Alyssa Furtado

Scaling From Zero

TBOP2017 ⋅ 12:54 ⋅ Filmed May 11, 2017

It started with a simple idea: why isn't there a simple tool for Canadians comparison shop for financial products? Hundreds of such services exist for the travel industry, but when it comes to mortgages, savings, and credit cards, Alyssa Furtado and her co-founder James Laird spotted a giant gap in the services and tools available to Canadians. So they decided to fill it.

That's the birth of RateHub, now Canada's leading financial product comparison website, which is visited by over 800,000 Canadians every month.

Alyssa’s keynote is the story of a scrappy start-up. She recounts the hilarious hijinks of trying to save a buck or two when finances were tight as the spirited team struggled to get the company off the ground. Speaking to all the entrepreneurs and would-be business founders out there, Alyssa shares the secrets of her company's success — and tells the story of the riskiest decision they made and its shocking outcome. Finally, you'll see what happened when Alyssa appeared on Dragon's Den and put it all on the line.

If you have started your own business or dream of doing so one day, this lively telling of the Canadian entrepreneur's journey is a must-watch — it may very well be your life someday.

Further Reading

  • Mortgage Rates
  • Dragons’ Den
  • James Laird
  • RateHub
  • Lauren Haw
  • Kerri-Lynn McAllister
  • SEO
  • Mortgage Broker News
  • Chris Richard


    Good evening everyone! Thanks so much to The Breakout Project Project for having me here today. I'm really excited to be part of the event.

    [00:07] I'm here to tell you guys about the story of RateHub. We're company that started out with a very simple idea, $100,000 in funding and we bootstrapped our way to $10 million dollars in revenue.

    [00:22] So for those of you that haven't heard about RateHub, we recently pitched it to the Dragons so I'll let you guy take a look (plays clip from Dragons’ Den).

    [00:50] Hi Dragons. My name is Alyssa Furtado. I'm from Kingston, Ontario and I'm the founder of RateHub.

    [00:56] Today, I'm asking for $1 million in exchange for 10% equity into RateHub.

    [01:03] For as long as I can remember, I've also been a passionate comparison shopper. I never book a hotel without looking Expedia and I wouldn't think about picking a flight before comparing all my options on Kayak. I couldn't believe this same service didn't exist to help Canadian compare financial products.

    [01:22] Today, Canadians leave thousands of dollars on the table each year by missing out on the lowest mortgage rate, not finding the best credit card or not getting the best savings rate. RateHub makes this incredibly easy. We bring thousands of rates, offered by hundreds of providers and we make it all accessible on our website with just a few easy clicks. We're able to attract over 3 million Canadians each year.

    [01:51] Alright so, what happened in the Den? Well, we'll come back to that in a little bit.

    The Birth of RateHub

    [01:56] First, I'm going to take you back to where it all began. Hawaii 2010. This is where I learned to kite surf and yes, it is a dangerous as it looks. I think I almost drowned about three times trying to do it. It was an incredible challenge so I stuck with it. It was in Hawaii that I went after leaving two years in consulting to try to figure out what I wanted to do next. It was here that I decided I was going to start a business. A real business.

    [02:25] So with this new idea in my mind, I had to keep my costs on the trip pretty low. I got creative. I went and I bought a van for $1,000 and I started an Uber service shuttling people back and forth from the airport. I also got a job as the receptionist at The Banana Bungalow hostel in Maui. Pictured here is the manager of the hostel who took a pretty casual approach to the work uniform. It was Hawaii after all.

    [02:52] This picture wasn't in Hawaii but the man on my left is my co-founder, James [Laird]. He gave me a call in Hawaii on Skype. We actually were classmates and good friends at Queen's and he had an interesting idea to put in my head. He was actually working at a mortgage brokerage at the time and was spending about $20,000 a month buying leads online. The interesting part and that he was actually willing to spend a lot more but there were no leads to buy.

    [03:21] So we put our heads together and thought, let's start a mortgage rate comparison website. We can sell leads to your brokerage and then many others in Canada as well. So that's where the idea came from and so in the mornings before hitting the beach, at The Banana Bungalow hostel in Maui, I pulled together the first business plan for what we called at the time, Canada Rate Saver.

    Getting Started

    [03:43] So I wanted to turn your attention to my initial financial projections. Our five-year plan has us hitting $300,000 in revenue by 2014 and the total salary costs were going to be $67,000. So, you can see that back then, I really thought that this was going to be more of a lifestyle business and that is was going to be run mostly by me.

    [04:07] I somehow convinced James to co-found the business with me. We ditched the beer. We clean ourselves up and we changed the name to what we thought was a lot better, RateHub. We actually convinced a few more people to come on board. One of our classmates at the time, Lauren Haw, James mortgage partner also invested. I was able to convince my brother who was just coming back from 5 years at Microsoft, I roped him in. And one of my classmates, Kerri-Lynn [McAllister] came on and joined the founding team as well.

    [04:43] The original four investors each put in $25,000 for a total of $100,000 and that was all that we had to build the business. It really was bootstrapping in those early days. We had to really get creative about how to make the most with our limited funds.

    When Saving Money Get Creative

    [05:00] If you remember back to those first financial projections, I didn't have a line item in it for rent which meant we weren't going to pay any. Instead, we ran the business out of my house at the time. It was a townhouse at Yonge & Davisville and things got a little bit crowded when we had about 10-15 of us all working from the tables inside.

