CIX Top 20 CEO Series: Bryan Smith, CEO, ThinkData Works

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The CIX Top 20 CEO Series highlights the chief executive officers of Canada’s most innovative companies.

You can register for CIX 2015 here.

Today we sat down with Bryan Smith, CEO of ThinkData Works.

What impact does being on the CIX Top 20 have on your business?

Being part of the CIX Top 20 is really an honour, and I think a lot of people within the startup community see it as a big accomplishment.

It’s motivating to get recognized for being innovative and building something that others believe has a lot of potential. It reassures founders that what they’re building matters and motivates employees by putting a value to their hard work.

Getting recognized for something like this can have a resounding impact on a business, acting like the shot in the arm a company needs to bring their business to the next level.

Awards like this also add a certain level of legitimacy to a startup. It means the company has a product or service with potential and a growth strategy that a handful of respected founders and VCs already consider possible. It’s like passing the sniff test and being seen as worth a second look.

Or, because Tarantino said it infinitely better, “You had my curiosity, but now you have my attention”. As every founder knows, getting your foot in the door is more than half the battle.

How was your company formed?

ThinkData was formed very organically. Myself and my co-founder, Brendan Stennett, grew up together and always plotted about starting our own company. When we found out about open data, the opportunity seemed to large to pass up.

Governments and businesses were beginning to release large amounts of high value public data, but although considered open, it was being released in multiple places, in different formats, without common licenses, standards, or meta-information. This made the data so difficult to access and digest that interested parties often avoided using it altogether, despite its inherent value.

We came up with the idea to develop a platform that could act as a single window to search and browse all available public data, provide a common API for access, and act as a neutral clearinghouse to build disparate datasets into single ‘macros’ with common elements and standards.

We took the idea to our current Chairman, Ray Sharma, who is a very established Entrepreneur and VC, and the rest is really history. We’ve been spending every waking hour of every day trying to build the best product and company we can to solve what we believe to be a monumental problem in leveraging the full potential of raw public data.

What brought you to this industry?

Fundamentally, we believe that open data is, without exception, the most underestimated corner of the digital landscape. It’s the common fabric that makes up everything around us. The only difference is, its digital. If we can enable people and businesses to start leveraging this stuff, we think we can help change how everyone interacts with cities, governments, businesses, and each other – for the better. The challenge of solving this problem, accessing the data in a useable way, is definitely the one thing that motivated us to quit our jobs and start ThinkData.

The big data industry as a whole is also really exciting. there’s still a really big question mark surrounding its potential and with the further adoption of things like IoT, the potential size of the market just keeps growing. We believe that curated data, whether public, private, or proprietary, will soon get traded as a commodity, similar to goods and services. We wanted to establish ourselves as a player in this new marketplace.

Who are your typical clients?

Our customers are larger companies that have a good handle on their own big data and adopt our solution in order to further the capabilities of their data scientists. Usually, they have sophisticated data and analytics departments within their organization. They generally understand the value of public data, but don’t have the capacity or ability to go out and acquire what they need and keep it updated on a go forward basis.

Our clients also understand that their data and analytics teams can end up spending 50-80% of their time collecting and preparing data, rather than using that time to build, innovate, and advise. They want to adopt solutions that eliminate the janitorial nature of working with data and provide their teams with clean, reliable information that they can immediately leverage.

Can you give me a sense of your role and what you do as CEO of your company? What are your goals?

Brendan and I both run the company as co-founders. Being the technology partner, Brendan runs the development force and most of the day-to-day operations at ThinkData. Nearly all of our employees work on development or data, which leaves a lot of the Business Development and sales work up to me.

In our office, the role of the CEO really comes down to making sure everyone understands the direction of the company and how all of our work ultimately fits into the overall delivery of a better product and service. At the end of the day, I think our goal is to create a team that constantly iterates and evolves the product to suit demand and service new markets. We’re kickstarting a flywheel that will only gain momentum as the company grows.

How do you feel your past experience has impacted you and your role as CEO? Have you had any mentors?

In my prior life I worked in politics, specifically at the federal government. The one thing I learned very early was that it’s difficult to get anything done in an organization that lacks clear direction and accountability. Hierarchy also proved to be the death of productivity and creativity.

At ThinkData, we make sure that everything we do aligns with our strategy and goals, and every project and deliverable has a timeline and project lead. Our office is super transparent and everyone has a say in everything from product design to strategy. This creates an environment where everyone knows what everyone else is working on and we can rally behind one another to reach are aggressive deadlines. It creates an amazing atmosphere.

Are you developing anything new that you can share with the public?

We’re constantly adding to and iterating on our platform and services. Working with our clients, we’re getting smarter on how we deliver data through our enterprise deployments and what data can be relevant to what type of customer. We’re entering new markets and finding new ways to use our data to derive new insights.

Where do you see your company in 5 years?

5 years is a long time. It’s tough to say where we’ll be because the entire sector we operate in is constantly shifting and expanding. I can say that we do see ourselves being an established Canadian company, operating in Toronto and growing the knowledge base here within our borders. Canada, specifically the Toronto/Waterloo corridor, is proving to be hotbed of talent in the tech sector and I think if we can get companies to commit to growing in the region, the country will see major returns in the long run.

What are you looking forward to most at CIX 2015?

I am really looking forward to listening and watching the presentations put forward by my colleagues in the Top 20. It’s amazing to see passionate founders describe their business and define the market opportunity. Startup founders are very passionate people and it’s beautiful to see them rise to the occasion and wow crowds. It’s going to be a very fun event.

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