Shyft in location pays off for former Ottawa entrepreneur

An Ottawa native is hoping to make it big south of the border thanks to a new mobile app startup that has just landed $1.5 million in venture capital.

Brett Patrontasch is the founder and CEO of Shyft, an app producer now based in Seattle. The app is intended to help hourly workers at fast-food restaurants, retailers and cafes trade shifts.

"Shyft connects workers directly with others at their location and lets them quickly and easily exchange and cover shifts," Mr. Patrontasch said in a recent interview with OBJ.

He said the investment will allow the company to hire people for key positions and drive growth.

"Now we’re just working on growing the business," he added.

The seed stage investment was led by Seattle-based Madrona Venture Group and also included several angel investors – most notably former Ottawa mayor Larry O’Brien. Before going into politics, Mr. O’Brien was the founder and CEO of Calian Technologies.

"Larry definitely brings a skill set and experience both in understanding how labour forces work and also how technology products work and scale," Mr. Patrontasch said.

Also investing in the round was former Seattle Seahawks offensive lineman Russell Okung, who recently signed with the Super Bowl-champion Denver Broncos.

Mr. Patrontasch relocated Shyft to Seattle in March to attend Techstars, a startup accelerator program. Before that, the company had been based in Toronto.

He said the Techstars program helped speed the company’s growth. When the program ended in May, Mr. Patrontasch decided to stay In Seattle.

"The U.S. economy is larger," he explained. "There’s more access to opportunities."

But it’s not just the country, it’s the city itself, he added.

"Seattle’s typically been a great tech market," Mr. Patrontasch said.

It’s also home to the headquarters of Starbucks, where many of his users happen to work. In May, Shyft said almost 10,000 Starbucks baristas had signed up on the app.

So far, the company says, more than 26,000 work hours have been traded through the app.

The app connects users based on the store where they work. Users can post shifts they need covered and get confirmation if one of their colleagues wants to pick up the shift.

Mr. Patrontasch said the problem with previous shift-sharing options is that a worker would need to have a colleague’s phone number or be friends with him or her on Facebook. That led to situations where workers might not be able to reach the right colleagues or where not all employees who wanted to pick up extra shifts knew they were available.

Mr. Patrontasch said much of Shyft’s growth has come organically. Because the app requires multiple users who work at the same store for it be useful, once one employee at a specific location downloads the app, others often follow.

"Now the name of the game is growth and scale," he said.

The app is particularly well-timed, according to S. Somasegar, a former vice-president at Microsoft and now a venture partner at the Madrona Venture Group.

"The U.S. labour market is changing; workers don’t just take a schedule set in stone every two weeks," he said in a release. "In the era of Uber and on-demand models, where workers can turn their availability on and off, they want more flexibility."

But it hasn’t been all steady growth for Shyft. The company launched in 2013 as Coffee Mobile. Originally, the plan was to sell the app to employers, who would then use it to communicate with front-line workers.

"Back then, we were building something that enterprise clients had said they wanted," Mr. Patrontasch said.

Despite pilot projects with brands such as Yogen Fruz, Pita Pit and BeaverTails, the app didn’t get the traction Mr. Patrontasch was looking for. So he decided to rebuild it and change its target market.

"We spent four months literally cold calling and in malls, talking to employees and store managers," he said. "We’d show them our product, show them our (minimum viable product), ask them what they like, what they didn’t like, how to make it better. That helped us design a feature set that was really designed by users versus one that was designed by business executives."

The Shyft app is free and doesn’t generate any revenue yet. Mr. Patrontasch said he has a plan to monetize the app but doesn’t want to talk about it until he’s seen more growth.

However, in a May press release, the company suggested it would be replacing its enterprise software-as-a-service model with a marketplace model.

Shyft isn’t the first business Mr. Patrontasch has launched. In 2012, he was named one of OBJ’s Forty Under 40 recipients, an award that came after he founded Scholars At Your Service, which sells residential painting franchises to students.

That company still operates in Quebec and Ontario and has posted annual revenues of $2.5 million.