    [05:23] One day we all piled out for lunch and the neighbour's son, he was about 7 years old at the time, stick his head out and said, 'Wow, Miss. You sure live with a lot of people' (laughing). I kind of laughed a little bit but was actually terrified that he was going to call our landlord but he kept it quite a good secret.

    [05:43] We were really scrappy in those days. We would do almost anything to save even $100. Like the time we needed a new printer. We could have just gone to Staples and bought one, but instead, we decided that we'd find a contest. HP had just launched a new printer and they were going to give away a new model for the team who best described the new features. We decided to go all out. We made a video. We recruited a cheerleading team and my team even convinced my to star in it.

    [06:14] We...this cheerleading team...we grab everyone. We hit Yonge & Dundas Square. Threw a bunch of stunts and the exciting part was we absolutely won that printer.

    [06:26] Back in those days, we kind of think it's crazy when we think back to all of the things that we used to do, but it required that energy and that amazing commitment to really get the company off the ground. Building A Customer Base

    [06:37] When we look back, I think the thing that was most important and the key to our success, was really figuring out how we were going to find our first customers. In 2010, we did about 30,000 visits to our website over the entire year. By 2016, we were able to grow that to 10 million people.

    [06:57] But because we were bootstrapping, we had to get really scrappy with it. We used things like Search Engine Optimization, we built up our brand, we build out an affiliate program and today I'm proud to say we source 90% of our traffic for free.

    Double Down on What You Know

    [07:14] So when we look back to those five-year financials, the original plan was 300,000 but when we got to 2014, we well surpassed that. We hit 1.5 million dollars in revenue and crossing at million mark had been a long-time goal.

    [07:31 ]And you would like think that, as a team, we should have been so excited. But the interesting thing about business is you focus on a goal for so long that sometimes by the time you hit it, it's almost anticlimactic. So we got to this point but found her sells asking what was next? Where was this next explosive growth going to come from? Selling mortgage leads had gotten us to this point but what was going to be next? And that's when James had another really interesting idea.

    [07:58] We'd gotten really good at mortgages and he was still working at the Brokerage at the time. We realize we earn up to four times the amount per lead if in-house sales team and he was pretty confident that he could do that.

    [08:13] The only problem was that we were going to have been announce to our 50 customers that we were going to start competing against them. That was going to be interesting. So we picked up the phone, called every single one of our customers. Explained exactly what we were going to do and ensured them that we would still be able to provide leads for them. It seems like everyone was getting comfortable with it, and then our industry publication ran away with things.

    [08:36] The big website in our business is called Mortgage Broker News and they decided to launch a poll. Even though we only had 50 brokers at the time, somehow 250 brokers responded to this poll and the vast majority of them were all going to leave RateHub. The next article posted had one broker that was quoted as saying, “We created the beast and now now the beast has turned on us". We were all huddled in a room, we were incredibly stressed out. On the one hand, we didn't want to jeopardize this business that has taken so long to build. But on the other hand, we knew that this was such an important strategic decision for us.

    [09:16] The fact that we had been so transparent with the Brokers and that we built a trusting relationship working alongside of them for 5 years is what really paid off in the end. At the end of the day, only one of our 50 Brokers actually ended up leaving us because of his decision. It turned out to be an incredible move for the business. From 2014 to 2016 we were able to grow to 10 million dollars in revenue. It was just so important that we did it.

    [09:49] By now, you think, 'OK, you guys must have finally been happy in and finally proud of your accomplishments and of course we were but we found ourselves back in that same position of what's next? What do we do next? And that's when we decided to go into The Den. So let's find out what happened (goes back to Dragons’ Den clip).

    [10:13] I'd be prepared to put in a 1.5 million dollars for 15% of the business.

    [10:19] You're my kind of woman I'm so impressed with what you've built. I'll give you what you came for, 1 million dollars for 10%.

    [10:30] Well Jimmy?

    [10:33] If you want in Joe, I'll partner with you.

    [10:35] Yeah, OK.

    [10:36] I think you want someone who's done this before.

    [10:41] I love it. I think it's so simple that it's brilliant! I like that you've been in it for 6.5 years and have some great traction. And have some really heavy margins which is nice. I'll offer you 1 million dollars for 7%.

    [11:03] OK, so. It's always hard for me to watch that video because I make some pretty funny faces but thanks for following along. It was amazing, I hadn't pitched the business in so long so you feel a little bit vulnerable putting yourselves out there and opening yourselves up to the feedback but it was absolutely amazing to see the incredible energy and excitement that The Dragons had for RateHub.

    [11:26] We thought really hard about taking the invest because capital can do a lot to help grow your business. In the end, as you saw from our numbers, 2016 ended up being one of our biggest years and our number were doing even better than we expected. We also realized that if we did decided to raise capital, it made more sense to go to the venture community where our valuation would probably be a lot higher because we were building this really scalable technology project. We ended up turning down the the funding which was a really hard decision and that bring us to where we are today.

    Looking Ahead

    [12:01] We're getting really excited to start taking our profit and the business that we've built and reinvest. We got really ambitious plans. We're building out a platform to help Canadians do their mortgage completely online. We're getting into the insurance business. Building out our really talented Tech & Development team in Kingston under our CTO, Chris [Richard]. We're incredibly excited.

    [12:33] I think the biggest lesson along the way has been really that the journey never ends. We're already been at this for 8 years but we think that we're just getting started and that our most exciting years are ahead.

    [12:38] I want to wish luck to all the teams today and hopefully, we'll see another incredible business come out of The Breakout Project this year. Thanks guys!

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