From bars to the boardroom, building a startup at UWaterloo

Waterloo’s unique education helped Ronuk Raval (BMath ’15) become the successful founder of Encircle. Now he’s training the next generation of math entrepreneurs.

Ronuk Raval had a mix of hardware and software focus in high school and felt it was a tie between computer science and mechatronics when deciding what to study at university, but the flexibility of computer science really won him over. Ronuk specifically applied to Waterloo because the idea of trying out six different jobs through co-op in a short time frame was a unique experience and something you seldom get the chance to do in your professional career. For Ronuk, this combination of co-op and the flexibility of the computer science program were what made his decision to study in the Faculty of Mathematics an easy one.

The formal education Ronuk received in his core courses really helped to lay the grounding for his ability to make certain decisions and led him to where he is today. When asked what his favourite course was, he did not hesitate - CS 452, commonly known as “trains”. It was quite different from his other courses as the focus was much less structured. This course touched on soft skills including time management, scheduling, and organizational skills - all things that employers look for but receive less emphasis in university courses. This course was unique as the final grade is weighted heavily towards project work and had an open book 24-hour final "exam". This course also had an impact on the work Ronuk does today. Both Ronuk and one of his fellow co-founders of Encircle agreed and felt if they could survive that course, then they could survive the challenges they faced with their startup. Not only that, but one of the strongest programmers at Encircle today was a TA for this course.

During his studies, Ronuk fell into the entrepreneurship community rather serendipitously. Before his first co-op work term, he was heading to South Campus Hall to attend an info session for co-op at Facebook. When Ronuk and his friend arrived for the session, the lineup was huge, so they decided to head to the local pub, Molly Bloom’s, instead. While there, they met someone that shared information on the Velocity residence, which has since been replaced by other on-campus entrepreneurship programs. This conversation inspired Ronuk to move into Velocity residence and marked the beginning of his relationship with the startup community on campus. This relationship continued to grow throughout his years at the University of Waterloo and beyond graduation. Ronuk did end up working as a co-op at Facebook, but this encounter at Molly Blooms introduced Ronuk to a new community on campus and set him on a different path for his future.

While involved with Velocity, Ronuk was invited to Chainsaw for a local job fair hosted by Vidyard. There Ronuk met Paul Donald, an established entrepreneur who was looking for a new project. Paul pitched the idea of a mobile app for homeowners to take inventory of big items in their homes and store manuals for appliances like water heaters and dishwashers. This is not the typical startup idea most university students would get involved with, and when Ronuk brought this idea back to his friends from Velocity, only one was interested in working on it, Christophe Biocca. Christophe, Paul and Ronuk began to form the foundations for what the company is today.

One benefit of being part of the entrepreneurial ecosystem at Waterloo is exposure to the startup community. Ronuk was able to observe a wide variety of ideas that were attempted, but ultimately failed for several different reasons. He took the opportunity to figure out why they were failing and started to notice a pattern. University students tended to focus on student problems when creating startups. One big issue with that is that students are an awful market to target for a variety of reasons - they do not often have a lot of disposable income and they tend to have very little brand loyalty. As a result, Ronuk recognized the potential of Paul’s idea with a non-student focus and he pursued this idea in an enterprise co-op term, and then another, and then another. After graduation, this became Ronuk’s full focus and this startup, from a chance meeting at Chainsaw, turned into what Encircle is today.  

After graduation, Ronuk stayed connected to the startup community at Waterloo. More recently he ran a workshop for the eCapstone project. eCapstone is a pilot offering a single-term course similar to the CS 493/CS 494 Team Project sequence but designed to be completed in a single term. Students form teams of three to five members that work together on a project of their choosing. The course gives students the opportunity to work in teams on open-ended, large-scale computer science projects. After an initial project identification and refinement effort, students are instructed on and gain experience in teamwork, planning, communication, critical thinking, requirements definition and agile development. Ronuk said it is a distillation of the different patterns that have been seen in the entrepreneurial space. Ronuk observed,

there is a fair amount of group think in startups and entrepreneurship and the more counterculture ideas that people are exposed to, the more robust their thinking and critical analysis get.

This is how Ronuk runs his workshop, by challenging the stronger assumptions that are often associated with startups. But students will have to take his workshop to learn more!

When asked what was the one piece of advice that has stood out and held true from his time at Waterloo, Ronuk said through formal education we are led to believe that life is based on a regimented system with rules and evaluation criteria. If you keep your head down and follow the rules of the system, you will be successful. But once you step away from the structure of life during university, you realize this entire system of rules is actually less regimented people systems. People at the end of the day are behind these systems and enforcing the rules. People systems have a lot of flex to them – they contain uncertainties in terms of what people are aiming for. Also, everyone involved is working to figure it out too – nobody really knows if what they are doing is right. That lesson is very valid in entrepreneurship. Finding problems or something people are willing to pay for is how entrepreneurship works – it relies on the idea that people don’t know what they are doing, and people don’t know what they want – until you can show them.

Waterloo offers students the unique combination of formal education through the wide breadth and depth of courses in mathematics and computer science, combined with the entrepreneurial culture on campus. The melding of these two facets creates innovative and well-rounded students, like Ronuk, that possess both the technical abilities to create and the soft skills needed to find success in solving problems.