Businesses are created to solve problems. For Michael Agema the problem was hospitality staffing. Every summer in the pristine lakes and parks north of Toronto, there are literally thousands of weddings, reunion and other events. There are millions of people living in the Greater Toronto Area. But the further north you go, the more sparsely populated it becomes. And that was the problem Michael was trying to solve. Event companies are constantly struggling to find enough hospitality staff for all those events. Michael thought that technology might offer a solution. And Agema Work was born.
A late in life shift
Michael spent almost 30 years in public service of post-secondary education. He was a conference administrator Georgian College. Eventually, he transitioned to teaching full-time and later became a program coordinator. He kept hearing about how the hospitality industry continued to struggle with staffing. In 2015, with the help of his two adult children, he created a digital marketplace to help caterers and other live event companies source workers. The business was a success and now serves multiple industries.
Running a family business has not been without its challenges. Being open and honest has resulted in some heated debates but it’s made the business grow. Knowing how to balance the professional side of the business and the personal side of their relationships has helped them manage the dynamics. With time, new opportunities arose and the vision of the business had to change to meet those opportunities. Initially serving central Ontario, the company continues to grow and now provides workers for multiple industries.
The business has also developed from helping students to find work. They now help part-time employees to pick up extra work through the app. Covid hit the hospitality staffing industry hard and people were forced to find work in other industries. Through AGEMA Work, people have been able to pick up shifts in different zones thus assisting people who had lost jobs to still be able to work.
Michael, is a self-declared serial entrepreneur, having started 10 businesses. Some were a success and others failed. He admits that older entrepreneurs can be stubborn and DMZ Innisfil was the dose of reality that he needed.
“To me, the DMZ Innisfil has become my classroom, where I have been challenged to push my limit. We get a little bit stubborn when we get older, because we think, ‘Come on, look at me, don’t tell me what to do.’ But I tell you, it has been probably the most beneficial.”
Plenty of Demand but No Supply
On several occasions, Michael would get a call from someone organizing a wedding or other event. Inevitably they would ask him for help to find hospitality staff. Michael would forward this request to the Student Success Center who would then post the opportunity, hoping that somebody would pick up the phone and call the number, offering to help. Most of the time those jobs went unfilled. Adding to his frustration was the fact that many students were leaving the college because of financial hardships. Michael thought that if he could solve this disconnect, it would be a win-win for both parties. Those in need of workers would benefit and students would be able to reduce their student debt.
Taking a Leap of Faith
He took the idea to John Pickard, Executive Director at Henry Bernick Entrepreneurship Center. John was impressed with the idea and predicted that the business would do so well that Michael would leave the college. Those words were prophetic. The business became so successful that Michael eventually retired from his teaching career to focus on Agema Work full time.
Switching up the Company Vision
AGEMA Works initially started as a hospitality platform. But the opportunity to expand the app beyond a single industry came quickly. The app now offers workers for the construction, healthcare and agriculture industries. The pandemic left many people looking for work. The app allows those people pick up badly needed shifts. In addition, the platform has allowed people to capitalize on multiple skills they may have.
“The interesting thing is sometimes we limit people on what they’re able to do without saying I don’t really know where your skill sets are. A perfect example, in construction, I didn’t realize some of my team were sort of hidden cabinet installers and suddenly, that’s what they end up doing. They end up doing an awesome job at it. Or else I would have just kept them pigeon holed in what they currently are told to do, or hired to do.”
Redeeming the Gig Economy
The gig economy has been criticized for creating more vulnerable workers with less access to benefits. Agema Work wants to do things differently. They assess the regions that they are serving and then work to meet or exceed the average wage in that area. In cases where employees are not able to work full-time because of costs to a company, they are able to add more shifts to their work week by using AGEMA Work. That can add thousands of dollars a year to a workers income. And that, in turn, can make a huge difference for working families.
Running a Tech Startup During Covid
Many businesses in the hospitality industry closed at the onset of the pandemic. Many remain closed. Tens of thousands of people have been left unemployed. Michael draws parallels to the 2008 financial crisis. During that crisis many companies were devastated. But it also provided incredible opportunities to new start-ups. Companies that have now become household names like Uber, Airbnb and Bitcoin.
“People became creative because starvation is a motivator to make some change. I think human nature is, ‘I’m going to survive. We will survive.’”
The Future of AGEMA Work Post-Pandemic
The pandemic isn’t going to last forever. Once the lockdowns come to an end Michael predicts an economic boom. Many thousands of people will enter the AGEMA work pool. And that will add more credibility and value to the platform. Michael wants to add different types of training and certifications to the platform. And he plans to improve the vetting process so that employers can be confident in the quality of their workforce. This reputation capital, as he calls it, can help members increase their earnings.
Lessons in Starting a Hospitality Staffing Tech Startup
The hospitality staffing industry is notorious for having thin profit margins and a high rate of failure. Tech startups have an even higher failure rate. Michael says one way to combat that is to form a strong relationship between a buyer and seller.
“We have to have not only high tech, but we have to have high touch.”
Reminding yourself and your team why you’re in this business is another way to stay relevant and profitable. Ask yourself, “Why do we do what we do?
Innisfil Accelerates Helping Entrepreneurs Connect the Dots
The most significant benefit that Michael has experienced at DMZ Innisfil is the mentorship and collaboration. Entrepreneurs are connected to experts and residents who challenge them and push them to their limit. Entrepreneurs have to be accountable and present their objectives and key results and have a group to celebrate their wins with.
When an entrepreneur needs assistance in a certain field, she or he can consult someone at DMZ Innisfil. It’s a continuous conversation at DMZ Innisfil where you’re bouncing off ideas, implementing them, discussing the results and going back to the drawing board.
“And so even coming up with creative ideas, because I like to call it the Crayola effect, I am one color, you’re one color, together, we’re three colors. If you have a lot more minds together, we have a lot more ideas.”
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