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.