Lindsay Skabar Hosts James Trask
[00:00:00] Lindsay Skabar: Hello, and welcome to the LIBI podcast. This is Lindsay Skabar and I am joined with James Trask. He is a man of many talents. he, he started a business called Skip the Depot. And if you don't know about it, you're about to find out the amazing things that have been created here in Calgary. And he is also a full stack developer.
So we are going to have a very interesting conversation given the dynamic and what's going on here in the Alberta market. for both starting a business and being a developer. So it's kind of a, a double whammy here, with James. James, welcome.
[00:00:32] James Trask: Thanks Lindsey. Thank you for having me and, the opportunity to share our story here.
[00:00:36] Lindsay Skabar: Well, I'm pretty excited.
I've been friends with James for quite some time and he shared with me the beginnings of Skip the Depot and immediately I was hooked because I just think it's such an amazing story of how it was created in the first place. And then also what it's endeavoring to do. So James, maybe tell us a little bit about the, the beginnings of Skip the Depot and, and what you've been able to create.
[00:00:57] James Trask: Yeah. The origin story is kind of interesting because it, it centered around, technology discovery. So the full background here is, I run a software development company in Calgary called LT3 Advanced Technology Group and we, have been providing custom software solutions for a variety of industries and businesses for the last 10 years.
and one of the industries that we have quite a niche in right now is actually a used beverage container management. So bottle depots and things of that nature. And so we've been consulting and building software systems for that industry for 10 plus years as well. And we had an opportunity back in, in 2017.
[00:01:30] James Trask: We have a bit of a break between projects and we're trying to figure out what we wanted to do with that time. And, you know, at the time we were building software systems, for the web, for Android and for iOS, and we were building them essentially using a wide variety of different technologies. So in, in iOS, we were using objective C and an Android.
It was Java. And for the web, it was, you know, HTML5, CSS, all those kinds of things. Right, so t to have a development team know and understand and be experts in all these different technology sets is, is quite an expensive, proposition. you need a lot of different people. Maybe you need just an iOS guy or just an Android person.
and we looked at that and we said, okay, is there a better way we can do this? Can we kind of consolidate our technology sets? Can we develop in one code base and deploy to a number of different technology stacks, or platforms? And so we did a bit of a technology scan and we kind of identified a few of a few different technologies that were emerging at the time.
Was it fast? How was the scale, all those kinds of things. And, you know, we'd been in the beverage container management industry for so long. that we had really kind of identified a gap in service and that gap was nobody was coming to people's homes and picking up their bottles and cans and taking them back to the Depot for them.
You know, we have apps that will allow you to get a car whenever you want it to take you places. You can go on Amazon people, buy stuff and deliver it for you. you know, bring you food, all those kinds of things. And we thought, you know, what are the kind of barriers to building an app that would do this, but for recycling?
And so we have started asking around a bunch of different people, you know, what the challenges were, because I think people had attempted this in the past. And a lot of those challenges that they were describing to us were essentially technology-based. So, things like customer acquisition, right? In the past, people were using spreadsheets, right?
To call people and be like, Hey, you know, okay. So are you, we're coming on Thursday and. You know, you'd have to schedule the driver, send them out, all those kinds of things. So customer acquisition was one, scheduling was another one driver scheduling. So sending the driver out on all the different routes, scheduling.
and then, payment as well. Right? So a lot of these people who had attempted this thing, we wanted to pay people with cash. Now you have a cash management problem that you have to solve as well, sending drivers out with cash, making sure they give the right amount, all these kinds of things. So, we, we essentially took all these problems.
[00:04:19] James Trask: We identified that they could all be solved with technology. And so we gave it a shot with this new technology stack that we were also trying to test out. And we ended up, blanketing a one postal code in Calgary. It was about a thousand houses or so with, leaflets and flyers. We built out a very rudimentary version of the software to start.
And, I think we started on like a Saturday. Like we were going to pick up on Saturdays for a month or something like that, because we're obviously working full-time and other projects, you know, we didn't really have time to, to go during the week. And so we'd like to have this community just to see what the interest was.
