More than two years after graduating, David Au-Yeung, Matthew Cheung, David Meyers and Wehuns Tan were all putting their engineering degrees to good use at good jobs in the working world.
But that wasn’t what they really wanted.
Close friends since their first year of Waterloo’s computer engineering program, the foursome from the Toronto area still had their sights set on becoming entrepreneurs.
When they hung out on weekends – keeping Cheung in the loop even after he had moved to Seattle to work at Microsoft – talk invariably turned to business ideas and the kind of company they would build together one day.
That day came in 2007 when they all took the leap, packed in their jobs and launched a company called Wishabi to provide consumers with an online platform for comparison shopping.
“We didn’t really have the best idea at that point, when we were 24 or 25, but we thought we would do what we really wanted to do and try to learn from our mistakes,” recalls Au-Yeung.
Just over a decade of twists, turns and a major pivot later, the four friends head a Toronto-based company, the Flipp Corporation, with more than 430 employees and the leading mobile application for digital flyers in North America.
Its namesake product, the Flipp app, has been downloaded 40 million times since its launch in 2014 and now displays flyers from 90 per cent of the continent’s largest retailers, including Walmart, Target, Kroger, Macys and Dollar General.
Limitless growth and potential
Last year alone, Flipp was used to open a staggering 1.8 billion publications as consumers searched for deals and planned shopping trips for groceries, home renovation supplies, pet products, electronics and clothing.
As they look ahead to almost “limitless” growth, Au-Yeung and Meyers laugh out loud when asked if they ever dreamed of founding a successful business with so much potential.
“No,” says Meyers, the managing director of technology. “For us it was enough to just start the company and take that initial step.”
Meyers and Au-Yeung are quick to credit Waterloo Engineering – especially its co-op program and the quality of its faculty and students – with instilling a belief in technology as a force for change and the confidence to make it happen themselves.
One particularly strong memory is of discussions about future careers and how to get the most out of life in a first-year economics course taught by professor Larry Smith.
“It was just ingrained in us that through technology and a good idea and a great team of people, you can create things – and creation of a new product, creating new technology, is just very exciting for us,” says Au-Yeung, the managing director of engineering.
Search for gift sparks app concept
The actual seed for the company that would eventually become Flipp was planted in 2006 when Au-Yeung was getting married and about 20 members of the computer engineering class of 2004 chipped in to buy him a big-screen television.
Frustrated during their search for the best buy and the best model for him, they hit on an idea to use technology to help shoppers decide on gifts for their friends.
That basic concept evolved into a website for comparison shopping and then a mobile “marketplace” for flyers to digitize the age-old paper marketing vehicle.
The emphasis on flyers with the introduction of the Flipp app led to “explosive growth” and a decision to rename the company in 2015.
“Over the last 10 years, everything has been an incremental step towards where we are today,” says Meyers. “But when you look at it all together, it is quite surprising how far we’ve come.”
Five other members of the 90-member computer engineering class of 2004 also work in key roles at Flipp, which is fueled by a $61-million investment in 2016 by growth equity firm General Atlantic.
The founders attribute much of their success to the three H’s – humble, hungry and highly intelligent – that they adopted as attributes to seek in new employees.
They also cite a company culture of constant reinvention, putting the team first and coaching, all values they trace back to Waterloo Engineering as well.
With users reporting that the app allows them to slash their weekly shopping bills by up to 40 per cent, it all helps them stay focused on the concept and the purpose at the core of the company.
“We’re having a really important impact on users and society – and we’re very passionate about that,” says Au-Yeung.
“We just want to continue to help people save time and money,” says Meyers.