Sam Zaid: young entrepreneur on a roll

Like most “overnight” successes, Sam Zaid has been many years in the making.

At 31, the Ottawa entrepreneur has two successful high-tech companies and was recently recognized for his achievements with Ernst & Young’s 2009 Young Entrepreneur’s Award.

But it was back in high school that Zaid, working part time for Nortel in computer programming, realized that entrepreneurship was the path he wanted to take. And while enrolled in a demanding four-year engineering physics program at Queen’s University, he started his first business, Plan 9 Solutions.

“We did customized resale of high-end computer systems to small businesses,” he says, “and we did well. Plan 9 Solutions helped pay my way through Queen’s.

It also taught him a lot about what’s involved in starting a company, including how much work it is, and the kind of company he was interested in creating.

“It was a very valuable experience,” says Zaid.

His next idea for a company, which came just after he graduated from Queen’s in 2003, was an Internet marketplace targeted toward the resale and trading of DVDs and games, but that enterprise didn’t pan out.

“I still think the idea had merit, but I lacked the funding necessary to make it work.”

But by November 2004, Zaid – determined to chart his own destiny – had struck on a business idea that would fly, one that combined his growing interests in artificial intelligence and web-based architecture. He also had funding in place, a combination of savings and a grant from theOntario government’s Self-Employment Benefits program, designed specifically to help entrepreneurs like him get started in business.

Zaid called his new company Apption, a play on the word “application”. Its focus? To help businesses use the large volumes of data they collect to their best advantage.

“Data is useless if you can’t turn it into information that improves your performance,” says Zaid. With more and more businesses collecting vast amounts of information, Apption’s timing was perfect.

From the start, the company was revenue-funded, thanks to a number of small clients. Apption’s first big break came when it landed Canada Post as a client. Apption’s solution, which blended the Crown Corporation’s existing networking systems with the company’s advanced software technology, reduced errors and improved productivity dramatically – effecting substantial operational cost savings.

With results like that it wasn’t long before Apption was catching the attention of other government agencies, including Health Canada, Statistics Canada and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, as well as companies like Spartan Bioscience, RTI Wireless and Alcatel Lucent.

And the company was growing, from a handful of employees in 2004 to 35 full-time employees today, and building up intellectual property. It was also getting industry recognition, making Profit magazine’s Hot 50 List in 2008 (and again in 2009) and winning the coveted 2008 Microsoft Code Award for Top Development Team in Canada.

But, as pleased as Zaid was – and is – with Apption, he also wanted to create his own consumer product. It would use the same underlying technology developed by Apption, but it would be a retail application.

He pulled together a small team, got to work, and in March 2009 launched Gazaro. It tracks and identifies products and prices in near real-time from online and brick and mortar retailers, using a patent-pending artificial intelligence system to identify the best buying opportunities. The company generates revenue on a cost-per-click basis, through commissions on purchases and on the sale of the application itself.

With online shopping growing steadily, Gazaro is quickly carving out a profitable niche.

For Zaid, though, the real thrill is in “creating something and seeing people use it.”

“If your motivation is to just make money,” he says, “I don’t think you’re going to be successful as an entrepreneur. Personal fulfillment is essential.”

What advice does Zaid have for would-be entrepreneurs?

“Understand what you’re getting yourself into,” he says. “You’ve got to be focused, prepared to work hard and deal with the ups and downs you’re sure to experience.”

”Finding the right people is also key, he notes. Even before he started Apption, Zaid was busy networking, meeting key industry contacts over coffee and attending information sessions held by the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce and the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation.

“The technology community is smalI, so networking helped me understand the landscape.”

It also helped him get a partner for the business.

“I met Brian Joe at one of these events,” says Zaid. “Brian is an experienced serial entrepreneur. We talked about partnering and in early 2006 he came on board as CEO. A great deal of our success is due to his efforts.”

What’s next for Zaid and his companies?

“Apption is focused on landing some more big clients and for Gazaro it’s about driving more traffic to the website,” he says. “Then we’ll see where we go from there.”