And, we've got quite a bit of interest back. People start signing up. We're like, okay, cool. So we went out on our first Saturday and we had maybe, I don't know, 10 pickups. I start talking to people about it and it just kind of grew its own legs. From there. We expanded it out to the entire city of Calgary.
I ended up driving, driving the truck full time for six months. I think it was about four days a week. We were doing, Monday to Thursday. Kind of like one quadrant of the city at a time. and I did that for six months, just for a couple of reasons. Number one, two, we didn't have anybody else to drive.
but also to get firsthand knowledge and experience on the challenges with driving, the customer experience, and kind of bring all that feedback back in house, and one of the really cool things at the time is that we were making, new deployments weekly, basically based off of the feedback that I got from customers and the feedback that the dev team got from me as a driver, just trying to, you know, make quality of life improvements and new features and all those kinds of things.
[00:05:44] James Trask: So that's kind of how it came up. And we, it eventually grew to a point where we realized we needed to, to onboard some partners. So we have some partners that we work with that, you know, handle all of the collections and processing and all that stuff, so we're primarily focused on software side. Again, I'm not driving a truck around anymore, which is fantastic.
[00:06:01] Lindsay Skabar: Congratulations. That's that's a big step.
[00:06:03] James Trask: Thank you, ya I know that was, I was very relieved. once that happened? You know, so like, I mean, it's, it's good and bad. I actually liked driving around, for a lot of the days because you just put on podcasts and you kind of just listen to things and you learn a bunch of stuff.
So I didn't actually mind the driving at all. But, yeah, so, I mean, that's how it grew in scale when we eventually, just spun it off into its own business. And now, we're processing about 22 million containers a year across the province, Calgary, Edmonton, Fort McMurray, Lethbridge, Banff. Red Deer .
So it's, it's you grown pretty, pretty good right now. And, Yeah, that's about all I have to say for the origin story of that.
[00:06:36] Lindsay Skabar: Well, it's such an interesting story to me because usually, and maybe it's not usually, or at least in my experience, there's been the business idea and then trying to apply technology to a business idea.
And you came at it this totally different way, which is I have this technology, what problem can I solve with it? Which is just a totally interesting perspective.
[00:06:58] James Trask: Yeah. And you know, it, it is, it was something that we'd been obviously kicking around in our heads for a few years. but never really had the time to go out and, and, and try it.
And so it was just kind of this like perfect timing where we had a break, we were looking to investigate new technologies and we had this idea kicking around in our head. So, you know, we actually had the knowledge and expertise to execute on that business idea too, which I think was, also a very important part.
and that we had talked to a bunch of people who had tried this before, knew what the pain points were, what the barriers were. And then we, you know, figured out a way to solve them, and leveraging the technology that way.
[00:07:31] Lindsay Skabar: One of the things that you said, that really resonated with me is that true agile deployment methodology of being at every step of the customer journey.
because you do have a number of customers, you would do you have those truck drivers, you have the people who are going to be, providing the cans and other donations, as well, and you can dive into that in a second, but as well, the bottle Depot is going to do the processing and they can do that in their flexible off hours with the staffing that's already sitting there.
[00:07:58] Lindsay Skabar: So I've been a user of, Skip the Depot since the moment we met, And you have removed the pain and agony of the environmentally responsible thing to do included some social responsibility in it and made it easy. So those are, that's a triple win, in our household.
and one of my favorite things to do when, I schedule a pickup from Skip the Depot is to donate those funds to a charitable organization. Tell me about that, that process?
[00:08:27] James Trask: So that is a super cool story as well. I mean, back when we were blanketing the. that one postal code with all the flyers and everything.
And we started going around and talking to people. We realized that weekend the very first day we did pickups that we need to have a charity option because the first, first question about half of the people asked was, Hey, how can I donate this to this charity? I already donate all my stuff to them.
Right. so they, they thought it was great that we would come to their house and pick it up, but they wanted that donation to still go to the place that they were donating to anyway, through this, you don't have to make the trip. So that for that very first weekend, we said, okay, we need charities. And we implemented the charitable aspect very early in the process.
And I think that that was a huge key to our, our growth over time. Because once you get the charities on board, now you have organizations that are willing to promote their own cause using. your essentially platform to raise funds for their organization. so it was just huge in so many different ways.
we've facilitated the donation of over $1.1 million, in bottles and cans to charitable organizations, since we started. So it's a. That's listening to those customers early on and, and realizing that they wanted that donation option was an absolute, huge game changer for the business
[00:09:39] Lindsay Skabar: Customer centricity seems to be kind of one of your focal points and, and driving to the success of your business. tell me a little bit about, so bottles and cans and, and,and those devices that are containers that when you call it. Containers for re refund what's what's the category,donating those.
but you also have the ability I've noticed on the app and haven't used it yet because I haven't, haven't needed to pick up any electronics or what have you, but you do pick up other things aside from just recyclables.
[00:10:07] James Trask: Yeah. I mean, we're looking to expand kind of the, the recyclable options, because, it offers an additional revenue stream to a lot of our partners that we work with as well.
if we're all going to have trucks on the road, we might as well pick up as much things as possible. That's essentially what we're looking at and trying to optimize the use of the trucks, as well as, help people out with things like their spring cleaning and a bunch of old stuff they have in the basement that they want to get rid of.
[00:10:30] James Trask: Right. So, you know, It's just another, another opportunity to leverage essentially our existing business model and the existing investment in things like trucks and drivers and labor and all that kind of stuff. In order to, you know, just help make the business grow and make it better.
[00:10:45] Lindsay Skabar: So from early business to a scaling business, what have you found to be some of your, the, the things that you were really happy you did, and then some of the things that you perhaps would have done differently in hindsight,
[00:10:59] James Trask: I am really happy that we failed fast in a lot of respects. We, made decisions.
like I mentioned, basically on a weekly basis, we were making deployments on a weekly basis. One of the first things that we thought was, was going to be a good idea. And it wasn't, is that we were going to, have a label printer in the trucks to tag everyone's bags with. And within 10 minutes of driving around trying to label people's bags, we realized I was just going to be too slow.
the label printer doesn't print fast enough. there's, there's a whole, like, you need an outlet in the, in the vehicles, you know, special adapter. There's a whole bunch of like technological problems there. So that's, that's good. And I'd say that's probably one of the things that we did really well was, making decisions.
[00:11:40] James Trask: If we were like about 80% confident that it was the right decision and if it wasn't just reverted it back and trying something else. So, we didn't try to boil the ocean. We didn't try to make things perfect out of the gate. we really tried to listen to our customers, tried to listen to, everybody doing the work.
So the drivers and counters, you know, the first weekend we actually also had a counting facility built in my partner's garage and we were counting the containers ourselves and entering them. And we did that for one weekend and decided that, you know, that was a little bit of a gross thing to do in the garage.
It was a bit, bit too bit too much, but we got that experience and realizing what the fastest way was to count and how we're going to organize the screens based off of that information. So there's, there's a lot of good things from, from that perspective. you know, I really liked that we, we focus on the customers to start.
I think you mentioned in, in, you know, a few minutes ago, you were very customer centric and, you know, we essentially have two guiding principles when we, you know, we're building the software and started the business and number one was, make it as easy as possible for the customer. And the second one was do it as cheaply and fastest, fastest possible because, you know, we were paying for it out of our own pocket, essentially.
Right. So, You know, those were having those two guiding principles out of the gate was, it was a huge thing. You know, it it's, it's tough because, we never really let that, like, I'm sure we've made, I'm sure there's stuff that would come to mind. Nothing comes to mind right now off the top of my head.
but I think part of the reason for that is that we never let any of the issues that we saw linger for a long period of time, because we were constantly innovating. We were constantly changing things. the fact that we were making decisions and if they were wrong, we just cut them off and we switched and went to another way.
[00:13:12] James Trask: And we were nimble enough to be able to do that, that we didn't really have any of these decisions that were, you know, oh man, that that was a three month poor decision that, you know, we really shouldn't have made. so I think that that helps insulate a lot of that. risk at the end of the day.
[00:13:27] Lindsay Skabar: Now tell me a little bit about, COVID and how did that impact your business. you know, everyone's got a story about, about how COVID has, either, positively or negatively impacted their business. I can imagine you have an interesting story there, based on couple of things consumption increasing overall in the home, and people's not willingness to leave their houses. So, tell me a little bit about that experience.
[00:13:54] James Trask: A bit of a perfect storm for our business in a lot of respects. And, you know, I don't, I don't say that as a, necessarily a huge, good thing for society, but it ended up being a pretty big, pretty big kick for, for our business, for the reasons that you mentioned.
So the first thing had happened when COVID hit, as, you know, as, you know, a lot of the businesses shut down. Period. So even bottled depots, which are considered an essential service,by the Alberta government, a lot of them shut down initially because nobody really knew what was going on. Nobody knew what this was.
Nobody knew what the impact of contracting it and spreading it. And a lot of that stuff. So both for the first two to three weeks, want to say about mid March to early April. There were no bottle depots open effectively and in Alberta. And that was just, that was primarily because they were voluntarily shutting down because nobody knew what was going on.
and then they also took some time to, Properly retrofit their depots with, you know, a hand sanitizer and, you know, plexiglass shields, like all those kinds of things and equipping their operators with gloves and all that kind of stuff. Right. So during that period,searches for bottle depot pickup went through the roof on Google and we were kind of the number one choice at the time.
[00:15:02] James Trask: So in five weeks we grew 525% in our weekly booking. We were completely unprepared. both from a software perspective and from an operational perspective, we were panicking to implement limits on a daily pickups and things of that nature. Because to that point we had just had it wide open. We were like, let's book as many pickups as possible.
We weren't filling up anyone's day, you know, direct drivers were going around for half days or whatever it was. Right? So we were scrambling on the software side because now all of a sudden we would have 300 people book for one driver on a day whose maximum is about 40 pickups a day. And so that was a problem because now we're rescheduling people.
We're disappointing customers, all of that stuff. Once we got around to even picking up all those containers, we had. A massive backlog, when we were trying to count them, we had you bags everywhere in the parking lot, trying to manage all that stuff, trying to manage, you know, things like theft and all that as well.
So there was a large number of operational issues that happened as a result of the 500 plus increase in volume that we just weren't ready for. So, you know, we, we eventually got through that. had a lot of positive feedback and more negative feedback than we had had to that point in time, which was completely fair.
I mean, we were promising turnaround times with like 48 hours and people were going on a week or more for their, for their cap container counts and stuff like that. So there was a lot of apologizing to do and a lot of, you know, customer. You know, retention, let's say, but we, we managed to get through it.
I think stabilized from there. and, you know, we, we saw a bit of a, a bit of a drop just because, you know, when depots open back up, people start going back to the Depot. So not everybody was completely handcuffed anymore, but we managed to see a pretty stable usage rate going forward from, from then on.
[00:16:55] James Trask: So, The COVID was a net positive to, to our business. but on top of that, I think it was a net positive too, from our business perspective anyway, from, for the charities because, people were donating more money than ever through, through the system. skip the Depot was one of the only ways that charities could raise funds because all the in-person events were cancelled.
So we saw a huge uptick in promotions from our charity partners, to recruit bottles and cans from your donors. And so that was a real, real, huge positive for them as well. I think. So, yeah, I mean, it was, it was a real interesting time. I'll tell you that for about six months.
[00:17:28] Lindsay Skabar: No kidding. Well, one of the things that I have found extremely interesting is a stat you once told me around the amount of empties that end up in the blue bin, versus, get picked up. Do you have, perhaps, perspective on what Skip the Depot has been able to do in terms of impact on both the environment and, actually actually recycling things that can be recycled where, previously, perhaps, returning to the city.
[00:17:59] James Trask: Yeah. I don't have any kind of updated numbers, from our impact or our conversation there. And a large part of that's due to, to, you know, some of the stuff that's happening around COVID as well. And, and the changes in numbers from, from both the blue bin and from, you know, our collections. but what I will say is that, you know, effectively there was, around $700,000, In deposits that were being thrown away by Calgarians anyway, into the blue bins, annually.
and so, you know, one of the things that we like to offer is the ability to have the same amount of effort, but, you know, you can now keep that money for yourself or you can donate to a charitable organization. So, you know, it's really just a way to, keep a little bit more of that money in your pocket, or put it towards a, a cause that you believe in.
[00:18:38] Lindsay Skabar: It is, it is an amazing story to have both an extremely positive impact on society at the same time as growing a business and kind of having a triple win for customers and, and your other stakeholders as well. So congratulations on that.
[00:18:54] James Trask: Thanks. Yeah, that's a, it's been a really interesting business because you know, like you mentioned, we've got, you've got B2B customers and we have B2C customers at the same time, so, there's a lot of, lot of stakeholders involved and there's a lot of relationship management that goes along with this. We're happy we've been successful so far.
[00:19:11] Lindsay Skabar: Amazing. Let's let's segue a little bit into the other side of, of what you do cause we have perhaps a number of other people's stories would be quite different or their learnings would've been quite different.
Had they not had a team of developers locally, that can be as agile, as your team was during Skip the Depot. On the other side. Now, you, you also run a business of, of developers here. tell us a little bit about the environment that we are in now. perhaps that has changed over time and, and what we can do as Albertans to try to really, provide fantastic opportunities for technologists that, or attract technologists to, to center here so that we can grow our businesses locally.
[00:19:57] James Trask: We've been growing at a pretty steady pace for the last few years, hiring home four to five people a year. so you know, our interview process, is probably not as aggressive as some of the larger organizations, maybe with some, some financial backing and they were looking to scale rapidly, you know, and a large part of, of the,resources that we're hiring are fresh graduates out of school. And, you know, part of the reason that that we like to do that is because, you know, you, you end up recruiting, folks who are happy and eager to learn, get some work experience in the workplace, and don't have any necessarily preconceived notions of how things are done or, you know, historical and, and,You know, experiential, things to share as well that, that you might not want in your business, right.
So, you know, we view our hiring opportunities as a way to say, okay, you know, if you come work for us, we're gonna give you a ton of work experience. we're gonna show you how, you know, we like to have things done. and you're going to be given a boatload of rope. So, you know, would we, first of all, I think the interview process and the hiring process is, has been the key to our business.
For the last, you know, five, six years. I don't think that if we had spent the time and effort developing that process, to, you know, essentially recruit the folks that we want, as part of our team, that we would have been anywhere near, as successful as we have been. So, that interview process has been kind of.
key almost a competitive advantage in a lot of respects, in terms of making sure that we hire the right folks and we don't, you know, and we don't, and we have a low turnover as there, as a result. Right. So, you know, one of the things that we say when we hire,people is that, you know, you're going to be given a problem and a, and a lot of rope to, to go figure out how to solve it.
[00:21:32] James Trask: You know, we're not going to necessarily, we're not going to handhold you. we're not going to tell you how to do things. We're going to say, this is what we need to get done. And you're going to be expected to come up with the options on how you might solve it and then select the best option to do it.
So, I think that's one of the things. You know, our group has really appreciated is the ability to, wear a lot of different hats and to have a lot of rope in terms of, you know, problem solving and, and responsibilities right out of the gate. as opposed to maybe stepping into what you might consider to be a more traditional role at a larger company, which is to our developer coming out of school, you are testing, and you were learning the system and, and you're doing all that stuff, which, you know, we still do just to some extent, but we progress people very quickly through, through kind of those steps. So, and we, we don't make, we don't silo people. We don't say that you're, you're on your database manager, you're an application developer.
We make sure that our full stack developers are doing the full stack and, and, and, you know, and enjoying themselves while they do it.
[00:22:28] Lindsay Skabar: Now, is there anything, like, right now when we're evaluating how healthy our economy is here in Alberta to attract the talent and the resources we need in order to be able to create new business ideas and grow.
and, and perhaps even, to. Diversify the economy here in Alberta, as many people are seeking to do. do you see an evolution of the technologist amongst us going more into consultative roles versus being hired within companies? Or do you see an, a change happening there, given the increased demand on developers in general?
[00:23:05] James Trask: You know, when it comes to things like attracting talent. I think the first question I would ask is what do we think people are looking for nowadays? And it might be a variety of different things. I mean, COVID has opened up a whole new door to things like work from home.
Right. And so, you know, one of the things that we do with, with our guys, on a quarterly basis is we try and figure out what they want out of not just their job, but life as well. Right. Because you know, when you, when you hire people, there's this whole other aspect, this whole other person beyond what you've agreed to do, which is work, right?
And the personal side is equally as important. And I think that when a city like Calgary or even the province, like Alberta is looking to attract talent, we need to start looking at things beyond the opportunities from a work perspective. Whether it be money or job positions or industries or anything else like that, and say, what do people really want, is it, you know, more of a work-life balance. Calgary is an amazing city, in terms of access to mountains and access to all kinds of fun stuff to do on a personal level. Right. And then on the work level, I mean, we have a variety of different industries as well. So, I don't, I don't think I see enough people asking those kinds of questions.
certainly not in a lot of the media pieces that I've read. you know, everything seems to be financially driven or industry driven, which is totally fair. And that's certainly a part of it. And, you know, don't discount that at all, but are there other opportunities, other things that you can offer some of these people too, twist their arm a little?
[00:24:33] Lindsay Skabar: Well, james, it has been such a delight chatting with you. Maybe we can kind of finish off by you telling us some of the things that have led to the success of skip the Depot. And, and what is it that we can learn from your story that we might consider as we're growing our own businesses?
[00:24:50] James Trask: Someone starting your own business and trying to grow it and scale it. One of the things that we found to be incredibly helpful along the way, was connecting with other entrepreneurs or business owners, in a variety of different spaces who were kind of going through the same kind of growth pains and transitions that you are. Lindsey, even some of the, some of the stuff that you did for us, you know, working with Skip the depot, and helping us understand our marketing, branding and our target customers to sell the product too.
I mean, that was huge. We were a couple of engineers, not knowing much about marketing or any of that kind of stuff. And you really opened our eyes to, to a lot of different things, which was super beneficial. you know, we have some other, you know, friends and, and things like that are just good shoulders to lean on and good sounding boards to bounce ideas off of. You're, you're really gonna find that a lot of you have the same problems and the same things to gripe about. So it's, it's always fun to go share a beer and, you know, help, help vent a little, or even sort out some problems, right? So, I think that that's been one of the, the huge success points, in terms of helping us out along the way.
[00:25:50] Lindsay Skabar: Yeah. Calgary has such an amazing entrepreneurial spirit. and I think that that perhaps while we are a really small town in a big city, and so that network effect of, of being able to talk to other people, going through similar challenges, for certain, has helped me in the past as well.
So I'm, I'm glad to hear. That's also been of benefit for you. thank you so much for taking the time with us today and talking about, Skip the Depot as well as Less Than Three, and looking forward to the continued success and the societal impact that your recyclables are having, on me and my house.
The yogurt drink containers. They get picked up on a regular basis, as well as the rest of Calgary, Edmonton, Fort Mac, Lethbridge. So it's been pretty awesome. What you've been able to build. and thank you so much for joining us today.
[00:26:37] James Trask: Thanks Linsay, thanks for having me on.