Alberta’s tech sector is alive and thriving. And as an ecosystem partner, we want to highlight the people and stories behind that growth.
So we’re giving you the inside track into how some of Alberta’s prominent tech companies got started, the challenges they’ve faced, and their take on the future of tech in Alberta.
First up – Nic Beique, Founder and CEO at Helcim, who’s on a mission to build the world’s most loved payments company.
Let’s see what Nic had to say…
What inspired you to found Helcim?
Nic: “Helcim was founded on a love for small business. I firmly believe that small businesses are the heartbeat of our economy, but they are often overlooked by the larger service providers. Helcim is here to change that.
I was tired of seeing small businesses dragged through the mud by payments companies with difficult contracts, expensive pricing models, and antiquated software solutions. Helcim does it differently with easy signup, affordable pricing, and the digital tools businesses need. By focusing on honesty and transparency in all aspects of our service offering we’ve built a company with strong values rooted in putting businesses first and truly caring about their needs.”
What does Helcim do and how are you making an impact?
Nic: “Simply put, Helcim is a payments company. We make it faster, easier, and more affordable for businesses to get paid.
One of the best parts of working in payments is that we’re the heartbeat of commerce for small businesses. We get to be in the very center of it all and interact with all different types of businesses every day. We get to chat with dentists, barbers, drivers, and educators. We work with charities on how to make it easier for people to aid their cause, and with bakers on how to sell more muffins. We’ve had the chance to develop fantastic relationships with restaurant owners, auto mechanics, and locksmiths. And the range in scale has been diverse too. I’ve toured giant global wheat distribution centers to help them accept payments from microbreweries in need of good malt for their beer, and we’ve sat down with those very same micro-brewers, brainstorming on how to get more patrons so they can put that malt to good use.
For someone who loves business, I simply cannot think of working for an industry that is more at the center of it all. It is truly a privilege. Finding a payment processor who is a true partner to a business can make a world of difference in their ability to better serve their customers and grow their business. That’s what Helcim aims to do, we want to provide really great payments and the software that businesses need so they can grow and compete on a larger scale.”
What were the biggest challenges you faced in the early startup days of the company?
Nic: “It is very difficult to start a payments company. The security, technology, and compliance requirements are daunting even for well-funded startups. Looking back at my 23-year-old-self, I’m sometimes surprised that we survived the trials and tribulations. This included a two-year search for an underwriting bank partner, building an entire payment system without industry experience, securing our networks from constant fraud and hackers, and gaining the trust of our merchants.
Calgary’s tech and startup scene was also much more underground at the time. It wasn’t cool to work in tech and it wasn’t something that people were talking about. Making headway in an industry that was still viewed as being quite “new” at the time was a unique challenge in itself. Today, Calgary has a thriving startup scene with all different types of networking groups, resources, and support systems to help connect companies and answer the millions of questions you have when you’re just getting started.”
What marketing activities have you prioritized/invested in? What has worked well for you?
Nic: “Marketing at Helcim has been a combination of experiments and testing to see how we can best reach business owners and connect with them. We’ve invested heavily in creating educational content to help people better understand the often confusing and overwhelming world of payments. With the help of our great in-house team, we’ve been able to create a variety of different types of content from blog posts, video tutorials, the Helcim Vlog, and video ads.
Like many companies, we’ve also invested in digital advertising. Again, our in-house team is able to film ads or render the graphics we need for these assets quickly, so we can iterate and learn as we go. Keeping the team in-house has been really important to us to ensure we can remain nimble and produce new ads quickly. Another benefit to our in-house team is that everyone has in-depth knowledge and connection to the product and the company.
We’ve been investing heavily in the marketing team since the relaunch of our payments service in June of 2020, and at the end of 2020 we actually tripled the size of the team to bring in the specialized roles we needed to move our marketing efforts forward.”
How has COVID impacted Helcim?
Nic: “We’ve been focused on putting our merchants and business owners first as we work through the challenges of the pandemic. While there was a lot of uncertainty and unknown in March 2020, the Helcim team focused on helping merchants adjust and pivot their operations. The team launched a variety of digital tools (online food ordering, enhanced online store offering, payment requests, recurring invoicing, QR code payments) to make it easier for businesses to offer a contactless experience and still get paid.
