In 2008, Matt Eldridge was a working stiff, selling cross-Canada franchise rights for a real estate website. One day he was e-mailing back and forth with a potential franchisee, and at the same time getting into an increasingly livid e-mail argument with a friend in a different message window. It took just one mis-post to lose the potential investor. But the 32-year-old Eldridge’s professional debacle was the genesis of ToneCheck, a “connotative intelligence” program designed to scan e-mail for emotional content and flag inappropriate phrasings and words — an emotional spell-check, if you like. In 2009 Eldridge founded Moncton, N.B.-based Lymbix Inc., to turn the idea into an application. He subsequently hooked up with inventor Wayne Chase and the two worked together to develop a commercial application for Chase’s research on connotative intelligence. The result is ToneCheck, currently in beta. An Outlook plug-in will be released this June, followed by versions for other e-mail platforms. Lymbix has been in preliminary talks with Microsoft about including the program with a future release of Outlook. The 10-person company in May won “Most Promising Startup of 2010” at New Brunswick’s KIRA awards, a 12-year-old event recognizing innovation in the province’s tech industry.
What is the greatest challenge currently facing Lymbix and what are you doing about it?
Finding people that fit within our culture. Obviously Moncton is not a big place. Atlantic Canada as a whole is limited for talent, and my mentality is to hire slow and fire fast. We were very careful about who we brought on. To combat that problem we’re looking at outsourcing to wherever the right people are; we don’t mind employing from around the world. But we’re lucky right now — everyone is Moncton-based and comes to the office every day. But we’re tapping a limited resource and that’s tough for us.
Who else — person or company — do you feel is doing innovative work and in what way?
We were playing with Google Translate today, and how amazing is that tool? I’m in awe of the giant that they’ve become. Also, companies like Radian6 in our backyard, and Xobni in San Francisco, who are developing downloadable plug-ins for Outlook that do some really smart stuff, collecting information about all the people in your e-mail inbox and putting together profiles of them. For the tech sector as a whole I think we’re still infants, and it’s so new and there are so many smart things happening, but there’s so much still to come.
How would you describe your leadership approach/style?
I like people to be very accountable and own everything they do. I try to create an environment that’s fun and exciting, where people want to be here and are invested personally. Something of the WestJet model, where people feel ownership. We’re all big boys and girls, and the staff knows what needs to be done. No one is afraid to ask for help — there are a lot of unknowns, but everyone knows what to do in the company and everyone’s roles are clearly defined. So my style is all about making sure everyone has the tools they need and everyone is held accountable.
At the recent Canada 3.0 forum, federal Industry Minister Tony Clement said that Canada has slid to the “middle of the pack” when it comes to new technology, not pursuing innovation aggressively enough. Do you agree, and what can we do, as a country, to improve?
I agree wholeheartedly. The whole landscape of innovation comes down to funding. We are very, very limited in the venture capital funds that we have to tap into. There is a very low risk tolerance in Canada — people are looking for a start-up to be so far along that by the time they’re at the point that VC wants them to be, they might not even need the money anymore. Compared to the U.S. it’s a tough road, and Canada has so many smart people and innovative companies. If we had the capital to pursue even half of them I think we would be very far along. It’s no wonder that we talk to funds … out of Silicon Valley and Boston and New York. We have to.
Stephen Harper has been criticized by some political leaders for not supporting a global bank tax. Would such a tax be useful in avoiding the kind of market volatility we’ve seen lately?
We are pretty lucky in Canada, but we’re smart too, and we’ve put ourselves in a position where we don’t need to follow suit with that. It’s been well-documented that we’ve done fairly well and come out of the credit crisis fairly quickly. There are a lot of things that could be improved but as a whole we’ve fared pretty well. To rock the boat with a tax of that nature, I don’t know that it’s needed at this time.
You play hockey and golf, two pretty dissimilar sports. In your experience, who might be more in need of ToneCheck — hockey players or golfers?
Pro hockey players tend to say the same thing over and over; their stuff is pretty canned. Look at Tiger Woods on the other hand, and what other players were saying about him. So I’ll go with the golfers. They need to be a little more diplomatic about what they say.