When Alex Gillis went to register his first company, he experienced a brief moment of panic that nearly ended the venture before it had even begun. Gillis had a good product, a strong business plan and a professional support network invested in seeing him thrive. But the $2,000 fee to incorporate was an incomprehensible amount of money to an unemployed 14-year-old, and Gillis felt guilty asking his mom for the cash. “Looking back now, that seems like small change,” says Gillis, the 18-year-old CEO of what’s now Bitness.io, a location analytics company that aims to help retailers boost sales by understanding shoppers’ purchasing behaviour. “My mom still owns the company, though. I can’t be director until I’m 19.”
Gillis launched into the tech startup world in Grade 10, after entering a hackathon on a whim and winning. The product he pitched—a system to streamline website donations as an alternative to paywalls—ultimately fell through, but not before he’d immersed himself in Halifax’s small but tightly knit entrepreneurial community.
By the start of the following school year, Gillis was onto his next business plan, devoting his lunch and after-school hours building Bitness. He amassed a long list of accolades along the way, including the 2015 Startup Canada Young Entrepreneur of the Year award and a $100,000 Loran scholarship. He also pitched Bitness on the CBC web series Next Gen Den and came away with a $50,000 investment deal. (Gillis ended up turning down the Dragons’ offer in favour of the same amount of funding from other investors.)
The attention and financial support helped Gillis and his co-founder, Aristides Milios, bring on two more programmers and install Bitness’s shopper-tracking beacons in retail stores across Atlantic Canada for beta testing. “That revealed some problems with the product,” says Gillis. Bitness is replacing its original Wi-Fi-enabled smartphone tracking system with an infrared device that clips to a shelf or display to more accurately triangulate customers’ physical location and measure how long they look at a product. The goal is to offer analytics to help businesses make more effective marketing and product-placement decisions.
Bitness, which launched its revamped system in September, now has 12 employees divided among Halifax, Toronto and Vancouver. Gillis, who has also channelled his considerable energies into mentorship initiatives in the past, is gearing up to launch his second such program. Called The Next Foundry, it will link high school entrepreneurs with young founders like Gillis who can guide them through the startup process. “When I was starting out, none of my friends understood what I was working on. It was hard to get those like-minded peers,” says Gillis, who recently started an undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder of School of Business. “I really want to give back now and figure out how I can help other teenagers start changing the world now, while they’re still in their high school classrooms.”