Smooth Commerce CEO Brian Deck's best advice for artists considering entrepreneurship

Image of Brian Deck working on a mural
Image of Brian Deck's mural
SmoothPay App image

We caught up with Brian Deck, successful entrepreneur and CEO of Smooth Commerce to talk about his business and the lessons he learned in art school. Brian is also an OCAD U alum and mentor for OCAD U's startup incubator, Imagination Catalyst.

Tell us about Smooth Commerce. How’s the business doing?

The Smooth Commerce platform powers white label apps and SmoothPay, a loyalty app for independent merchants. Our focus is on branded apps similar (but better than) the Starbucks app. For example, we developed the app for Balzac’s Coffee Roasters which has been a tremendous success, enjoying a 14 times increased adoption over their previous card-based loyalty program. We are excited to be rolling out two very well-known brands this fall so stay tuned!

The SmoothPay app is available to download and use at coffee shops or restaurants. It combines payment with a loyalty program. You pay with your phone and save money at the same time. For businesses, it increases exposure and sales. We already have a couple hundred businesses across Canada and most relevant to OCAD U is nearby, Red Eye Espresso on McCaul Street.

How did Smooth Commerce get started?

My previous tech company was successful developing loyalty programs for Fortune 500 companies. Before I sold that company, I saw an opportunity to do something even bigger in mobile and consumer-facing loyalty programs - enhancing the way businesses and consumers engage. The major players in several well established industries (retail, payments, loyalty, and marketing) had not kept up with technology and the changing consumer. With most of the giants sitting on their hands, the opportunity was huge and it was the perfect timing to start Smooth.


When you were studying painting at OCAD U, you started a mural company. What lessons did you learn about starting a business?

Running a mural company taught me how to work well with people, which is key to being successful. I had to deal with different personality types and different levels of professionalism. Being a success in any business means getting along with people and genuinely motivating people along the way.

I will never forget being a student and working in an art store. One day I picked up a book of interviews with successful artists talking about their careers and lessons learned. Each artist said the exact same thing – that hard work and perseverance was the most important factor in their success. Lessons learned from that book and from running my mural business taught me to always work hard and to persevere even in the most difficult situations. For artists, remember that your success is a direct result of what you put in.

What makes artists and designers good entrepreneurs?

The training an artist receives can translate very well to entrepreneurship and business in general. Having an art and design background has given me a unique perspective that the majority of people don't have. It has been a tremendous benefit for me in many aspects of my various business ventures including: product development, marketing, presentations, communications, and my overall perspective on things. When you’re creating a painting or sculpture, you have to step back and see the bigger picture. It’s a huge life lesson to look for patterns, to have a vision, to commit to the process and see it through to completion.

What’s your best piece of advice for young people who want to start their own business (especially if they didn’t go to business school)?

I mentioned earlier the importance of hard work and determination - this is number one in my view. In addition, while at OCAD U and over the years, I’ve found that a common trait among many artists is that they have difficulty being comfortable with the idea of making money. There is a fear of being labelled a sellout. For most artists, that holds them back. The sooner you become comfortable in valuing your time and work, the better. My last piece of advice is that following your passion is the best way to position yourself for success no matter what you may do. Whether its business or art, at times it is going to be hard. But, you have to find what you are passionate about and go after it. I wake up every day wanting to do what I do.


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Kathryn Adams

Kathryn Adams is an award-winning illustrator who began her freelance career in 1987. She has been teaching Business Practices for Illustrators at OCAD since 2005. She also teaches Guerrilla Entrepreneurism and has taught Second Year Illustration. Kathryn has been teaching Business Practices and Illustration at Sheridan College since 2001. As well as teaching, Kathryn maintains her freelance illustration business working for a wide variety of international clients.

By Design - OCAD University/Report on Business series continues

Data visualization depicting comments related to sections of the Globe and Mail newspaper
Monday, August 22, 2016 - 4:00am

Sara Diamond, Patricio Davila and Steve Szigeti have collaborated on an op-ed titled There's no Big Data without intelligent interface . The piece is part of the OCAD U/Globe and Mail summer series “By Design" highlighting design thinking, issues and innovation.

By Design - OCAD University/Report on Business

Illustration of a person running on a large boardgame
Tuesday, August 16, 2016 - 4:00am

The OCAD U/Globe and Mail summer series “By Design” continues with an op-ed written by Sarah Tranum and Alia Weston, leaders of the Minor in Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation. Their piece,  A social economy, or a precarious one? discusses how to prepare this generation for the shifting economy and employment market.


