Money & Career

How Joanna Track started her online businesses

Career advice: She started the lifestyle website Sweetspot from her home after the dot-com recession. Now, the ambitious mathematics major has created, a shopping hub of designer brands

Joanna Track, Dealuxe, Sweetspot

Occupation: Co-founder and CEO of
Age: 40
Hometown: Toronto
Education: BA in mathematics from the University of Western Ontario, MBA from the Schulich School of Business at York University

Q: Some experts say it’s the worst time ever for start-ups. Why did you decide to launch Dealuxe this year?
A: There’s never a perfect time to start something new. I moved to New York to work in advertising just after September 11; I launched Sweetspot [a site that reports on trends in cities across Canada] right after the dot-com bust; and now we’re still recovering from a big recession. But I’m not worried. My confidence gives confidence to the people around me.

Q: You were 33 and a math grad turned ad exec when you created Sweetspot. What led you to trendspotting?
A: I hit a career high in direct marketing at Ogilvy & Mather, an advertising agency. The job married the creative elements of branding with my analytical side. When I wanted a change of pace, I asked to be transferred to New York City, and a friend introduced me to I had a light-bulb moment: It was the coolest concept, and we had nothing like it in Canada. When I returned to Toronto a year and a half later, I developed and personalized the idea. Within five months, Sweetspot was live, but I didn’t quit my job immediately. Even when I did, I was living off my RSP, and my brother paid my bills until the site made money.

Q: Was it hard to ask your brother for help?
A: We’ve always had a relationship where we could count on each other (except for our teenage years!), and I believed in the idea so much I was confident I’d be able to pay him back and then some.

Q: How does Dealuxe differ from other online retailers?
A: It’s an ode to Canada. Most Canadian women know the frustration of online shopping from the U.S.: It seemed like a great price—until you got slammed with the duty or shipping charges. Dealuxe cures that headache. It brings you contemporary fashion with exclusive deals and weekly flash sales so every woman in Canada can access great brands online.

Q: What kind of an online shopper are you?
A: A big one! When I rented an apartment in Florida last winter, I was an online-shopping maniac, because there weren’t any hurdles. My son, Teddy, was a few months old, so it was diapers, click. Formula, click. Baby snacks, click. All that stuff on my doorstep the next day. It was painful coming home to Toronto, where it was no longer so easy!

Q: What other life experiences have proved helpful in starting your business?

A: It sounds silly, but going away to summer camp when I was a kid changed my life. The simple lessons I learned—like how to be responsible and respectful in your daily interactions—taught me more than any master’s degree.

Q: How do you keep your company strong?

A: One of the keys to my success is finding great people. My philosophy is to hire a lot of junior staff members and mentor them. I’ve had amazing mentors, especially at Ogilvy, who taught me the importance of working smart: being efficient with time and communicating my ideas clearly.

Q: What do you love most about your job?
A: As my own boss, even though I work odd hours, I am the master of my destiny. In this career, you never get pigeon-holed into one area, and I welcome new challenges. I can handle them because I hire great people, which allows me to skim the surface of many different areas, knowing that my team runs each one well.

Q: Is there anything you would change about the route your life has taken?
A: No, because the hard times made me stronger and none of this would have happened otherwise. You can’t set a timeline; you’ve got to trust that we all end up in the same place, for the most part. Recently, a friend pointed out that she’d gotten married and started a family years before I did, but now we’re at the same place in our lives.

Q: What did the harder times teach you?

A: Working with a business partner is like a marriage — you need to go in with your eyes open. With Sweetspot, I got into a situation with one of my closest friends. It got ugly and caused a lot of stress. Fortunately, we mended our relationship, but I learned that you need to put everything on the table, ask a lot of questions and not be afraid to ruffle any feathers. Once the papers have been signed, you’re committed.

Q: What’s your proudest career moment?
A: On Sweetspot’s first anniversary, we did a survey. Thousands of people responded, and many said how Sweetspot was as important as their morning coffee. I cried over some of the comments. The site had taken on a life of its own. Another proud moment was when Rogers [which also publishes Chatelaine] was interested in a partnership, because it showed I’d created a viable business.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

A: To always be a consummate professional. Even when I worked from my apartment, I had letterhead. When you treat your ideas as more than pet projects, you build people’s confidence. Also, I leave my ego at the door. Nothing makes me happier than seeing my employees shine.

Q: How do you define success?
A: I love the lily-pad theory, because I’ve lived it. Too often the focus is on climbing the ladder, but why should the top be the best place? A pond with lily pads has no start or finish. Instead, you hop around, and each one of those steps gets you closer to your own ultimate destination.

Q: Who inspires your work?

A: My grandmother inspires the style side. She loved bright colours and wasn’t afraid to try different things. Her generation always left the house with lipstick on, because you never knew who you might see. I try to remember that when I’m running out of the house.

Q: How do you unwind?
A: Friends laugh and call me Mister Rogers, because the minute I walk in the door I have to change. I need the cozies, so I get into my sweat-pants — some have been around since the dawn of time.

Q: Any words of wisdom for women with the next great idea?
A: You don’t have to invent Facebook. Start small, build off an inspiration, keep your day job if you can and then, when your idea grows, go for it.