First published on January 25, 2017 by Nspire Innovation Network

Your heart races a little faster as your cup of coffee empties a little quicker. It’s cold. It’s exam season, and if brain-drain is getting you down, I’m inviting you to take a break with this easy-to-digest recap of IDX Toronto. These three young professionals were not only once in your shoes, but they joined Nspire at 5 Hoskin Avenue this past September to share some pearls of wisdom.

Here’s a peek at what you missed and what you can learn from the CTO of Whirlscape, Figure 1’s growth marketer and 500px’s VP of Design.

1. Don’t have a mentor? Find one.

Adam Shutsa, VP of Design at 500px

“As you probably know, startups are hard. They will infect your life like nothing else. You will never have a normal working day, working week, your vacations will be thinking about things back home, about the team, about how much money you have in the bank. You’re constantly worrying if your working fast enough, doing the right thing, have the right people. But there’s one thing that keeps you sane; It’s having a mentor.”

From his humble roots at Durham College, Adam Shutsa has amassed a portfolio of projects from web design to flash development before he joined 500px in 2011.

“We went from four to 20 employees in under a year. And at that time, I was learning quickly but wasn’t getting to the next step in my career,” Shutsa said. “That’s when I looked for a design mentor.”

Before you go confiding in Joe-Shmoe, you need trust them. You don’t need to share your life story; you just need to feel comfortable enough to speak honestly and openly. When is the best time to get a mentor? “You’re never too junior to start,” Shutsa said, “and never to senior to stop.”

Community comes first, Shutsa explained when asked what inspires him.

“The work that I do changes their life. People are making money and livelihood because of something I built.”

2. Growth Hacking 101

Phillip La, Growth Manager at Figure 1 Inc.

“I like seeing graphs go up and to the right.”

Chemical engineering graduate, Phillip La explained the creative thinking behind Figure 1’s growth strategy, a startup that reached 1 million registered users in April 2016.

“From an advertising and marketing perspective, we can’t compete with large companies. When you’re startup, you can’t play that game against them. Of course we use ads and targeting, but we also leveraging our network,” Phillip said. “We have ambassador program that introduces the app to medical students, who in turn share with their friends in order to receive benefits (on app and outside app) like reference letters. Growth isn’t registered users; It’s long term retained users. We want them to stay for years to come.”

Not only is Figure 1 growing in North America, but La discussed the challenges and considerations of creating localized content in different countries.

“Localization is a beast of it’s own. It’s less about translation and much more about the nuances and understanding how their health care works,” La said. “For example, there are tons of cultural nuances around privacy and there’s also drastic variances in UX. For example, in Japan there are tons of buttons and ads on websites. We take that into account and integrate the feedback to determine how users would use our app.

Previously, La was an Nspire alumnus (2010) and worked at Microsoft and Facebook before joining the Figure 1 team. Why the jump to startup life?

“I love the impact of influence, the speed, the purpose and seeing tangible results, La said. “The people can also make or break a company.”

3. Neural Networks

Xavier Snelgrove, CTO at Whirlscape

“Neural networks start to represent concepts as points in high dimensional spaces. Think of every sentence you write as a point in high dimensional space. Our algorithms place every emoji in that same space.”

After graduating in Engineering Science from the University of Toronto, Xavier Snelgrove went on to develop Minuum, a new kind of keyboard that is marketed as, “smarter, faster, and works on any size of device” (see Minuum). But Snelgrove didn’t come to IDX to talk about Minuum; he talked about how the work on Minuum, especially concerning emoji’s, sparked a new application: Dango.

“There’s over 1000 emoji’s now, but the main interface is pages and pages of images and no intuitive process to find the one you want. For some people, they know the image they want at what point, but for most people that’s crazy, no one has memorized 1000 emoji’s,” Snelgrove said. “And so we realized, unlike keyboards, there is a huge untapped potential here for designing a new interface that would allow you to solve these problems. It’s dango.”

While the latest update to iOS includes “some” predictive emoji’s, Snelgrove argues that Dango goes one step further.

“Dango applies a neural network to the text that’s written. It’s an algorithm that’s modelled off the human brain. You train it on hundreds of millions of examples of what it’s supposed to do, and it starts to learn,” Snelgrove said. “Dango can pick up subtle things like, “she said yes!” and you’ll get a wedding ring and a veil. None of those words in isolation mean anything, but that’s where the neural network of understanding kicks in.”

Despite this incredible potential of the computing power behind Dango, Snelgrove left the Nspire audience with an air of caution.

“Most communication is mediated by technology. Most messages are sent through some app that someone else has built. But will the choice of images impact the kind of things that you can say?” Snelgrove asked. “It’s a power and a responsibility in a way that I don’t even fully understand. For the business people in the room, it’s important to remember that economic growth is not the only form of value. It’s frightening how much communication is mediated by profit seeking entities.”

German engineered, Italian crafted, Canadian born and always Hungary