The balance between launching an Ottawa startup and being a student can be both a time-consuming and rewarding feat. University of Ottawa alumnus, Karim Alibhai, and Telfer alumna, Alina Jahani, know all about the student entrepreneurship lifestyle.
The BSc and BCom Management Information Systems duo launched their recruitment startup, HireFast, while completing their undergraduate degrees and are now closing a six-figure exit deal with a large American company.
The Beginnings of HireFast
Karim, the engineer of the partnership, remembers exactly how the HireFast journey began: “I was on a bus in Ottawa and my friend was telling me how he was interviewing for software engineering positions and how [employers] make them solve different problems in interviews. They were testing software engineers on algorithms, even though that’s not really what they’d be doing at their jobs.”
He then got the idea to start HireFast, an assessment tool for software engineer employers that would more accurately test applicant skills. He brought on Alina to help with project management and business development, and the partnership began. Now, the business uses pre-existing insights and data to help improve hiring times, quality of applicants, and quality of jobs.
The Life of Student Entrepreneurs
After Karim and Alina established their business idea, their first step was contacting Telfer entrepreneurship professor, Stephen Daze. Professor Daze teaches third and fourth-year classes for entrepreneurs and is noted to be one of Hire Fast’s key resources.
“He was a pivotal piece to our company. He was phenomenal and was not afraid to rip us apart and tell us when we were [not doing the right thing],” Karim explained.
After pivoting, the business grew and Alina and Karim began noticing the struggles of balancing their full-time work on a business and studies for each of their degrees. The two biggest challenges they faced as young, busy entrepreneurial students were related to time management and financing.
“Time management was tough. It was really hard to balance time, so as a result, we got lower marks [in courses] than what we were used to. Also, you are very cash-constrained, so we were trying to save money on small things that other people in the market could afford”, shared Karim
However, the benefits of being students while starting a business was their access to student competitions and opportunities like Startup Garage that the university has to offer.
uOttawa Entrepreneurship Programs and Business Accelerators
HireFast joined the Startup Garage program at the University of Ottawa’s Entrepreneurship Hub as part of the 2019 cohort. The pair originally applied to join because the program allows students to take an eight-month break from their studies and focus on their businesses full-time.
“We ended up getting more than just that, the best probably being a community of like-minded people, which was very powerful,” Karim explained. “Sometimes when you are failing it can be very overwhelming, but having other people in those same situations to guide you really helps.”
Another benefit to the program, Karim noted, was the access to experts in fields that they needed help in: “We were able to connect with Nolan Beanlands, who used to run the Startup Garage. He was extremely helpful.”
Alongside accelerator programs like Startup Garage, Karim and Alina noted that the business also felt supported financially by the university and its programs and competitions.
Business Startup Advice
Looking back, Karim had a few pieces of advice for current students who want to bring their business idea to life: “Try to stand on the shoulders of experts, alumni, and anyone you can. That was one of the key factors to our success. To talk to amazing people like Stephen Daze and Nolan Beanlands. We are still in touch with them and a lot of the time I had tunnel vision and getting advice from them was super useful.”
As for the Telfer alumna, Alina, she says that the main goal student entrepreneurs should keep in mind is to not give up: “Whatever the challenge is in your business, the last thing you want to do is lock yourself in a room and try to figure it out yourself. Lean on your beta users, customers, industry experts to find the answers you need. Launch small but powerful experiments to get your hypothesis validated and iterate from there.”
The Six-Figure Acquisition
HireFast was recently acquired by a consulting recruitment business in New York, U.S.
Karim shared how they were able to find the perfect match to make an exit deal:“We wanted someone with the right fit. So, we found a company in NY and they were already running a consulting recruiting business and they wanted to go into the software side. HireFast was basically their trampoline to the software side of recruiting.”
The New York-based business plans on launching the software in 2022.
As for the business and engineer duo, they are now both pursuing careers at two different startups. Karim is working in the dental startup space in New York, while Alina is pursuing project management as a Product Analyst in the retirement world.
Although living the life of a student entrepreneur can be hard work, the University of Ottawa and Telfer School of Management works hard to support students who are chasing their dreams.
Photo credit: Mélanie Provencher, photographer