Conference Cloud: siblings' startup brings conferences to entrepreneurs
For brother and sister Olivia and John-Alan Simmons, juggling an undergraduate education and running a business is par for the course.
As products of an entrepreneurial home, the Simmons siblings say they have an inherent understanding of the hard work, dedication and support that it takes for a business to succeed. So when it came time for them to go to university, they didn't opt for traditional part-time jobs.
Instead, the Simmons siblings created their own startup: ConferenceCloud
“To get us through [my] applied mathematics degree and [John-Alan’s] computer science degree we had a web-development company along with a few of our own side projects,” Olivia says. “We made some good money and it was a great experience building technology for other people, but we always knew we wanted to build something for ourselves.”
Apart from their formal U of T education, the duo also went to a number of events and conferences to learn more about project management and to become better developers. But, like many students, their budget only allowed them to attend reasonably priced events within the GTA.
Which made them ask: why isn’t there a better curated hub for digital conference content? Enter ConferenceCloud
ConferenceCloud is a virtual attendance platform that allows users to live-stream conferences or to watch the event on-demand afterwards. The platform also aggregates ticket sales, virtual networking and interactive content all in one location.
Founded in 2014, ConferenceCloud has worked with UTEST (University of Toronto Early Stage Technology), one of U of T’s nine campus-linked accelerators, to grow. Over 18 months, UTEST provided the siblings with dedicated work space, mentorship, networking opportunities and educational opportunities.
At the start of 2016, UTEST and MaRS Innovation invested $30,000 in ConferenceCloud. The investment coincided with funding from a new, Toronto-based provincial fund called MLA48 Angel Investment Fund. Affiliated with Maple Leaf Angels, the fund provides pre-seed funding to early-stage startups. Investment decisions are made within 48 hours of application, making the MLA48 fund unique in Toronto’s ecosystem.
“What impresses us most about Olivia and John-Alan is their willingness to pursue a large vision while adapting to market-driven feedback,” says Joel Liederman, vice-president, Physical Sciences, at MaRS Innovation. “While in the UTEST program, they were receptive to their advisors and pivoted several times to arrive at their current product. We’re pleased that external investors like MLA48 share our admiration for this team.”
While ConferenceCloud does support free events, its services are mostly geared to larger, paid conferences, promoting the platform as a new revenue stream for conference organizers. It provides a way for the organizers to expand their audience and get more value out of their content.
“The conference organizers paid for all this content from speakers and put on a one-, two- or three-day conference but then after that all of that value is kind of lost,” says Olivia, co-founder and CEO. “ConferenceCloud not only increases this content’s reach, but it can also save and re-sell that content to new audiences that might have missed the original event.”
Striking the balance
Sounds easy? Don’t be fooled, the siblings say: managing a business while pursuing a post-secondary degree is no small feat. They credit the support they’ve received from their family and the mentorship they’ve received from UTEST and MLA.
“ConferenceCloud is a great example of how students can use U of T’s vast entrepreneurship ecosystem to accelerate their startup’s growth,” says Karen Sievewright, managing director of the Banting & Best Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship.
“The programs, courses and CLAs are some of the unique ways that the university is transforming the undergraduate experience and the Simmons siblings are perfect examples of how students can nourish their entrepreneurial spirit while balancing their studies.”
With the new MLA funding, the Simmons siblings and their team will be focussing on increasing sales and getting as much client diversity as possible on their growing platform.