Why Community is the Most Valuable Thing Your Company Can Build

Vancouver student entrepreneur Daniel Dubois' ShareShed is a rallying point for its members. How that's helping the startup grow

Written by Robert Gold

After he graduated high school, Daniel Dubois spent six months backpacking in Australia with a friend. For part of their time Down Under, the two were put up by a local family. “We’d wake up early in the morning and go surfing with the dad or biking trips with our neighbours,” he recalls. “It was incredible how we were on the other side of the world but all of a sudden part of this tight-knit community.”

That Australian experience inspired Dubois to start ShareShed, a platform for renting outdoor gear from locals. Dubois likens ShareShed to Airbnb, except rather than letting out someone’s spare room you’re borrowing their kayak or tent for a couple of days.

The young founder and CEO is making waves, winning the 2016 Canadian instalment of the Entrepreneur’s Organization’s Global Student Entrepreneurship Awards and taking third place in the main competition in Bangkok from a field of 50 national champions.

Dubois admits he’s typically skeptical of business and pitch competitions, but EO’s version focuses more on a contestant than his or her company, he says. “The most important factor was proving that entrepreneurship is in your DNA,” he suggests. “I think that’s something you can’t really fake.” Dubois certainly has that criteria covered—he got his start in business selling moss to neighbours for $5 a bag as a five-year-old, he quips.

While he’s learned plenty from that and other childhood ventures—including two clothing lines and a laneway housing company—what has really driven the way Dubois has built his current business is the sense of community he experienced while technically on vacation in Australia.

The Silicon Valley “build it and they will come” mindset doesn’t always work anymore says Dubois. No matter how innovative the technology or product, the real attraction for users is the service you provide, he believes. “We’ve found that people weren’t necessarily using ShareShed because they wanted a canoe, but they were using it because they felt the sense of belonging, and they were able to have an authentic experience,” he explains.

So ShareShed doesn’t simply facilitate transactions. The company formed a group on the popular community-organizing platform Meetup—it now has over three thousand members—and hosts events to help users connect in person. That’s led to some long-lasting friendships, like the one formed via one of ShareShed’s first transactions, in which an out-of-town couple rented a local’s canoe. Dubois and his team went on to keep in touch with the canoe owner and seek his advice, which led to a more permanent association. “Since then, he’s actually invested and joined the team full-time,” Dubois says. “Even just the way we’ve built our team, a lot of them have come from our community.”

Communicating with that core audience and using their feedback and ideas to improve is crucial to ShareShed’s strategy. “I think a big part of it is getting out of the office—it’s very easy to be on our computers all day and sending emails,” he notes. “The challenge is in continuously talking to users, and really being of service.”

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