We paid attention to how businesses were being affected and the new payment trends they were adopting including moving to curbside pickup or pivoting to fully online operations. We looked to see what payment tools businesses needed to offer these new customer experiences, and we built what they needed to keep operating.
Helcim did have a brief hiring freeze in the Spring of 2020 while we found our footing and adjusted to the new reality. We were lucky to come out of that stronger than ever and between July 2020 and December 2020 we grew the team by 40%.”
What’s on the horizon for Helcim post-pandemic?
Nic: “Now that we can see what we hope is a return to normal on the horizon, I’m really looking forward to getting everyone back in the office. We’ve grown the team a lot over the past year and we have yet to get everyone into the same room. While this return will take time I’m really looking forward to being surrounded by the energy and excitement that has always filled our offices.
Our next big steps will be focused on continuing our innovation in the payments space. We’re going to continue innovating and building better tools for small businesses. We are excited to welcome more small businesses to the Helcim platform and have them discover the difference that better payments make.”
What do you think the future holds for the Alberta tech sector (industry trends you may have observed, investor growth, etc)?
Nic: “The amount of growth the Alberta tech sector has experienced over even the last five years is really exciting. The industry has come a long way since I first joined it and I hope that this growth continues in the future. Right now Alberta has a lot of companies in the startup stage, and I hope that over the next five years we see them grow into scale-ups and growth-focused companies that are committed to building roots in the province.
As more companies prove they can grow and be successful in Alberta, I hope this brings new industries and investors to the province. At the moment there can still be that pressure to move your company out east or to the US, but I imagine a future where the tech industry is so enticing that investors have no choice but to come here because this is where the magic is happening.
Once a few of the current startups or scaleups become big tech companies the momentum will grow and people will naturally be drawn here for the opportunity and quality of life. Overall, I see a bright future for Alberta’s tech sector and I’m excited to be at the helm of one of the companies driving the shift in our economy.”
What Alberta tech startup(s) are you currently watching and why?
Nic: “There are so many great tech startups in the city it’s hard to pick just a few. Gursh Bal and Kai M. Fahrion at Virtuoso Energy are doing really great things in an industry that I think is just going to keep growing and growing. They have a great born-in-Calgary story for their company and a clear vision of the type of impact they want to have.
Bobbie Racette at Virtual Gurus is also doing great things to reimagine work for her team of Virtual Assistants and the companies that hire them. They’ve been expanding quickly but continue to lead with their values and a focus on creating opportunities for underrepresented individuals.”
What advice would you give to someone considering starting a tech company in Alberta?
Nic: “I would give the same advice to them that I give any entrepreneur who is just starting out and that is:
- You don’t know what you’re doing.
- Your business plan is unrealistic.
- Your model will need to change – more than once.
- It will take five times longer than you think.
- It will be really hard, and you will question yourself at every step.
- And it’s okay… This is part of the journey.
- Just take it one step at a time and remember that perseverance is the most common trait among those who have found success.
I can say that Alberta has a great ecosystem of entrepreneurs who were in the “getting started” phase not that long ago and they’re committed to helping the next generation of tech companies succeed, so don’t be afraid to get out there, ask questions, and get advice when you’re stuck or unsure what to do next.”
What’s your must-read, listen, or watch for anyone in tech?
Nic: “I always have a book on the go. Some of my recent favorites include:
- “Netflix No Rules Rules” by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer
- “7 Powers” by Hamilton Helmer
- “The Innovation Stack” by Jim McKelvey
Some key books I recommend all of our team members read include:
- “High Output Management” by Andy Grove
- “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lecioni
- “The Messy Middle” by Scott Belsky
- “This is Marketing” by Seth Godin
- “Crossing the Chasm” by Geoffrey Moore
These are just my most common suggestions, but each team leader usually has their own recommendations. Book clubs are a big part of Helcim and we recently launched an online Book Club where the whole team is encouraged to share their favorite books and see what other people are reading. For podcasts, I am a regular listener of “Pivot” with Scott Galloway and Kara Swisher and “How I Built This.”
More Alberta tech stories to come…