At work with Justin Thouin
Lowestrates.ca’s founder, Justin Thouin, recently spoke with Efma’s Boris Plantier. They talked about starting a company from scratch, the ever-changing office environment of a startup, and how to know when to pursue one’s own ideas.
Tell me a little bit about your background.
I have quite a diverse background and I think that has helped me to be successful as an entrepreneur. When you start a company, you have to almost be able to do every single role, and that’s been the case at LowestRates.ca where we started with only $150,000 of funding. And when you start with that little money, you can’t afford to hire very many people. So, I have done everything from sales to marketing to product management to accounting to garbage man — essentially every position save for coder because I don’t know how to code.
To get there, I had a commerce degree from Queen’s University, and then I worked for Canada’s largest food company and I did three different roles: I did sales, marketing and finance in a management training program. And then I worked in the internet gaming world in product management and business development, and I moved up to Senior Executive there at the world’s largest publicly traded internet gaming company. And that was actually where we got the idea for LowestRates.ca because my co-founder Cliff Ritter was living in the UK while I spent weeks at a time there working. Everywhere we looked, whether it was on TV or billboards or in newspapers, there were ads for these financial rate comparison sites. And when we left the gaming industry and came back to Canada we realized that type of thing didn’t really exist in Canada and so we said to ourselves, “there’s a need for this, let’s try it out."
So, what does your workplace right now look like?
A lot better than it did when we first started the company [laughs]. We are on our fourth workplace, if you include my house as our first workplace. When we started, like I said, we really didn’t have any money. We started with $150,000, so my first office was really my house and then we moved into a shared workplace in a place that we called “the dungeon” because it was underground and did not have a window. Then we moved into our own office and we were very proud of it and it was quite a nice office but a little bit smelly in the foyer walking up, so definitely room for improvement. And I'm proud to say now a year ago we finally moved into a space that’s exceptional. It is in Midtown Toronto right on the subway line. There are exposed ceilings and concrete floors. There’s a lot of natural light with floor to ceiling windows and skylights and it’s a great place where everyone looks forward to coming to work every day.
How would you describe your usual working day?
It’s diverse because I still am involved in a lot of the different areas of the company, and so it could be anything from meeting with our most important partners, such as banks, insurance companies, insurance brokers or credit card companies, to working on our product to working on our site and seeing what sort of conversion improvements we can make in order to generate more leads on the site and make it a better place for consumers to visit. Or it could be working with our head of customer service on some of the primary complaints from our consumers or our partners so that we can make it a better site.
So, it is very diverse. What I would say is that I typically make some time every day for exercise — at least an hour — and I also make some time to see my kids. Typically, I'll work during the day, exercise during the day, spend some time with my kids, and then work again at night. I still work more than I would like to but I don’t see it as work; I see it really just as a part of my life and I’m really excited about what we’re doing here at LowestRates.ca, so it doesn’t necessarily feel like I work too much.
What is your favorite food?
Well, my favorite food or foods are probably not what I eat that much because I’ve been on a health kick for the last few years where I try not to eat very much sugar or very many carbohydrates, but I like a meal called chicken and dumplings [laughs]. And I like lots of sweets, even though I’m not supposed to eat them. But I like a lot of food. I’m pretty passionate about food so that’s why it makes it difficult to not eat sugar and carbohydrates.
If you had to pick one food?
What do you do when you need a break from work?
Exercise. Coach my daughter’s soccer team. Play tennis. I was a nationally ranked tennis player. Watch football.
How do you build a successful team?
It’s a difficult question and a difficult endeavor. I think it’s important to find people who have strengths in areas that are different from one another but that also complement one another. They can’t be so different that they can’t work together, but they can’t be so similar in that there’s groupthink.
So, I think it’s really important to have very diverse skill sets, but I think you need to have team leaders that are open and transparent and are seeking the best result regardless of who it comes from. They can't be seeking glory for themselves; they have to be looking out for what’s best for the company and being happy with the team results as opposed to just their own personal glory, because I think if everyone is working together for the betterment of the team, that personal glory and increased remuneration and position and everything will come along with that.
There’s a saying that we learn more from failures than successes. Tell me about one of your failures and what you learned from it.
Well, when I left the online gaming world, I thought that it would be a good idea to go into management consulting. I worked with two companies and each time I got fired probably halfway through the engagement and it was because I was just pushing my ideas in terms of how I thought the companies should improve way harder than the stakeholders in those companies were ready to accept. They weren’t ready to change that quickly. I realized that if I had all this advice and what I thought were good ideas, I needed to put my money where my mouth was and try to do it myself in my own company and see the initiative through from conception to execution. I just realized that consulting is not for me because it really frustrates me to have an idea and then not see it be executed. So I guess it kind of helped me understand the direction that I should take my career in, and I’m glad I did.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to succeed in financial services?
Well, it’s a very competitive market, so you have to understand why what you’re offering is an amazing solution for the consumer. Why would a consumer want to engage with your service over others? Why would they be willing to pay for your service above others? Really understand your competitive differentiator and who your target market is and make sure that you have a product that they want to buy, and you have a product that they’re willing to pay for and test that out. Because financial services is probably the most competitive industry in the world. You’re dealing with the largest companies in the world, so it’s a very, very difficult space to get into. I would say definitely test your hypothesis with your target market before jumping in with both feet.