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Have you ever agonized over what gift to buy a friend or family member? Or, have you ever received a gift that you had absolutely no use for? Your awkward smile and forced thank you won’t fool anyone. Most would agree that finding the perfect gift to give can be a time-consuming and stressful exercise.

Randy Bird must have been feeling the anxiety that comes with traditional gift-giving, when he suddenly woke up at 5 a.m. with his business idea for Giftopia — a personal online gift registry, which makes it easy for friends and family to get you what you want, and vice versa.

The CV of Giftopia’s founder is chock full of business experience in a range of industries such as wine and restaurant consulting, real estate, investments, retail, charities, manufacturing and sales, but starting a new business later in life meant playing catch-up with technological advances.

Fortunately, Randy Bird could access VentureStart, a program funded by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario). VentureStart received $7.5 million in funding through FedDev Ontario’s Scientists and Engineers in Business (SEB) initiative. 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 Giftopia will help them grow and succeed, creating 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 Giftopia’s founder received mentoring.  Through FedDev Ontario’s support, VentureStart is helping program participants increase their business and management skills and their capacity to create successful companies and career opportunities.

Doug Cooper, Managing Director at Communitech was Giftopia’s assigned Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR).  Cooper’s extensive business experience in the Information Technology field proved invaluable to Giftopia’s founder.  “Doug helped facilitate a structure for the new platform, oriented me on scaffolding and flow and helped in the VentureStart application process,” said Bird. “He also connected me with key people to help pitch my product.”

With $30,000 in VentureStart funding, Bird got legal advice and developed coding, programming and marketing.  “With no experience in the tech sector, we needed to hire professionals to help us get the product to the launch stage,” said Bird. “This wouldn’t have been possible without the funding.”  Giftopia currently has nine university students working in co-op, employed or volunteer positions. Bird is getting the help he needs to build his company, and at the same time students are provided with training and knowledge that will benefit their future careers.

Giftopia is an easy-to-use mobile and Web-based application that eliminates stress and lost time associated with traditional gift-giving. It’s a way for people to keep their contacts informed of their changing tastes and sizes, resulting in gifts that are actually wanted. “Our site connects friends and family together with the brands, sizes and colours that matter to them,” said Bird. “Giftopia is putting an end to boring, duplicate and unwanted gifts forever.”

Another Giftopia service is www.gifthunter.me in beta form, which specializes in recommending the latest and greatest gifts geared to specific friends and family members for any occasion around the year.

In addition to these mobile gifting programs, Giftopia’s wedding registry, www.theweddingregistry.me promises to perform miracles for brides and grooms. Anyone who’s had to plan a major event like a wedding knows how overwhelming it can be. TheWeddingRegistry.Me is an innovative free website fully dedicated to the couple’s big day. This online planning tool is designed to save couples a lot of time, money and stress with features such as a universal gift registry where the couple can add any item from any store; a dedicated cash gift registry for tasteful and secure gifting; photo sharing applications; and video invites and thank you’s. TheWeddingRegistry.Me also has a unique affiliate partner program which is different than the typical logo exchange relationships commonly seen in the industry.

The wedding-focused site was launched early this year to rave reviews. At recent tradeshows in Los Angeles, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Kitchener the sign-up rate was at 90 per cent. “In 30 years of trade shows, I have never seen anything like the reaction at these bridal shows,” said Bird. “Brides actually screamed in excitement when they saw the website in action.”

The company’s latest offering is an event management site, www.eventastic.com — a revolutionary twist to event planning. Users of this full-scale event planning tool can tap into video invites to increase personal guest engagement, use photo sharing, raise cash for fundraisers, organize group cash gifts and manage online ticket sales – all within minutes.

It looks like Randy Bird is on to something with Giftopia, Inc.  You’ll never have to worry about missing a detail when you plan your big event. And, you no longer need to drop hints about what you’ve always wanted by plastering the fridge door with pictures and post-its. Giftopia has come to the rescue — making event planners’ lives easier and putting the fun back into gift-giving.

by Sandra Desrochers

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Duncan McDowell