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Direct from The Six, world-renowned, Canada’s largest city with Canada’s biggest thinkers, visionaries, and hustlers. This is Startup Talk episode 15, featuring the founders, funders, innovators, and community leaders who’ve led Canada’s startup ecosystem right here in Toronto. You’ll hear the challenges, the failures, the successes. Toronto’s startup podcast gives you the full story direct from the entrepreneurs and influencers who’ve made a difference. Now the host of Startup Talk, the founder of TorontoStarts, the Startup Coach.
The Startup Coach: Welcome back to Startup Talk episode 15. It’s the Startup Coach here, and in this episode I speak with Erika J. Murray, founder of Ji App, on her busy dating life, travels around the world, and how she turned her social scheduling problem into an AI emoji-based startup and having an exit. Let’s get right into the interview.
The Startup Coach: Welcome back to Startup Talk episode 15. It’s the Startup Coach, and today I’m here with Erika J Murray. Welcome, Erika.
Erika J Murray: Thank you, Craig. Thanks for having me.
The Startup Coach: You’re an entrepreneur, but before we start talking about your enterprise and the work you were doing, I like to get in the mind of who the entrepreneurs were growing up and what kind of gave them that seed. Tell the audience about Erika growing up. Were you a handful for your parents?
Erika J Murray: I was born and raised in Newfoundland, and if that inherently makes me a handful because I’m a Newfie, then maybe that’s true. I basically was a bit of a wild child, in the sense that I always did straight As at school, but as long as I got straight As it was my opinion I could do whatever else I wanted to do outside of the home. My parents tried to fight it for a while, and then they basically were content with my straight As and accepted the fact that I was going to do whatever else it was I wanted.
The Startup Coach: And then you went to university for engineering, and you got a PhD in engineering. That doesn’t sound like a wild child thing.
Erika J Murray: I wanted to get out of Newfoundland, and my parents said that you have to do a degree that isn’t offered in Newfoundland and we’ll let you go. So I chose chemical engineering, which isn’t offered in Newfoundland. It is now, I think, but at that time it wasn’t. I went to University of Waterloo, and I did a chemical engineering degree. I was having so much fun in university that I decided to stay, and I did a PhD as well.
The Startup Coach: I don’t know Erika the engineer. I know Erika the lawyer. What led from a PhD in engineering to getting a law degree?
Erika J Murray: My PhD was in the area of stem cell science and regenerative medicine, and basically every time I went to go do a study, or I was studying pancreatic diabetes, I ran into legal issues, regulatory issues, as well as intellectual property issues. I was going to become a medical doctor after my PhD, but I decided I hated germs and not particularly fond of old people, caring for old people, so I went to law school and got the law degree.
The Startup Coach: Fantastic. After university, is that when you traveled the world? I heard there’s a little bit more to that story. Do you want to share that with the audience?
Erika J Murray: During my PhD, I actually had a child, and I got married, and basically my marriage didn’t work out. After my marriage didn’t work out, I took off for a while and traveled the world. I started using dating apps, and while using dating apps and traveling the world, I realized that I had a scheduling problem with my dating life.
The Startup Coach: You were using dating apps around the world, wherever it was, and you had trouble actually scheduling your dating life. Is that because you were using multiple apps, or because each of the apps didn’t have proper scheduling?
Erika J Murray: A bit of both. Most people on average have three to five dating apps, and everyone’s texting back and forth and wondering when they’re free to meet. It was a bit of combination of multiple dating apps and then everyone just asking random messages, “When are you free? When can you meet?”
The Startup Coach: Did you decide that you wanted to build this dating app and solve this problem while you were traveling or after you came back to Toronto?
Erika J Murray: Yeah, I mean I had been using dating apps before traveling, so I was recognizing that there was a problem, say, while here in Toronto and dating, what have you. But it wasn’t until I was on a beach and I thought, “You know what? I’m going to do this. When I get back, I’m going to actually validate the problem further and launch a company.”
The Startup Coach: That’s great. We talk about problem validation all the time, being the Startup Coach. What unmet problem were you feeling?
Erika J Murray: The unmet problem was essentially scheduling in the dating world. I mean, one of the problems I had as a early founder was actually people would classify me as quote-unquote another dating app, when it really wasn’t a dating app as such. It was a scheduling platform for dating.
The Startup Coach: I’m going to call it a dating app on the podcast, because it’s more exciting, and I’ll probably get more downloads.
