Madison Guy, founder of Vancouver-based education platform, GrantMe, joined Cascadia Report for a look at her career so far, and what lies ahead for the company. We talked about the huge strides that GrantMe have made in matching students with scholarships since they started out in 2017, Guy’s love for soccer, and what they look for in new hires.
As a young founder of a company, Guy has found herself taking a hands-on role in almost every part of the business along the way. As a startup looking to disrupt a huge industry, GrantMe has grown quickly in the past three years. Guy started the company while in her last semester studying for a Bachelor of Commerce at The University of British Columbia. We asked Guy to tell us what the day-to-day looks like in such a rapidly growing business, and how the team around her has evolved in that time.
“It's been really interesting to be less in the day to day of the doing, but really managing the business. We have sales, marketing, and our student success teams, and our product development team. That's what I love, and I think that's probably a big part of why I began with entrepreneurship because I find that I get bored really easily."
“I absolutely love my team at GrantMe, and I love the people that I work with. It's amazing how much of a difference that can make in your day and in your career. We have over 30 people on our team now. There's 12 people that are full time and everybody else are part time contractors. We're literally growing every day. We just added two new team members two days ago. Things are always evolving and shifting, but yeah, even a year ago we really only had three of us working full time. So, it's just been very quick. And for me the greatest thing has been developing into my own leadership and management of people.”
Having started the company while she was still studying at UBC, Guy describes GrantMe as ‘my first real job’ aside from internships. Founding a startup straight out of school may seem daunting, but Guy is keen to point out that while she may lack career experience that doesn’t have to be negative and can even be an advantage.
“I think that in a way that's probably a good thing and a bad thing. There's a lot of areas where I lack experience because I haven't had a whole bunch of other careers and it's my first job and my own business. It’s definitely been interesting in that way, but at the same time it's been great because I don't have any like past experiences that are affecting how I operate GrantMe.”
GrantMe entered the League of Innovators Accelerator program in Vancouver, in 2018. The initial 12-week program of mentorship and network building which Guy describes as “really great platform for young entrepreneurs” has formed many long lasting relationships and provided vital support for the young business. This provided a support network of fellow startup founders, and also led to Guy forming an advisory team of five ‘incredible people’ who continue to provide help and advice to the young entrepreneur.
“We worked out of this space for a year and a half. It's an incredible program and I would say the biggest reason for that is the relationships and the mentors, and the advice that you're getting. Especially when it's your first business and you really have no idea what you don't know. You're really able to fill those gaps with mentors and advisors and people that can really support you and have gone through the process before. Also being in a community of like-minded entrepreneurs that are going through the exact same thing that you're going through, which I think is so important because a lot of the time you feel pretty isolated when you're going through the process and it can feel incredibly overwhelming at times.“
Many entrepreneurs' journeys can take a circuitous path, but Guy describes her passion for education technology as an organic process, borne of her own experiences applying for scholarships. Having successfully navigated her way through the process she began exploring the idea of helping other students in the same position.
“It felt like something that I could really support students with. But at the time when I started GrantMe, I didn't really think that this space particularly could be something that I could build a company within. It really wasn't until you start to have a lot of conversations with customers, which in this case is students and parents, and you get feedback from them and you realize that there's this gap between the amount of scholarship dollars that's available to students and that's often going on unclaimed.”
Addressing the problems that students and their parents faced accessing the help that was available to them was the first realization for Guy that this could be a business opportunity. Allied to this is the increase in student debt in Canada, and the role that scholarships can play in helping to alleviate the problem.
“The average student is graduating with $26,000 of student debt. Students don't have access to the information that they need to make educated decisions about their financial wellbeing. It seemed natural that we could fill that gap because there's really nobody addressing the fact that we're in a $26 billion student debt crisis in Canada. We're really the first player tackling it in the way that we are with scholarships, but we believe that scholarships are just a first step and there's a lot of things that go into the financial wellbeing of students and that goes beyond scholarships.”
Though GrantMe’s focus is on helping university students access scholarships, Guy and her team quickly realised that reaching high school students, and helping them before the debt issue started would key to tackling the debt problem. Growing up in BC, Guy was able to reach out to those in her community to find out how they could best help high school graduates.
“The first place I went was back to my own school district and talked to them. They were super receptive because from that perspective of educators, it's amazing how adaptive, especially in the current climate. They want to use good technology that's going to support their students, hopefully when it comes to finances and scholarships specifically because counselors, educators are limited in the time that they have to dedicate to scholarships. I think our biggest challenge is to make sure that it’s not just BC, that we're working with educators across the country to facilitate those conversations with students.”
As any young startup founder would agree, the path from having a great idea to a successful business does not always run smooth. From technical product issues, to learning how to cope with rapid growth, and all of the challenges around recruiting and leading a team, Guy has had to learn to be adaptable and look for support along the way.
“One of the most obvious challenges is really harnessing my own self confidence as a first-time founder and just being incredibly young. As I grow, it's about having confidence in myself as a leader, in leading other people and leading my team. I feel like in a startup you have challenges every single day, something to do with development, like your app has shut down and students can't access any of the information that they need. There's such an array of challenges that we deal with every day. I received a lot of coaching from advisors and mentors and I think the biggest thing is surrounding yourself with people that have done it before, that can support you in making tough decisions when you have to make them and being confident in that.”
Building that confidence has been key to Guy’s success with GrantMe, becoming comfortable with the idea that mistakes are an opportunity to learn and improve have been key to that.
“I think that understanding that you can trust your intuition on a lot of calls and that it might not be the right answer. A big part of it for me has been understanding that failure is a natural process and without it, if you're not, you're probably doing something wrong. Learning to get really comfortable with failure as a natural process when starting a business, I got a lot more confident and not afraid to make mistakes.”
Following on from their time at the League of Innovators, GrantMe have been quick to find ways of working with other organizations and companies in the Cascadia region. They enjoy a close relationship with BC Tech in Vancouver and have made strong connections with schools in the Lower Mainland. Looking to the future, Guy is keen to engage more school districts in the rest of Canada, and beyond.
“We have more students in Ontario than we actually do in BC. It's probably like 40% Ontario students, just because of the size of the student market that's there. But we are all across Canada, which is great. And we do have plans to be international soon.”
We asked Guy what the three key things are she has learned in her career to date:
1. Learn that failure is a part of everyone's journey and be as comfortable with failure as you can. And it doesn't matter if you start your own business or you're doing something else, like just get comfortable with failure because it really frees up your decision making when you're not afraid to fail.
2. Surround yourself with really talented people that are hopefully smarter than you and that can fill the gaps that you have. I think for GrantMe, we would not be where we are today if we didn't have the advisors that we have. Our team is absolutely incredible. Surround yourself with great people.
3. Be as resourceful as possible. One of our values at GrantMe is like resourcefulness over resources and in a startup that's really important. Whether it's to make a connection to somebody so that you can get mentorship or to ask for something. If you are resourceful, you can skip many years of your career whether you're starting a business or doing something else.
We couldn’t let Guy go without asking her about her passion for soccer, and how that love of sport has been reflected in her role at GrantMe.
“I played at UBC all five years and actually that's something that's really interesting about our team is that we hire a ton of athletes. Athletes are incredibly resourceful. We've hired athletes from a whole bunch of different schools, but also lots of ex-UBC athletes, volleyball, hockey, soccer, everything. So that's really part of how we hire, and we love athletes.”
You can find out more about GrantMe here: https://grantme.ca/