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The pandemic crushed the economy. These Toronto-based businesses still found success

By Mathew Silver| Illustrations by Stephanie Firka
The pandemic crushed the economy. These Toronto-based businesses still found success

Covid has not been kind to commerce, pushing so many small businesses to the brink or beyond, and forcing the government to provide support for countless industries. The financial repercussions will be with us long after the pandemic has ended. But some entrepreneurial Torontonians have capitalized on the moment to meet the consumer’s shifting needs. They delivered our packages, helped us zip around town and kept us healthy. These are the Covid business overachievers.


The pandemic crushed the economy. These Toronto-based businesses still found success

Who they are: Ajay Virmani, CEO, Cargojet

What their company does: Overnight air cargo service for companies like Amazon and Canada Post

Most people were introduced to Cargojet in 2019, when, in a stroke of marketing magic, the company gave Drake an OVO-branded Boeing 767 called “Air Drake.” At the start of the pandemic, Cargojet shares plummeted, like those of so many other companies, hitting a low of $76. But e-commerce skyrocketed soon afterwards, putting Cargojet’s timely shipping services in high demand. The company also got contracted to shuttle PPE and other medical supplies in from Asia. Those factors, combined with the grounding of passenger flights, which carried both cargo and people, sent Cargojet share prices soaring to an all-time high of $245.


The pandemic crushed the economy. These Toronto-based businesses still found success

Who they are: Brett Belchetz, CEO, Maple

What their company does: Telehealth platform that connects patients with physicians for virtual checkups

In the before times, Maple facilitated about 1,000 virtual doctor-patient visits a day across Canada. When the lockdown happened in March, more people started using Maple, whether they were experiencing Covid symptoms or just hoping to avoid virus-ravaged waiting rooms for regular appointments. That drove the number of patient-physician visits on the platform up to 4,000 a day, while (presumably) reducing wait times at hospitals. “When the pandemic struck, the company got a rocket ship attached to its back,” says Belchetz. Another boost: Maple received a $75-million investment from Shoppers Drug Mart in exchange for a minority stake.

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The pandemic crushed the economy. These Toronto-based businesses still found success

Who they are: Kevin McLaughlin, CEO, Zygg

What their company does: E-bike subscription service

In early 2020, Zygg’s founders were pulling together their final round of funding and planning a springtime launch with a fleet of 150 e-bikes. But after a little post-pandemic negotiating with General Motors, who were looking to shutter their Canadian e-bike division, Zygg accumulated a total supply of 250 e-bikes, unaware of how Covid would transform the transportation landscape. “We didn’t realize the demand for biking would go through the roof,” says McLaughlin. Zygg maxed out their membership pool, far surpassing initial expectations, with everyone from casual cyclists to delivery workers purchasing a subscription. Next up: adding another 500 e-bikes for the spring of 2021.


The pandemic crushed the economy. These Toronto-based businesses still found success

Who they are: Joanna Griffiths, CEO, Knix

What their company does: Women’s clothing company known for loungewear, comfortable bras and leak-proof underwear

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Knix ended 2019 with more than $50 million in sales and a $5.7-million round of funding, while adding an elegant brick-and-mortar location on Queen West. But the pandemic gave it an even bigger boost. The post-Covid shift to everything-from-home made fancy outfits obsolete (RIP suits and cocktail dresses), while comfy loungewear became essential. Since then, Knix has experienced an 80 per cent increase in sales, with loungewear flying off the virtual shelves. Side note: led by Griffiths, the company raised nearly $800,000 to help provide masks, gloves and sanitizer to health care workers and homeless shelters.


The pandemic crushed the economy. These Toronto-based businesses still found success

Who they are: John Mann, managing partner, Fleet Optics

What their company does: Logistics company that provides final-mile delivery from a retailer’s distribution centre to the customer’s door, using tracking technology and a pool of 500 drivers

In late 2019, FleetOptics was on a hot streak. Since launching in 2015, the company’s annual revenue had increased from $65,000 to $40 million, placing it in the number-one slot on the Globe and Mail’s list of Canada’s top growing businesses. Then came the pandemic. Retailers were forced to scale back their brick-and-mortar operations and shift to online sales, putting warehouse-to-home delivery services at a premium. “Covid took what was already going quickly and put it into hyper growth,” says Mann. The company saw a 125 per cent jump in revenue through Q3 of 2020, with little to suggest that things will slow down anytime soon.


The pandemic crushed the economy. These Toronto-based businesses still found success

Who they are: Mike Silagadze, CEO, Top Hat

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What their company does: A higher-education platform that enables teachers to create an online learning experience for students, with digital course materials, lectures, homework and testing

Top Hat started 2020 on a high. The 11-year-old company finished a $70-million round of funding and countless professors across North America had ditched their traditional textbooks in favour of the Top Hat’s online learning services, driving millions of students to the platform. Then the pandemic hit, shuttering schools pretty much everywhere and making online learning the go-to form of education. The result: Top Hat experienced a 40 per cent increase in users and 60 per cent year-over-year revenue. “Teachers who once had the attitude ‘You’ll have to pry print textbooks from my cold, dead hands’ were suddenly finding that going digital made a lot more sense,” says Silagadze. Top Hat also purchased Nelson Education’s catalogue of Canadian university textbooks and converted the materials into digital content for students.


The pandemic crushed the economy. These Toronto-based businesses still found success

Who they are: Nav Sangha, founder, Ambassador

What their company does: Subscription-based e-commerce platform that provides ordering, payment and delivery software services to restaurants and small businesses

In early 2020, fewer than 10 restaurants were registered for Ambassador’s $99-a-month subscription service. But when the government outlawed indoor dining and food delivery became a lockdown necessity, small businesses operating on thin margins went looking for an alternative to third-party delivery apps like SkipTheDishes and Uber Eats, which were charging up to 30 per cent commission per order. That led local restaurants to sign up for Ambassador, taking advantage of its commissionless delivery software services. Now, close to 200 restaurants in North America are using the platform, a considerable jump since the start of the pandemic.

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The pandemic crushed the economy. These Toronto-based businesses still found success

Who they are: Adrian Montgomery, CEO, Enthusiast Gaming

What their company does: E-sports content creator, with websites, YouTube channels and a roster of gaming influencers

Before the pandemic, as the e-sports industry increased in popularity worldwide, Enthusiast Gaming—sort of like ESPN for gamers—grew along with it, building a monthly audience of 300 million. Similarly, when video games became a primary source of entertainment for the housebound, EG experienced a 25 per cent uptick in traffic across its platforms. Advertising sales climbed during lockdown as well, with clients like Gillette and the Biden-Harris campaign signing on. But the company’s biggest boon came when it bought a YouTube content network called Omnia Media for $44 million, driving their forecasted 2020 revenue from $35 million to $124 million.

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