Erika J Murray: Perfect.
The Startup Coach: I knew you early on, and everyone talks about hustle and entrepreneurship. I saw you hustle night after night. What did you do to get your initial traction and build your audience?
Erika J Murray: I would say that I spoke to and showed everyone. Very early on, I got some initial UX designs done, and I had them on my phone. It wasn’t a full-built app in any way, shape, or form. It was essentially like two, three UX slides, which showed the vision of what a potential product could look like to solve this scheduling problem. I would show people a calendar with emojis and a bunch of dates that they could schedule or book with me. I showed everyone. I would ask them, “Are you single? Do you have a dating app? Hey, look at this.” And then I would ask them questions and listen to what their response was.
The Startup Coach: It’s so important. Most people don’t listen. They have a hard time just talking, and then once they’re done talking, they’re just like, “Ah, I finally got it out.”
Erika J Murray: Right. I agree. From my intellectual property or founder advising role now, I always see clients so focused on what they think is the problem, what they think is their perfect product, that they actually do not listen to the customers. When I would show people, I got a lot of questions at first. People were confused. How would this actually work? But what about Tinder or Bumble, does it integrate? And these were all things that I would then write down and take notes, and then go back to the drawing board.
The Startup Coach: You’re out hustling night after night at my Startup Drinks. I don’t know all the other events. I know there’s a bunch of them. We’re going to talk about some of them later. At what point did investment actually come, and was it easy?
Erika J Murray: Yes, I hustled. I mean, every single night. There wasn’t an event or a group or anything I didn’t go to, but I wasn’t focused on getting investment early. I would say when I needed investment, it did come at the right time. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t hard, and it was all timing.
The Startup Coach: It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t hard, and it was all timing. Can you tell me a little bit about the timing?
Erika J Murray: I guess what I did is, while I was always pitching, whether that be pitching to potential customers, so people dating, or pitching to professionals, investors in the industry, I wasn’t necessarily always asking for money. I knew who people were, and I would show them the idea, but I guess when I needed money, because I wanted to scale and actually go live with my product, I was at CIX. And I had done the same thing, hustled day in, day out for two days and showed every investor there.
Erika J Murray: And it wasn’t til the very end of CIX, on the last day, I even had my jacket on, that I was leaving CIX, and I saw a man. I approached him and did my typical, “Are you dating?” He was an older gentleman. I didn’t know he was an investor, but he happened to know online dating, and he immediately got the problem, the solution, and the business model and invited me to come meet him the next day.
The Startup Coach: Fantastic. You never know who that person is you’re talking to, or maybe you’ve got to talk to that one last person before you leave.
Erika J Murray: Exactly, without being annoying. I often find, and I see founders kind of talk nonstop to investors, and you can kind of get a sense when an investor is interested or not. Sometimes you can do yourself a favor by saying less and kind of walking away, because you never know when you may see that investor six months down the road, and they then may be more interested in what you have to offer.
The Startup Coach: Yeah, and always pay attention. Get the signs, the body language, all that kind of stuff. But sometimes it’s not a question of, “Hey, I’m looking for money,” it’s, “What’s my next step? Can you give me advice? Is there someone else I should be talking to?” If you’re asking them for just those little bits of information, they’re more likely to talk to you and talk to you again. “Hey, how was that? Did you talk to John or Phil? Did you follow up with Furturpreneur or any of this other organization?” three months down the road. Always make progress when you’re talking to investors, because I’ve been in this business a long time. If you talk them now, and you talk to them a month from now, and you talk to them three months from now, if they’re showing movement and you’re showing progress, they get more and more interested every time they talk to you.
Erika J Murray: Exactly. And what I learned is that certain investors have an interest in a certain industry. Some may be high-tech machine learning, AI, and some may be hard goods and products or manufacturing. There’s no point in me pitching endlessly and asking them for money if they’re in manufacturing and I have a technology platform. You casually introduce yourself, the business model, but then exactly, like as you’re saying, Craig, it’s a good idea to then cut it short, perhaps, and ask, “Is there anyone in the tech space, for example, that I could speak to? A friend of yours or someone else that you know that may be interested in having a look at this product?”
The Startup Coach: Or give me advice or help point me in the right direction, someone who’s done this before in that area. It’s all about connections and networking. I remember early on, your going around and working on getting your app developed. Can you tell us about lessons you’ve learned as a non-programmer founder who had to have an app built?
