April 24, 2017 by Speakers' Spotlight
The Tech Titan Making a Splash in Canada’s Shark Tank
Tech titan Michele Romanow is an engineer and a serial entrepreneur who started three companies before her 28th birthday. The newest (and youngest ever) entrepreneur to join CBC’s hit show Dragons’ Den, Michele is the co-founder of e-commerce platforms Buytopia.ca and Snap By Groupon, which have saved millions of users hundreds of millions of dollars. She is also the co-founder of clearbanc.com, an online financial service for freelancers, independent contractors, and entrepreneurs. Ranked in WXN’s “100 Most Powerful in Canada” and listed as the only Canadian on Forbes’ “Millennial on a Mission” list, Michele brings her youthful energy and incredible entrepreneurial savvy to every stage. OZY takes a look at Michele’s growing celebrity and Clearbanc, the digital bank she’s recently co-founded:
Maybe it’s Michele Romanow’s youthful exuberance about tech — or her bubbly demeanor — but the 31-year-old sometimes seems an easy target on the set of the Canadian reality-TV show Dragons’ Den. During Romanow’s primetime debut, the angel investor endured relentless ribbing by her costar judges for asking the founders of the Vancouver-based Daily Delivery service more questions after almost everyone else had dismissed their pitch. “We haven’t got time,” the eldest dragon, Jim Treliving, hissed at Romanow. “It’s a one-hour show, for Christ’s sake!”
But the prairie kid turned “tech titan” fired back at the “franchise king,” burning Treliving for misusing the word crowdfunding (“It’s crowdsourcing!”) and noting that mobile phones weren’t even around when the septuagenarian got started. Then Romanow closed the deal with Daily Delivery, whose CEO says it has since more than doubled its monthly orders and tripled its staff. “Everyone got their chair a bit differently,” Romanow says, her smartwatch and iPhone flashing away in a Toronto café. “Jim made his money in an old-school, franchise business model and, for me, I’m interested in companies where I can help and leverage technologies so they can go from two users to 200,000 users to two million users in a year.”
Before this plucky new schooler became the youngest costar on Dragons’ Denin 2015, Romanow co-founded Buytopia, a daily deals site that gobbled up six rivals in 2013 alone and grew into one of Canada’s biggest players in this space. The company also spun off SnapSaves, a grocery-store coupon app Romanow co-founded and, less than a year later, was bought by Groupon for an undisclosed eight-figure deal. Ernst & Young has named her a finalist for entrepreneur of the year in Ontario, while Forbes mentioned her as the only Canuck among 20 female “Millennials on a Mission.” And next? Maybe this oft-tapped keynote speaker at corporate events and pitch competitions will follow the celebrity flight plan of Robert Herjavec and Kevin “Mr. Wonderful” O’Leary — former dragons who took off south of the 49th parallel to swim alongside Mark Cuban on ABC’s Shark Tank. “She’s been very successful [and] found a platform to hopefully inspire other women to follow in her footsteps as an entrepreneur, investor, adviser and mentor,” says Boris Wertz, the Vancouver-based investor behind Version One Ventures.
If Romanow breaks out as an investing star south of Saskatchewan, where she grew up the eldest of four kids, don’t be surprised to see the avid skier return to the Great White North. Clearbanc — a digital bank that last year named Romanow co-founder and the first of Y Combinator’s YC Fellowship companies to launch — started in San Francisco but has since relocated to Toronto. Romanow credits the “big recruiting advantage” among engineers and developers in Canada’s most populous town and from the neighboring cities of Kitchener and Waterloo — backyard to the once powerful BlackBerry, which shed many workers, but in the process seeded talent in promising new ventures. “Michele is a great example of a trend we’ve been seeing over the past few years in the Canadian startup ecosystem: successful repeat entrepreneurs with close ties to Silicon Valley who are choosing to start their new startups here in Canada,” says Stephen Lake, CEO and co-founder of Thalmic Labs, a Kitchener-based wearable-tech company.
Clearbanc provides financial services such as credit for an expanding pool of freelancers and nontraditionalists. Think pedal-pushers at Uber (where Romanow says “we closed a big deal”) and vacation-rental hosts like those on HomeAway or Airbnb, some of whom struggle to secure funds from Main Street banks but turn to Clearbanc to analyze their bookings data, predict future growth and offer moola in certain cases. While the company seems “very interesting,” Wertz says, he warns it risks being marginalized if Silicon Valley behemoths begin offering similar services themselves, “because if it’s an important service, they usually in-source it.” A larger incumbent could always copycat a startup, Romanow says, though she adds Clearbanc uses machine learning to improve its model over time. “I think we have a really unique data-driven approach,” she says.
Should the need arise, Romanow knows the hustle-and-pivot dance, steps she picked up while chasing a civil engineering degree at Queen’s University and raising $100,000 to launch a sustainable, on-campus café, The Tea Room, still serving students today. “I kind of thought I’d be better at building businesses than bridges,” she explains. While at Queen’s, where she also earned an MBA, Romanow met future business partners Anatoliy Melnichuk and Ryan Marien, who liked playing “What’s the next million-dollar idea?” The trio passed on producing biodegradable bottles, importing custom suits from China and growing exotic wood for pricey furniture and instead started a caviar business (which they closed following the 2008 U.S. stock market crash). They later reunited for Buytopia — raking in $10K at a trade show debut despite an unfinished website featuring a JPEG image of what it could look like — followed by SnapSaves. “We had found a rhythm,” says Romanow.
A rhythm whose beat started back west, amid farmers who woke up at dawn. Her Czechoslovakian immigrant mom learned English at 12, and her father didn’t have a bathroom at home until his teen years but became the CEO of a major oil and gas company. They may not have handed their daughter money to start in business, but Dad was essential in teaching Romanow about business early on through countless conversations and left her feeling like she had “some pretty big shoes to fill.” Clearbanc, should it succeed in its expansion in the U.S. while looking to offer financial services within Canada, could be the next giant step forward for this serial entrepreneur.