11.05.2015 By: Ali Asaria

How traffic gridlock stalls business innovation

As seen on The Globe & Mail’s For the Better Series. As told to Brenda Bouw.

I studied computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and was raised in Toronto and Guelph, Ont. A lot of my life has been going up and down Highway 401 for university and for work. About eight years ago, after stepping down from my role at Research In Motion (now BlackBerry), I started Well.ca, based in Guelph. I was living in Toronto and driving to Guelph each day and started building a team. I eventually couldn’t do the commute any more and rented an apartment in Guelph.

I found it was next to impossible to hire really seasoned marketing and merchandising employees in Guelph. The challenge I’ve been having since I started Well and my latest company, Toronto-based Tulip Retail, is pulling together great talent. One of the challenges in this region is that the talent is spread out: There are great software developers in Waterloo, great operational talent in Guelph and great senior marketers and merchandisers in Toronto. It was a challenge for me because I was trying to build a company and spending three hours on the road each day. It can be exhausting. The traffic to and from Toronto is also getting worse. It’s gridlock. There’s not a time of day any more where you can go on the 401 and expect it to be a normal commute.

We strongly believe that it’s important to have our employees in the same room as much as we can, to help everyone feel more connected. Tulip has a meeting every Wednesday in Waterloo. We’ve had to figure out how to get everyone there. A lot of people were taking the bus, which was unpredictable at times, then we tried carpooling, but that’s frustrating because of the liability and complexity of having people consistently drive. We also considered renting our own bus, but that was too expensive for a company of our size. What we need is a good train that connects these cities.

There are trains that go to Toronto from Kitchener-Waterloo in the morning and return at night. However, it’s not an all-day service and there is no way to use it to go to Kitchener-Waterloo from Toronto in the morning. The Ontario government has announced plans to provide full-day, two-way GO Transit train service between the Waterloo Region and the Greater Toronto Area by 2025, but that’s a long way away. We need to see changes in the near term.

Everyone wants that, not just our company. From my understanding people in government are aligned, businesses are aligned and people in the community are aligned, but nobody knows how to get it started because it’s such a big project. There have been very few times in my life where I’ve seen something where everyone agrees on something, but nobody knows how to get it started.

As communities, we have to figure out why this is good for everyone and have a single voice. What’s more, when you invest in infrastructure like this, there is so much long-term investment that comes from it. We see this with trains in communities in New York and California, where all the communities along the way thrive. I think it’s such as good investment for the country, which will help to make us a global competitor for talent. We have to connect the talent; we can’t just have it spread out.

Tulip Retail CEO Ali Asaria says taking time to define your company’s core values and mission ‘pay themselves forward over and over.’ (Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)

One-on-one with Ali Asaria

What has been your best business decision to date?

Spending the time defining our culture. I’ve learned over time that the investment you make into defining your company’s core values and mission pay themselves forward over and over.

What has been the worst decision?

Trying to cut corners on rent. In my last company, Well.ca, we were trying to save money by renting a warehouse from a landlord who didn’t want to give us an official lease. Then one day he decided to kick us out – including our entire inventory – with only a few days’ notice. I’ve learned my lesson: These days I am willing to spend a premium on rent to make sure the landlord is trustworthy.

Who are your business mentors?

I’ve been able to learn so much about business from my investors and other business owners. But the most I’ve ever learned is from inside the company, not outside. My team inspires me – they’ve been loyal and stuck with me even when I couldn’t pay their salaries. I want to learn from them about what they imagine for the company and what they’ve learned from previous companies.

If you had to choose a different career, and could do anything, what would it be?

I’m really passionate about technological innovation. I love building software and hardware. I think if I could do anything it would be trying to find a way to bring together my passion for technology with the arts and community. I’d love to spend my time building things whose purpose are to explore and improve life for reasons beyond making money.


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