Posted by Zakaria Virk
Toronto entrepreneur Haroon Mirza is a self-made millionaire at the age of just 29.
Mirza and his two partners, who sold their software company to Intel last year, credit hard work and timely advice for their success.
But Mirza also gives part of the credit to the fact he is an immigrant. He came here at 13 with his family, who are originally from Pakistan but also lived in Saudi Arabia and England.
“When your family made sacrifices to be here, you’re going to be extremely motivated to be successful,” he explains. “When I was young, I didn’t know what I wanted or how I would achieve it, but I knew that I would pursue whatever vision with an extreme intensity.”
He suggests immigrants tend to be equipped with the unteachable characteristics that make an entrepreneur successful. The risk inherent in picking up and moving abroad in the hopes of establishing new roots is akin to the risk and emotional investment in taking an idea and making it happen.
That makes sense, says Douglas Cumming, a professor of finance and entrepreneurship at York’s Schulich School of Business.
“In general, it’s not your average person in the home country who’s moving abroad, but the best people,” he says. “The characteristics that make someone able to go abroad, the risk-taking ability, means they’re probably more likely to do well in business.”
Mirza shared his entrepreneurial drive with Faizal Javer and Shahzad Malik. The three friends held regular brainstorming sessions while studying corporate finance at Carleton University in Ottawa.
“The only thing we knew was that we wanted to be in business together,” he says. “We shared these core values and we all had that entrepreneurial drive. During those brainstorming sessions, we tried to figure out what company needs a solution to what problem.”
In many ways, they were the perfect trio: the computer guy, the business guy and the entrepreneur. But they had questions, so they sought the guidance of someone who had experience executing a business plan.
They met with Suresh Madan, executive vice-president and portfolio manager at Excalibur Capital Management Inc., where he manages $110 million of portfolios, primarily for early stage companies.
Madan is also president of the Toronto chapter of a business support group called TiE, which stands for Talent, Ideas, Enterprise.
TiE began in the Silicon Valley in 1992, with a handful of primarily South Asian entrepreneurs who had prospered selling their startups and wanted to help others do the same. TiE now has 57 chapters around the world, including Toronto since 2001.
“We are fully devoted to entrepreneurs and helping people start a business,” Madan says. “We believe immigrants have the advantage … the impetus that causes someone to immigrate provides a certain risk-taking ability that is required in starting a new venture.”
Mirza and his friends were partnered with a TiE mentor who worked tirelessly with the trio to hone their business idea.
“The mentor really helped and forced us to articulate our thoughts better. We did a lot of research, we read all the technology news, and that’s how we came to learn more about the digital signage industry,” Mirza explains.
“You know those electronic posters, like the ones in Tim Hortons? We learned that this industry was trying to track advertising more. They wanted to know how many people were seeing these, what gender they were, how long are they looking. They wanted to be able to measure how successful these posters were.
“We asked ourselves, could we find the solution?”
Turns out, they could. Under the company name CognoVision, they developed software that uses facial recognition to provide advertisers with information about how successful their ads are.
The technology can gather data about how many people walk by an ad, how many stop to watch, how long they watch, their gender and even their age.
In 2007, the company entered its technology in the annual TiEQuest Business Venture Competition. It didn’t win, but the company attracted the attention of industry heavyweights. In 2009, it was named the most innovative company in Canada by the Canadian Innovation Exchange.
In 2010, Intel approached them with an acquisition offer. Mirza won’t disclose how much Intel paid for CognoVision, but industry analysts have estimated anywhere from $17 million to $25 million.