to open our eyes to say, ‘Wait a minute – if we could do anything, what would we want to focus on and what would we want to build?’

And I think when we were on our own, we were much more focused on how to make this small part of e-commerce that we play profitable and successful.

So that’s been kind of interesting, and pretty neat to be able to look at that grander vision and look at solving some really big problems. I think that’s one of the things that Google has allowed us to do, along with their resources and their ability to make big bets. That’s been pretty cool.

AR – Some say Canadian startups tend to exit too early through acquisition instead of trying to scale on their own. Others say acquisition helps startups to make a greater impact than they could on their own, and enriches startup ecoystems by enabling their founders to give back to their communities, or start other ventures.

What are your thoughts on this?

MM – Two things come to mind right away.

One is, you have to remember the business we are building is very capital-intensive. When you compare it to a software company that may not need as much growth capital, we’re in a very different league in that respect.

That’s one of the reasons Google was a great partner for us.

The other thought that comes to mind is, had we moved down to Mountain View, I think it would have been a very different conversation; ‘Oh, you know, we really helped grow BufferBox and now the team’s gone and they’ve moved; they’re no longer in the community.’

I think that was one of the most important things about this transaction. We wanted to stay in Waterloo, we wanted to continue to give back and we wanted to have our team here.

Now we’re part of a bigger organization, and it allows us to have all those benefits of those additional resources, those connections, that ability to make the big bet, but it also allows us to stay working here in the community, continue to give back to the community, continue to grow our team here where we started. And I think those are the really important things that meant a lot to us.

I love being able to walk to work in five minutes, but more importantly, being able to stay connected and give back to the startup community; being able to meet with founders when they reach out; that face-to-face time and that ability to stay connected to the community that ultimately helped us grow. I think it’s really important to give back.

I think all the companies realize that, and when we all chip in a little bit, it helps us to grow.

When we were in our early days, Mike (Litt) and the Vidyard team were instrumental to us, and you look at guys like Ali (Asaria) – it was really, really important for us in our early days.

And so, we feel like we’re obligated to do that same thing.

AR – So, one year later you’re feeling pretty well about things?

MM – Yeah, totally.

I think we’re definitely in a different space, for sure. Some really awesome things have happened and all of us feel very fortunate to be in the situation we’re in.

I think just getting the experience of working at a bigger company and seeing the level of thinking that Google does is a great opportunity for anyone, and to be able to apply that to the idea we’ve been building is pretty neat.

And then, from a personal standpoint, I’m very thankful for the opportunities that have come out of going through what we’ve gone through.

I’ve had the chance to go back to my high school and speak there; I’m meeting founder after founder, and the respect they give to fellow founders here in Waterloo about what we’ve been able to do, I think that’s really awesome.

I think it also comes with a lot of responsibility, but I’ve definitely really enjoyed trying to play my part in giving back and helping to grow what we’re building.

AR – Last question. What are your favourite Google moments from early on?

MM – The Instagram photo that I posted of the first box we installed in San Francisco. I got in trouble for that.

We used to always post things; ‘We’ve got this new location, this is awesome,’ and they were like, ‘What are you doing?’

That was kind of my first time where I was like, ‘Ah, right.’

The first conversation I had about travel to Mountain View headquarters, it was just like, ‘You go there as often as you feel like you need to,’ and it was just no questions asked.

I really realized that the focus is on opportunity cost – how do we make sure that the time we’re spending on what we’re working on is the most effective use of our time, and make time the most important resource?

That was pretty cool.

The other thing that was cool was just having access to anyone who works at Google. If you want to meet anyone who works at Google, you just email them and you have access to that. When you’re not an employee at Google, you can’t do that as easily.

Just going to Mountain View and walking around the campus and seeing what’s been built there is really cool.

At that first week-long orientation, we had a BufferBox photo in front of the Google sign.

That was pretty cool.

Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo is a weekly look at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.

About The Author

Anthony Reinhart
Director, Editorial Strategy

Anthony Reinhart is a veteran journalist who left the Globe and Mail to join Communitech in 2011. Tony has covered everything from crime, politics and courts to business, the arts and sports, and his writing has won numerous journalism awards. He is Communitech's Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer.