Joshua Balderson is a community-minded kind of guy. “I’ve always been someone who likes to help out and get involved,” he says. A former volunteer firefighter, around his hometown of Gananoque he can also be found helping out during the 1000 Islands Poker Run or serving as the score keeper at various junior league teams, wherever someone needs a hand.
Perhaps fittingly for a person trained in television and communications, he’s also a big fan of social media. “I started college the first year Facebook began,” he says. “Back then, My Space was the name of the game.” The do-it-yourself, far less overtly commercial nature of social media then was something he enjoyed. “I don’t like where it is today,” he says. “All the negative aspects, the targeted advertising. Nothing annoys me more than when I am watching something and obstructive advertising pops up.”
Maybe, he thought, he could develop a video-sharing platform minus the bad parts.
That was in 2020. He began assembling a management team to help him create his platform, and, keeping in mind how he likes to help others, “We got together, and we decided that what we wanted to get into was assisting schools.” Their video platform would be a way for schools to connect with their alumni, to build engagement and to fund-raise. Reel Alumni would make sure there were no targeted advertisements or unwanted content. They’d promise the schools that signed up a quarter of the amount they’d take as a subscription fee from alumni and offer them half of the revenue from any expected advertising. (“Video distribution is quite big online,” says Balderson, “It took in $250 million last year on advertising.”). Even if they captured only a small piece of that, it would be windfall for schools – and for Reel Alumni, as they dubbed their company.
As Balderson himself admits, his idea faced one major obstacle: “I’m not trained in business.” Appealing for help on a Kington business website, he connected with Amanda Gilbert, the Communications Coordinator at Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation (QPI). She in turn connected him with Rick Boswell, QPI’s Assistant Director of Programs and Operations, “So I reached out to him. I had a business plan, a breakdown in a paper model of what the platform would look like, all my projections ready to go. When I showed them that, they said I was quite a bit further along than most people.” He was first accepted into the Queen’s Startup Runway program and then also into the Wings acceleration program, intended for startups in their pre-revenue stage.
Of Wings, he says, “It’s definitely the most important thing I have done,” in terms of launching Reel Alumni.
“I think the thing they taught me was how to spend my time,” he says. “I was spending a lot of time turning over rocks I didn’t need to turn over.” “When that happened, things just started to click, and I started to move.” Previously, he says, “I struggled to write a business plan. Now I could probably do one in an hour.” For the one-on-one sessions that are a feature of Wings, “I worked with Elza [Seregelyi, one of Wing’s co-directors]. She has a lot of experience with charities and non-profits and the fact that I am really charity-driven helped us connect. I want to be the company that helps the most, but she was able to direct my approach away from giving the shirt off your back and living in your car to let’s make this profitable.” That the program in these days of COVID-19 was delivered exclusively via Zoom didn’t bother him. “I’m a tech guy, so it was a perfect fit for me.”
Since finishing Wings, Balderson has continued to work on advancing Reel Alumni. “I’ve received interest from alumni, I have received interest from potential advertisers.” He’s found that the universities hold their alumni “pretty close to their chest,” so he might aim more at community colleges. “They’re a little less organized in the alumni area,” he says. “If we can show revenue, I have an agreement with the Ontario Ministry of Education that they will walk me into the school boards with them. We’d be feeding money into the secondary system.” He’s aware his current idea might never come to fruition; however, thanks to Wings, he now sees himself as an entrepreneur – indeed, while still in the program he created a couple of sideline businesses using what Wings had taught him. “I want to be a successful entrepreneur. I have a couple of other business ideas that I had since being in the program. I want to get a successful company with a charity at the end whether it be from Reel Alumni or an artificial intelligence wedding planner. I’m not a guy who stands still,” he says. Indeed, he is currently also busy producing a podcast and serving as brand manager for Puck Support, a group working on mental health issues in hockey.
“I can’t say enough about Wings,” he says. “I can’t thank them enough for all they taught me. Anyone thinking about it, I would seriously suggest they apply and attempt it.”
QPI offers the Startup Runway and Wings programs as part of the Scale-up Platform Project. Led by Invest Ottawa in Eastern Ontario and including Queen’s as a regional partner, the Scale-up Platform Project is supported with funding from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario.