Interview With Vijak Haddadi & Benjamin Gibson

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Vijak Haddadi and Ben Gibson are the Co-Founders of Tract 9, a Toronto-based tech and design incubator with startup incubation and acceleration programs for creative tech ventures, as well as a technology and design academy with a variety of coding, design, and arts. 

Tract 9 is a beautifully handcrafted coworking space for startups and creatives. Their mission is to host, build and boost the next generation of awesome Toronto ventures.

Toronto's startup and innovation ecosystem is booming. In the world of technology and design in 2016, things are rapidly evolving, new roles and career trajectories are emerging. New ideas and new information are being discovered and created all the time. Through their leading-edge events (such as regular Virtual Reality showcases, gaming showcases, hackathons and design demos), they encourage exposure to the latest ideas as well as practical experimentation by members to seek out opportunities and intelligently co-create their paths. 

What were the earliest indications that Tract 9 could be successful?

Conversations that we have had with friends and associates. Folks who have given us immensely helpful feedback from the get-go and who have encouraged us to do our thing. Ben can particularly think of a film-maker buddy of his with who he makes it a bit of a game to question and poke holes in others game plans, projects etc. He is absolutely brilliant and Ben always gets a bit nervous pitching new ideas to him - he seems to be inherently unimpressed.

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When telling him about Tract 9, our somewhat innovative business model, support, and internal networking systems for freelancers, creating perfect storm potential for startups etc. He looked a bit confused and said "sh*t, that's really cool." That was Ben's first mini-slam-dunk-sort-of moment. Since then we have had a series of creative trailblazers, from bloggers and designers to technologists and game developers, join us as passionate brand ambassadors.

What position did you hire first?

Our first hire was the Office Manager. The partners still take care of everything for the most part (program development, partner introductions, mentorship, member support, etc.).

We’re all passionate about the place, we love the people that come in, the people and companies that we get to see grow. Once membership grew it became pretty obvious that the day-to-day management needed a specialized hand. It gives the partners the time to be where they need to be, doing their thing on the floor with the members or out at events and meetups to promote the brand.

What is working best for Tract 9's marketing right now?

What works best with the marketing is not so much a particular channel but the message itself. It's that we’re presenting something new and genuinely wanted/needed. We’re still having discussions to find the best ways to make sure we’re getting our message across but so far we have good responses on social media, through events and via word of mouth.

What is the biggest differentiator of Tract 9?

We recognize that entrepreneurs are all different but the same. A freelance designer, writer, programmer etc. is going to need a whole different support system than a startup team. But everyone likes a big loft-style creative warehouse to work from, cool events, cookies, healthcare and the occasional beer night.

What is the toughest decision you've had to make in the last few months?

Wow, considering we’re less than two months old… All of them? None of them? It’s a bit weird, starting Tract 9 was obviously a big investment and a risk. However, I think the risk was secondary to the gut knowledge that we are creating something special and unique. 

If it was possible, what advice would you give yourself 10 years ago?

Ha ha! A lot of the programs were developed with our own 10-year juniors in mind. With the help of other freelance colleagues, we tried to figure out all the mistakes we’d made running our own businesses.

The Award Fund, in particular, its a great example of how we personally never considered putting money aside for things like awards year to year. It’s actually pretty important. Now we include this as a client service.

How did you meet your co-founders or business partners? 

Ben came on board a bit late, we met to discuss some marketing materials, in a short while we got right inside each other's heads, and both knew we were talking about something way more exciting that what one would consider a typical coworking space - we were going to try and innovate the coworking model by adding new features and systems to it! So far it has been a great partnership.

Favorite place to travel to?

New York City. That's the unanimous answer for both of us. :) The creative energy is unimaginable, the pace is insanely intense and there are stories worth living and telling at every street corner; on the flip side, Amsterdam is a close 2nd. We like to think Toronto sits in the middle somewhere. The people we see at Tract 9 work hard every day and create the unimaginable, but at the same time have the good sense to crack a beer on the grass in the park at least once a week. 

What are your favorite things about coworking spaces? 

Freelancing can be random, lonely and a feast of famine situation. Coworking brings a sense of community along with much-needed stability, for instance, we love that we can provide health care to freelancers and startups, I think it’s important that we offer these kinds of people stability, these guys are literally building the future. 

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What book are you most likely to give as a gift?

Ben: A Big Boy did it and Ran Away by Chris Brockheimer, it’s fun, engaging and a chill read. Also, it’s big so you really feel like you’ve accomplished something at the end. That or the Satanic Bible, but as a joke.

What is your favorite small business in the town you grew up in? 

Ben: I guess the local Newspaper, I don’t know if it would count as “Small Business” as it was owned by a company that was in turn owned by the Toronto Star. But it was a pretty small business setup, they did give me my first full-time Graphic Design job so I have to say them.

Do you have a favorite freelancer you have worked with?

Lots of favorites, lots of different types of freelancers, lots of collaborations!

What is your favorite app or online tool? 

Ben: I’m a fan of Instagram from a social point. For work I’ve never found a proper solution, truth be told the two best options are LinkedIn and Craigslist. I’m actually really excited about what we’re building now. It’s an internal member's online tool that is basically a mix of Craigslist and LinkedIn - A member network of vetted professionals that can receive targeted work requests (that’s one better than a lead, this is an actual request for work at any given time out of the blue).

What was the best event that you recently attended?

Ben: Toronto Tech Week was cool; it’s been a while since I’ve attended something really out there - we’re putting together an actual live design tournament at Tract 9 (August 13, 2016) that is a take on something I saw a while back at an event - think of a mix between a live on-screen design demonstration and one of those multi-player / multi-screened arcade games.

Vijak: I love the DISRUPT events that are hosted by TechCrunch in SF and NYC. You get to connect with the latest and freshest trends in the startup and venture world and get to meet a bunch of good people. The best event I recently attended would probably be an outdoor rave on Toronto Island though. :)

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How did you finance your business?

Some savings and lots of good will from family and friends. 

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What business would you love for someone else to start?

We get to hear really good ideas at T9 pretty regularly, usually from startups pitching for the 9 Stream Accelerator Program. I would love to see more eco/green-centric startups / solution projects.

What advice do you have for new founders? 

If you’re really doing something new / better / worthwhile you’ll know it. You’ll know it because you won’t even know what to make of it at first. That's when you take the startup level or the freelance level; you know when it’s the right time to grow.

Twitter: @realtract9 

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