Hanna Lee for The Logic
The Big Read

What happened at Hubba? How the former Toronto tech darling struggled to turn its profile into profits

Just after lunch on February 1, employees of the e-commerce startup Hubba booted up Zoom for an emergency all-hands meeting. Founder and CEO Ben Zifkin was the only face visible among the 40 or so squares that crowded the screen as staff—cameras off and mics muted—braced for a blow. It took just a few minutes for Zifkin to tell them that Hubba was out of money. The company would shut down immediately, he said, and everyone on the call was out of a job. 

For most employees, the news, first reported by BetaKit, came as a shock. The company was at one time a rising star in the Toronto tech scene, with Zifkin himself revered as a visionary founder charting a course different from the move-fast-and-break-things ethos popularized in 2010s Silicon Valley. Core to Zifkin’s approach was showing that you could build a massively successful company while also giving back to the community and treating employees well. Zifkin, who had advised large multinationals before starting Hubba, pitched the startup—which, in its most recent form, offered a platform that connected craft brands with retailers—as a multibillion-dollar tech company in waiting, with sights on a 2020 IPO. It was a vision that attracted top talent and millions of dollars in funding from investors like Goldman Sachs, Kensington Capital Partners and Social Capital. But 10 years after its launch, the company had failed to meet the lofty expectations Zifkin had established for investors and staff. 

As the company liquidates its assets, paying out creditors while trying to avoid bankruptcy, The Logic spoke with two former senior employees and an early Hubba investor and board member, and reviewed financial documents and email correspondences and direct messages between employees, management and the Ontario Ministry of Labour, looking for insight into what led to the startup’s closure. (The Logic has agreed not to name the sources, who cited concerns that identifying them could risk their reputation in Toronto’s tight-knit tech sector.)

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