Bolstered by ‘Shopify effect’, Ottawa’s Fellow.app raises $8.75M seed round

Fellow
Aydin Mirzaee (centre) with the Fellow.app team in its Ottawa offices. Provided.

Three years ago, when Fluidware co-founder Aydin Mirzaee announced he was stepping away from the team he’d helped build in SurveyMonkey’s Ottawa offices, he knew he’d be back.

Not to the Silicon Valley tech giant, mind you – but back in Ottawa’s startup game in one form or another.

The young entrepreneur said then he was curious about emerging technologies such as drones and virtual reality, but that software startups were still his strength. Wherever he ended up, he said, he felt an “entrepreneurial itch” that would eventually bring him back to running a business.

With Fellow.app, Mirzaee’s itch might just be scratched.

The Ottawa-based software-as-a-service firm announced Thursday it has raised $8.75 million in seed funding. The sizeable financing round, likely the biggest in the recent history of Ottawa’s tech scene, was led by Canada’s Inovia Capital with participation from BDC-supported Garage Capital, Silicon Valley’s Felicis Ventures and a few angels.

Mirazee, speaking to Techopia from Fellow’s offices on Slater Street, doesn’t balk at the size of the company’s first foray into financing. His previous venture, Fluidware, was fully bootstrapped before being acquired by SurveyMonkey in 2014. This time, he and co-founders Amin Mirzaee and Sam Cormier-Iijima – the same team from Fluidware – are setting their sights high from the outset.

“We know what it means to raise venture capital… it’s a swing for the fences,” he says.

The three co-founders believe in Fellow.app because it’s addressing a pain they’ve felt firsthand. The SaaS solution looks to improve managers’ relationships with their employees by organizing and optimizing common tasks such as running meetings, setting up one-on-ones, providing feedback and tracking growth.

“We know what it means to raise venture capital… it’s a swing for the fences."

Fellow.app is free to use for everyone, with some premium features locked behind a paywall – similarly to how workplace messaging app Slack makes users pay to access historical data.

The company’s mission, Mirzaee says, is to “make work better for everyone.” In the same way applications like Salesforce have become the go-to application for salespeople, Mirzaee hopes Fellow.app will be the first thing new managers log into when they join a company.

“If we do this correctly, we can be synonymous with the word ‘manager,’” he says.

The ‘Shopify effect’

After spending the first few months of its operations in stealth mode, Fellow.app is technically still in its beta phase with a waiting list of hopeful managers intermittently funnelled into the app. In addition to building a bit of a hype – in the same way a long line in the ByWard Market shows where that evening’s best party might be – the incremental approach has helped the firm keep growth under control. Before opening up the app’s floodgates to a new wave of users, Fellow’s team is ensuring it has the formula right at each level to maintain conversion rates for paying customers.

Despite the steady growth strategy, the company got a running start from a pilot project with an Ottawa tech giant. Mirzaee says he approached Shopify in the app’s early days about testing its potential with roughly a dozen people in the e-commerce firm’s Ottawa offices.

While it’s a massive boon to have Shopify as a lead customer, Mirzaee is honest about how the pilot began.

“It was OK. It didn’t actually really work. We went back to the drawing board,” he says of Fellow’s first attempt.

The feedback from Shopify proved invaluable, and when Mirazee and his team presented the idea again, Fellow started to fly. The small initial team ballooned to 100 Shopify employees, and then 200, and within a few months the company’s entire 4,000-plus global workforce was using the app.

The Shopify signal boost hasn’t been limited to the company itself. Mirzaee says word-of-mouth has been key to Fellow’s spread. There’s a “viral nature” to the app, he says, and employees who have joined Shopify in recent months and kept in touch with their old workplaces are freely sharing the Fellow gospel.

“Just from the Shopify effect, we’ve gotten so many other companies to sign up,” Mirzaee says.

Mirzaee recognizes what Shopify has meant to his new company’s early success, and the role the high-value tech firm is playing in the Ottawa ecosystem. 

“Shopify is probably the best thing to happen in this city in the past decade,” he adds.

With a similar be-good-to-thy-neighbour philosophy, the Ottawa entrepreneur also notes that other companies in the National Capital Region that are interested in joining Fellow might be given preference on the waitlist.