Photo: Happenate founder Kris Braun with his family (left to right), Gavin, Tobin, wife Martha and Nora.

Picture yourself walking down a busy city street one morning on your way to work. You want to reward a colleague for a job well done, but you have an important conference call in 15 minutes. You see a bakery. You pick a cheesecake. Perfect? Maybe not, but it’s the best you can do at the time.

This is exactly what happened to Kris Braun, founder and CEO of Happenate.

In a previous role leading a team of 12 threat researchers, retention was key due to each worker’s highly specialized and hard-to-replace skills. For Braun, this meant celebrating accomplishments.

Troubled by his less-than-elegant selection of cheesecake at 9 a.m., he began to think, “There really needs to be an Uber-like solution for team rewards.”

But how does one go from an early-morning cheesecake faux pas to a full-fledged startup?

While sipping a hand-poured coffee at a popular Uptown Waterloo whiskey and espresso bar, Braun reflects, “Throughout our lives, my wife, Martha, and I have always made unconventional choices. For us it’s more about the value of the experiences than anything else.”

When Braun earned a bachelor of mathematics, computer science with a software engineering option from the University of Waterloo in 2001, he opted to work only part-time at Research in Motion (RIM). Even though a position at RIM was the holy grail for tech workers, he had a larger goal in mind.

Instead, he dedicated more time to his role as Chaplain at the University of Waterloo, where he focused on creating a greater sense of community between students.

Not surprisingly, during his tenure, the value of experiences rose to the top. He explains, “The best idea we developed was a weekly meal. We pooled our resources and prepared these meals together. The change was immediate. In fact, a number of students on their way to their first meal ended up picking up new people to join us along the way.”

In their quest for meaningful experiences, Braun and his wife moved to Vancouver in 2009, fulfilling a dream of living out West. This is also where he took on the role that would lead to the divine inspiration that was the cheesecake incident.

Fast forward a few children, a move back to the Kitchener-Waterloo area and deciding to take on the challenge of providing a better way to deliver workplace rewards and experiences. But first, Braun needed to learn more about developing web applications.

A local startup, Sortable, invited him into their fold. As Braun refined his skills, he also made inroads into the startup community. With admission into the Velocity Garage in fall 2013, along with some trusty grant money, he began to bring Happenate to life.

Again, his passion for painting in broad strokes – perhaps even too broad – rose to the top. “My first iteration of the company was trying to be too many things to too many people. As a result, no one knew what to do with us.”

Through a turn of good fortune, Braun enlisted a group of interns to interview potential clients about the importance of culture. Their first-hand efforts revealed that most businesses really did care about rewarding their employees and offering engaging experiences. This pivot also saw the Happenate business model switch from business-to-consumer to business-to-business.

At the same time, trial and error had proven that employees place a high value on choice. Braun and his team responded by incorporating a voting component that allows employees to state their reward preferences.

A champion of culture, Braun is also dedicated to partnering with local businesses as suppliers of rewards, to add to the authenticity of Happenate’s services.

With a proven business model, next steps involve replicating Happenate’s capabilities in larger and international markets – a challenge Braun is enthusiastic to meet.

If you happen to ask him about his experiences over coffee, he just might buy you a killer brownie, before he hops on his bike to make it to his son’s baseball game.

But if cheesecake at 9 a.m. is what makes your team happy, Happenate can provide that, too.