After spending the better part of the past five years exercising his entrepreneurial muscles, Pablo Srugo has decided it’s time to change up his business-building regimen.
Srugo, who launched fitness technology startup Gymtrack with partner Lee Silverstone five years ago and helped grow the business to more than 35 employees, left the firm earlier this summer to join Ottawa-based venture capital fund Mistral Venture Partners as an associate.
The 27-year-old economics graduate of Carleton University says becoming a venture capitalist was an idea he’d toyed with even when he was on the other side of the table trying to drum up investment for Gymtrack.
“There was always kind of this question about what would it be like to be a VC,” he says during an interview at Mistral’s office in the Glebe. “That was kind of always there, and I think that’s pretty natural for most entrepreneurs in a VC-backed company to wonder what it would be like on the other side.”
In his five years as a founder and senior executive at Gymtrack, Srugo navigated the young startup through its share of ups and downs. The company underwent a major pivot in 2016, when it brought in tech veteran Rob Woodbridge as CEO and shifted the focus of its technology from helping gymgoers track their workouts to providing a way for fitness facility operators to measure how often equipment was being used.
The serial entrepreneur, who also co-founded an online tutoring platform called MyTutor that was sold in 2014, says his new gig caters more to the “big-picture, analytical thinking” aspect of his personality.
“In a sense, it’s a dream job,” says Srugo, who is still a member of Gymtrack’s board of directors and retains a stake in the company. “What I do on a day-to-day basis is just so different, I think, than what many other people get to do.
“In the early stages (of running a company), you really have to just do the grunt work day to day. And I enjoy the conversations around, you know, where is this market going, what’s the next big industry, what’s the next big technology. Those kind of discussions, in a startup environment, are the kind of discussions you have over lunch or on the side, and then you forget it and do what you really need to do.”
Founded in 2012, Mistral provides seed funding of up to $500,000 to promising ventures in the enterprise software space, most of them Canadian.
The fund’s 23-company portfolio includes such well-known local names as CENX and Klipfolio. The firm closed its second fund late last year and now manages more than $60 million. Mistral counts the Business Development Bank of Canada as well as more than 80 high net-worth investors as limited partners across its two funds.
“It’s kind of similar to Dragons' Den in a sense – except that it’s not a show,” Srugo says with a grin when asked to describe his job. “It’s done with a lot more rigour and takes longer. At the end of the day at the highest level, what we try to do is to find the best early-stage (startups).”
The first couple of months on the job have been a whirlwind for Srugo, who figures he’s already met with more than 100 entrepreneurs and has sat in on 15-20 formal pitch meetings with founders looking for capital. It’s required some heavy mental lifting for a guy who spent most of the last half-decade immersing himself in the minutia of the fitness business.
"There's new technologies, new industries all the time ... You have to be very quick on your feet."
“There’s new technologies, new industries all the time,” he says, noting that asking the right questions in a pitch meeting can make the difference between choosing a winning investment and letting it slip through your fingers. “You have to be very quick on your feet.”
Mistral managing director Code Cubitt says his newest hire, who beat out 350 applicants from across North America, has just the pedigree he and his partners were looking for.
“There’s not that many 27-year-olds with two startups behind them already,” he says. “He’s obviously sharp and learned a lot of lessons, good and bad.
“You want the entrepreneur on the other side of the table to know that you’ve been in their shoes. The challenges these guys have starting a company from nothing are very different than scaling a company from 50 to 100 employees. I think unless you’ve actually run a company and had to make payroll and made the sacrifices and dealt with all the pain, it’s hard to empathize deeply and sincerely.”
Srugo says Mistral has played a major role in strengthening the city’s support system for startups, and he’s happy to now be part of its team.
“Ten years ago, (founders) basically had no help along the way,” he says. “At some point, you had to choose to either go to a different market or bootstrap it yourself. Now, the ecosystem is quite developed from a university student with an idea all the way to getting seed financing from somewhere like Mistral to getting co-working space at (new downtown startup hub) OneEleven. I think it’s great for the city.”