Erika J Murray: Yeah. I mean, hindsight is always 20/20. I think I did pretty well. Definitely things to be learned there. Often I see people have a problem, and then they rush to build it without even having any customer validation. I can only speak to what I did. I did a tremendous amount of customer validation with my UX designs in several iterations and talking, no joke, to over 500 people at least. And then, essentially, I met with all sorts of app development companies, some being local, some being overseas, India. I had quotes ranging from, say, $20,000 to build the app to $800,000 for the exact same quote-unquote platform.
The Startup Coach: Wow. And how would you choose from that?
Erika J Murray: Well, of course I couldn’t go with the $800,000 quote, nor would I, being a startup. There was a balance there, in terms of did I really believe or trust that the $20,000 price point overseas could deliver? I believe there are a lot of great overseas companies that can do app development, especially at this point in time, so I basically went with a middle of the road. Ultimately, the investor had a relationship with them, and the investor helped me choose.
The Startup Coach: It’s always good to have someone with experience onboard, who’ve outsourced this kind of stuff or worked with them before. Do you have three tips for founders?
My first tip would be to continuously talk to customers. I cannot emphasize this enough.Erika J Murray – Founder Ji App
Erika J Murray: My first tip would be to continuously talk to customers. I cannot emphasize this enough. You all learn it in startup 101, what have you, but even while building, you would be surprised. We would do a release every two weeks, and at that point we would have to go out and continuously talk to different, as well as the same, customers and actually listen. So that’s tip number one.
Tip number two, figure out early how to bring in revenue, and that would be, I would not recommend doing the whole necessarily freemium model.Erika J Murray – Founder Ji App
Erika J Murray: Tip number two, figure out early how to bring in revenue, and that would be, I would not recommend doing the whole necessarily freemium model. I see too many companies say they’re going to release a freemium model platform, and it, I believe, is very, very near impossible to end up turning it into a paying model. So find out how to make revenue early.
final tip would be stop looking for funding too early.Erika J Murray – Founder Ji App
Erika J Murray: And the final tip would be stop looking for funding too early. A lot of startups chasing around, “I need investment. I need investment,” and they’re not actually focused on their customers, the product, or the revenue and how they’re going to bring it in. If you don’t have customers, or you’re not solving a problem, then you shouldn’t be looking for investment money. Why are you looking for investment if you basically don’t have a business model yet, or no traction or anything else?
The Startup Coach: Fantastic. I get that all the time. Even at one of my workshops recently, somebody was saying, “I need $800,000, and everyone says this is a great idea.” That’s great. That doesn’t get you very far. You need more. Is there any advice you have specifically for female founders?
Erika J Murray: Yes. I mean, I clearly am female. I guess it would be maybe don’t focus too much on the female aspect. There are a lot of resources, though. I can’t say I necessarily tapped into any specific female funds or anything like that, but they are out there. I found, actually, that from a female-to-female mentorship standpoint, if you’re a female founder, I would find perhaps another female mentor that’s had a company or an exit, or even a female investor on your board. Very helpful. The Fierce Founders Communitech Program was very good. And ultimately, focus on your product and your customers.
The Startup Coach: So you’ve got your app built. You’ve been hustling night after night. You’ve got investors, and your startup is up and running. We’re in that timeframe now. What happens next?
Erika J Murray: I’m up, and I’m still beating the streets, so of course, even once you’re live, I think what a lot of startups do is expect they’re going to get downloads. And that just doesn’t happen. I was still hustling, hustling, hustling to get downloads, and my growth curve was excellent. I was approached by a larger dating app in the United States.
The Startup Coach: Fantastic. How did that work out?
Erika J Murray: I went, and I did a year with them as their CXO. Actually, sorry, they’re located in Canada, but their millions of users are in the United States. I was their CXO for a year, and basically now I’m back as a lawyer and an intellectual property lawyer, so I’ve left that company. It was good. I learned a lot. I can’t really talk about the specifics of the agreement, but I learned a lot.
The Startup Coach: All right, so we can’t get into the specifics of the exit, but you learned a lot. Any advice for first-time entrepreneurs who have to go through their own exit?