By Design - OCAD University/Report on Business series

Friday, August 12, 2016 - 4:00am

The second opinion piece in the OCAD U/Globe and Mail summer series “By Design” has been published. In the op-ed, "Urban agriculture may be inefficient, but it’s a model for a sustainable future,” Dr. Ian Clarke, Associate Dean, Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Interdisciplinary Studies, writes about how striving for efficiency is counterproductive for job creation and for the environment. Dr. Clarke has been conducting research on urban agriculture, his Passive Urban Greenhaus project can be seen on top of the Sharp Centre. 

OCAD University/Report on Business series: By Design

Monday, August 8, 2016 - 4:00am

The Globe and Mail Report on Business published the first of six opinion pieces in an OCAD U/Globe and Mail summer series. The series, titled “By Design”, explores design thinking, issues and innovation. The commentary published on Saturday, August 6, There’s no innovation agenda without design thinking, is written by Dr. Sara Diamond and Karel Vredenburg, head of IBM Studios Canada.


Kiki Delaney honoured with Business for the Arts Award

Wednesday, June 8, 2016 - 4:00am

OCAD University’s Chancellor Kiki Delaney is being recognized for her exceptional contributions to Canada’s arts and cultural sectors. Delaney is the recipient of the Edmund C. Bovey Award which goes to business professionals who have demonstrated a lifetime of philanthropy and leadership in Canada’s cultural community.  

Delaney, President of C.A. Delaney Capital Management Ltd., has been Chancellor of OCAD University since 2011. She also serves on the Board of Trustees of the Hospital for Sick Children and is a member of the Leadership Council of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. As well, she serves on the Investment Committee of the Canada Council for the Arts.

Other 2016 BftA award winners include Karen Kain, Artistic Director of The National Ballet of Canada and Irfhan Rawji, Principal at Totem Capital Corporation. Sun Life Financial and the Daniels Corporation were honoured for their partnership with Artscape.

Winners will be honoured at the Business for the Arts Awards gala on Wednesday, November 16, 2016 at Canada’s National Ballet School.

Dr. Sara Diamond addresses art, design and the connected world at Toronto Board of Trade

Dr. Diamond at a podium addressing Board of Trade audience
Monday, November 23, 2015 - 3:15pm

OCAD University President and Vice-Chancellor Dr. Sara Diamond addressed a capacity crowd of business leaders, government representatives and other stakeholders at the Toronto Region Board of Trade. Her topic was Art and design in the connected world.

In her talk, Dr. Diamond discussed various ways creativity and imagination contribute to the skills and strategies necessary for success in a connected world. “There are three vectors through which our world is increasingly connected,” Diamond noted: “the Internet of Things, the exponential growth of and reliance on data and the globalization of culture.”

Dealing in turn with each of those three subjects, Diamond shared examples of exciting work being done by OCAD U faculty and alumni. These included art- and design-driven innovations in fields such as health care and wellness, entertainment, gaming, urban planning, communication and energy production.

Diamond concluded by briefly introducing attendees to OCAD U’s Ignite Imagination private and public fundraising campaign, and by taking several questions from audience members.

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Material Art & Design student honoured as an emerging professional

Laura Mitchell (photo by Ian Barnard)
Ring by Laura Mitchell (photo by Ian Barnard)
Thursday, October 29, 2015 - 1:15pm

Material Art & Design student Laura Mitchell recently won the Betty Skolnik Award for Emerging Professionals. Presented annually by JVS Toronto, the award honours “a young professional who is new to his/her career and who has a promising future ahead in their chosen occupation.”

Mitchell’s chosen occupation is jewellery design. “In summer 2015, I started my own business called Peace, Love and Jewellery through the Summer Company program,” says Mitchell. Through this program, Mitchell worked with a mentor — Daniel Clarke — from JVS Scarborough. Clarke helped her to improve her business and sell her handmade jewellery. “My mentor was so happy with my work and dedication that he nominated me for the Skolnik Award, and I ended up winning.”

Art and Design in the Connected World - Dr. Sara Diamond

Friday, November 20, 2015 - 5:00pm to 6:30pm

Toronto Region Board of Trade welcomes you to join Dr. Sara Diamond, President and Vice-Chancellor of OCAD University, as she discusses how creativity and artistic imagination contribute to the skills and strategies our Toronto region business community needs to excel in the connected world.

Effectively harnessing the skills of our designers, artists and digital inventors is important for the increasingly connected Toronto region. From healthcare, to entertainment, to manufacturing, design can provide a competitive advantage and act as a key differentiator for business.

Venue & Address: 
Toronto Region Board of Trade Downtown Centre 1 First Canadian Place, 4th Floor Toronto, ON
Individual ticket - Member $79.00 Individual ticket - Non-Member $99.00 Table of 8 - Member $632.00 Table of 8 - Non-Member $792.00