Amid industry-wide cutbacks, some Canadian startups are launching hiring sprees

A group of Dialogue staff. Dialogue

Steve Munford’s first day as CEO of Trulioo was also the day the 150-person company moved to working remotely. 

“My first day was with a computer in my basement, so I guess I am case one as far as our ability to onboard an employee remotely,” said Munford. 

The Vancouver-based identity-verification startup is one of about a half-dozen Canadian tech companies The Logic spoke with that are staffing up while their competitors cut back. “We’re seeing the availability, the number of applicants, the quality of the applicants, all on the rise,” said Munford. Trulioo has hired 12 staff since it switched to remote work, and is looking to add 15 more. The company, which announced a $60-million Series C round in September 2019, is also giving back: it’s donating to local charities the $15,000 a month it would have been spending on food for staff in its office.

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The pandemic has hit Canada’s tech sector hard. About 550 people have been let go from startups in the country during the pandemic, according to a running tally of announced layoffs maintained by The Logic. The unannounced number of cuts is almost certainly higher. The Help List, a crowdsourced database of Canadian tech professionals who’ve lost their jobs during the pandemic, had just over 3,000 names as of this story’s publication. 

The Logic reviewed hundreds of postings across six different job boards. The companies The Logic confirmed are still hiring vary in size and focus. Though several have recently raised large amounts of money, many other companies with raises under their belt have instituted hiring freezes or are laying off staff. The one thing those staffing up all have in common: a belief that they can grow while almost everyone is cutting back. 

Talking Point

Canada’s tech sector has been hit hard during the pandemic, with thousands of layoffs at startups and some of the largest companies reducing hiring. But these half-dozen firms, including Coveo, Dialogue, Trulioo and Beatdapp, are looking to fill the gap, picking up talent from rivals and expanding while others pull back.

Trulioo is one of four mid-sized tech firms—with between 100 and 1,000 employees—The Logic identified that are currently expanding, along with Coveo, Wave and Dialogue. They join a handful of smaller firms with fewer than 15 employees but that are now growing unexpectedly quickly.

“It’s a bit of Darwinism we’re seeing right now: only the fittest companies survive,” said Coveo CEO Louis Têtu, whose Montreal-based AI firm is in the midst of hiring en masse. “Companies like ours will benefit because this is a catalyst for innovation. It’s a survival of the digital-first and fittest. Those who move boldly now will see the benefits for years to come.” 

Coveo had 550 staff when it raised $227 million in November 2019. The company hired 58 people in the first quarter of 2020, and plans to keep expanding despite the pandemic.

“We plan to hire a total of 94 to 96 new employees in R&D this year. We’ve been hiring in customer success and marketing; we’re going to staff up in anything that focuses on customer interaction,” Têtu said, adding that his firm is expanding despite seeing a decrease in sales. 

Of the four mid-sized firms, Montreal-based telehealth company Dialogue has the most ambitious hiring plans. It’s already roughly quadrupled its workforce from 250 to nearly 1,000, and is looking to add up to another 150 staff in the next few months. 

“The last few weeks were amazing in many ways. We’ve been preaching the benefits of telemedicine for years. And the current circumstances have really proven our thesis,” said CEO Cherif Habib, whose firm’s services are now available to about five million Canadians. 

Dialogue is picking up talent from companies that have cut back, including Hopper, which The Logic reported last month had made “significant” layoffs. 

“We’ve already hired a few folks from Hopper and the others,” said Habib. “Companies have been really good. In some situations, unfortunately, they’ve had to lay off people, but they’ve been very good at trying to find them a home.”

Toronto fintech Wave is not planning on making any pandemic-related layoffs, and intends to hire about a dozen staff to fill immediate demand in roles like software engineering. 

“We have obviously tightened up costs and spending in other ways. We’ve cut significantly in order to make sure that we don’t have to lay off,” said chief people officer Ashira Gobrin. Wave is spending time trying to take care of its current staff, both by being flexible with what time in the day work gets done and getting creative with how its staff support each other. 

“Someone on my team is an incredibly talented musician and she’s got a four-year-old, and they play together every single day—they record a song—and she’s now started doing music classes for our families with young children,” said Gobrin, adding that the company is also running a virtual bootcamp four times a week with a personal trainer and a virtual cooking club with a chef.

The demand for work in Canada’s tech industry far outstrips the number of posted jobs, a disparity that’s even more pronounced because some of the largest tech firms in Canada are reconsidering hiring plans. In February, Google announced it would triple its Canadian workforce to as many as 5,000 employees by 2022. In April, the firm said it was cutting back on hiring globally. The company declined to answer questions about how that will affect its Canadian plans. It currently has about 50 active job postings in Canada. 

As some large tech firms pull back, certain smaller ones are filling that gap. Kitchener, Ont.-based ApplyBoard, which raised $100 million this week, is planning to add at least 100 staff; many of those jobs are open now. 

Similarly, Curtis Khan, CEO of BookJane, told The Logic he was increasing his workforce by 20 per cent. The Ontario-grown healthtech startup, which matches health-care professionals to facilities that need staff, was chosen by the Ontario Medical Association to help meet the demand of doctors fighting COVID-19. Since April 3, over 1,500 physicians have signed up to find work. The company is in the middle of a raise, Khan told The Logic. “During the worst crisis, our business has grown.” 

Beatdapp—a dozen-member Vancouver-based startup that has built a blockchain-backed analytics technology for the music industry—saw two new developers start in April, with plans to add three to five more to the team by the end of May. With musicians working from home and trying to retain their audiences, Beatdapp’s technology has seen an increase in demand from label executives. Before, the company was receiving a handful of applications, but over the last few weeks, it has received around 120 resumes for its limited positions. 

“It’s kind of crazy because previous to this, we were thinking of working with recruiters,” Andrew Batey, the company’s CEO and co-founder, told The Logic. “There’s so much talent out there. We couldn’t get any of them before. Now, we have access.” 

The company is getting help in the hiring process. “A number of startup founders and VCs have been sending us potential candidates for positions,” Batey said. “Many founders have had to make cuts, or think they will be making them soon, and are proactively trying to place highly qualified candidates into new positions.”

Livescale, a Montreal-based live-streaming platform, had decided to pivot its focus to live shopping in October 2019. “We anticipated it growing in western countries in 2020,” Geoffroy Robin, chief sales and marketing officer, told The Logic. “We just didn’t anticipate COVID-19, so we didn’t expect [live shopping] to come as fast as it did.”

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With retailers having to abandon their brick-and-mortar stores, Livescale saw a 400 per cent increase in the number of live events it hosted in March and April, with growth projected to be the same in May and April. As a result, the company is looking to almost double its 11-member team by the end of June. Two employees joined in April, both interviewed and onboarded online. Five more job postings are up for positions due to start in the next month or so. “I think we got lucky,” Robin said. “The pandemic had a positive impact on our business.”