Erika J Murray: I would say you have to be very careful as to what it is you want and what it is you believe you’re getting and the terms of those agreements. Even being a lawyer, you can very early, especially, I mean I was extremely early stage, I had a tremendous amount of value, customers, a built product, etc., a lot of intellectual property, but you need to be careful not to perhaps jump too soon. But that being said, I’ve seen a lot of companies hold out and wait and wait and wait, and then they never get that opportunity.
The Startup Coach: So you’ve got to know what the right time is for you?
Erika J Murray: Yeah, everything is timing. I’ve been extremely happy with the timing. I’m out of the dating space, which is excellent as well. Timing is key.
The Startup Coach: How important is being able to pitch for an entrepreneur?
Erika J Murray: Well, as I said, I was always, always pitching. Not only pitching the product itself. When I would meet someone, even in an elevator, I’d be like, “Are you single? Are you on dating apps?” But I was volunteering to help other companies pitch, or teach pitching, because I found the more I helped others learn to pitch, it helped myself. I would say pitching is one of the most critical things, because the questions you get asked, the people you get to be in front of, and your pitch is always, always changing, so it forces you to further validate, to further consider the marketplace. And it’s opportunity. You never know who’s going to be in the audience.
The Startup Coach: Absolutely. You never know who’s going to be in the audience. We do a monthly Startup Drinks event where it’s open pitch, open bar. The people come out, and there’s always two or three investors in the audience. Sometimes they let it known and sometimes they don’t, but it’s up to you to go meet them. I generally know who they are, but sometimes they want to be incognito and just not be known as the investor in the room. But you’ve got to talk to everybody, always be pitching. Let’s get into, is there any tools you would recommend that you used, that were useful for you as a startup?
Erika J Murray: My own tool, which was Ji App, for scheduling all my dates and testing my product.
The Startup Coach: Should everybody run out and download that now?
Erika J Murray: Currently it’s not in the App Store, but maybe in the future. You never know, it might fire up again. We’ll see. But I use a similar product called Calendly that you all know. Calendly is like the professional booking, calendar system. I found it very good for quickly booking meetings, instead of going back and forth, which is exactly the problem that my platform solved. Clausehound, they’re a company out of Ryerson, and they’re actually a legal tech platform that I refer even some of my clients to these days, for some simple legal documentation, nothing really intellectual property, but it’s great. And finally, HubSpot.
The Startup Coach: Yeah, I talk HubSpot a lot in my growth acting class when we’re talking about marketing and landing pages and different messaging and knowing each of your customer segments. And they’re very good at that. I mean, I know some of the people at Clausehound. They’re pretty nice. What resources and communities do you recommend?
No joke, my platform, product, customer validation, everything started with Craig and the team at TorontoStarts.Erika J Murray – Founder Ji App
Erika J Murray: Startup Drinks of course, TorontoStarts. No joke, my platform, product, customer validation, everything started with Craig and the team at TorontoStarts. I would go to every single event and used all the resources. Communitech and Velocity in Waterloo. TechToronto, I also had the opportunity to pitch there. It was awesome. Fierce Founders, BDC, Futurpreneur, all of those resources. There’s a bunch more I’m sure I’m forgetting, but those were the ones that I really relied upon.
The Startup Coach: Well, that’s been very helpful. So what’s next for Erika?
Erika J Murray: Currently, I am an intellectual property lawyer with PCKIP Law here in Toronto, and I am focused on basically reforming and helping other entrepreneurs with their intellectual property needs for now. And then who knows? In the future, maybe there’ll be another problem in my life or in someone else’s life that I’d like to get involved with, but for now I’m back to being a intellectual property lawyer.
The Startup Coach: And if people want to find out more about you, where would they go?
Erika J Murray: They can go to my Instagram. It’s @erikajmurray. Or they can find me at PCK Intellectual Property Law, so email@example.com. And yeah, find me online, basically.
The Startup Coach: Well, thank you so much for being here on Startup Talk, Erika.
Erika J Murray: Thank you so much for having me, Craig.
This has been Startup Talk episode 15, Toronto’s startup podcast. For more exclusive content, the episode vault, and to be part of TorontoStarts community, visit torontostarts.com. Get your name on the newsletter mailing list and check out our upcoming events. For more episodes, subscribe now, and please recognize the time and work behind the scenes put into connecting you with the biggest visionaries, entrepreneurs, and innovators in Toronto, by leaving a five-star review. Join us for more next episode from Toronto’s most active entrepreneur and startup community on Startup Talk.