Imran Mouna, Sci’14, has taken the entrepreneurial path head on. He’s interested in both engineering and performing arts and has had the opportunity to take both these passions and put them together with his company, InStage.

In this Q&A, we learn about InStage, how he started this company, and what it takes to become a successful entrepreneur.

What does InStage do?

InStage is a simulation company that helps students develop their communication skills. We help with everything from classroom presentations to job interviews using virtual reality compatible software. One of our major goals is to create a safe place for people to make mistakes and learn from them, and simulations provide a perfect environment to do that. Not to mention it’s fun!

While I was at Queen’s, I loved both the type of engineering work I did as well as the extracurricular activities I took part in like Existere which were more arts focused. When I graduated, I was looking for something that tied these two passions together, and I ended up meeting a couple of people that were interested in developing virtual reality software to help people overcome the fear of public speaking. For me this was a great opportunity because I could combine my interests in engineering and performing arts to help people overcome a huge challenge many of them face in their personal and professional lives.

What does a day at InStage look like today?

I have several different roles to fill in on daily basis. These range from presenting at EdTech conferences and pitching our product to new clients, to supporting existing clients through workshops, doing testing and quality assure, and working internally with our team to reflect on customer feedback and plan future developments. We’ve been in the market for a number of years, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with everyone from high school students to fortune 500 executives to integrate this technology into educational and corporate training programs.

What was your career path? Internships/first job?

I was part of the work-study program at Queen’s and did my first placement with an incredible non-profit organization named, KYAC (The Kingston Youth Arts Co-operative). My role was to create Lego robotics programming for underprivileged youth and teach lessons at schools in the Kingston area. I had a ton of fun working with the students in this program and we focused on building robots that would battle each other in a tournament at the end of their school year. It definitely fostered my passion for programming.

Over my three summer holidays I worked at an engineering firm called Multimatic, an automotive company based in London, England with factories around the world. I worked in their Markham location on some unforgettable projects - my favourite of which was the Aston Martin One-77, James Bond’s car. They are currently selling for about $3M USD, and I plan to buy one within the next 10 years. Working on that project was an eye-opening experience and highlighted some of the communication challenges in the workplace especially between technical and non-technical teams.

I graduated from the Mechanical Engineering program in 2014 with a specialization in biomechanics and that’s when my entrepreneurial journey truly began. I accepted a software development internship at a UTC company called Chubb Edwards and began work on some of my own endeavours at the same time. I built several iOS and Android applications that I published on Google Play and the Apple App store and invested in a MECH 461 research project as an employer so I could continue work on my own thesis project - a soccer cleat designed to help prevent ACL injuries in athletes that I filed a provisional patented for and competed with in the Institution of Engineering and Technology Present Around The World competition in Fullerton, California. It’s safe to say I cast a pretty wide net in those early days trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and that I learned a lot through trial and error.

By 2017 I had a good sense of what I was interested in and was fortunate enough to meet one of my team members, Michael Caley, at the beginning of one of his many entrepreneurial journeys. We met through a Kijiji ad that he had posted looking for a developer to create a virtual reality program to help people overcome the fear of public speaking. Michael has already successfully created and sold a few businesses prior to this and explained that he wanted to create a prototype to help his wife, and our now third co-founder, Nicole Mclean, overcome her fear of public speaking. Nicole is an extremely outgoing person but felt she had been held back in her career for years because she lacked the skill and confidence to share her ideas in meetings, or interview for higher level roles.

We built an MVP together and within a few weeks had Nicole using a virtual reality (VR) headset to practice giving a speech on stage in front of over 100 avatars. We leveraged speech to text services to analyze her use of filler words like “umm” and “so” and created a report she could use to track her progress. It made a huge difference, and we knew if we could help her, there were countless other people we could do the same thing for. Nicole made it her mission to bring our technology out to schools and corporations across Canada, and less than two years later she gave a speech in front of over 2000 people at the TELUS Pitch competition with Arlene Dickson from Dragon’s Den.

Today InStage not only creates VR simulations, but also online simulations that people can use 24/7 from anywhere in the world without any special equipment to practice for the speaking opportunities (big or small) in their lives.

Imran Mouna

What is your greatest success so far in the industry?

InStage won first place in Amazon’s Worldwide Education and Training Simulation Competition in 2019. AWS challenged developers to showcase tools that can make a dramatic difference in how people learn and develop new skills. Teams from over 140 countries submitted entries, and InStage was selected as the winner.

We have also integrated our technology into many of the most prestigious educational institutions and corporations in Canada and are currently working with the Canadian government to provide training services across the country.

How has your time at Queen’s shaped your career?

My time at Queen’s helped me develop the confidence and tenacity I needed to reach both my personal and professional goals. The engineering program here is unique. It is extremely difficult but filled with supportive people and resources to help you succeed. I sat with professors that could turn assignments around on their desk and do calculus upside down and backwards so I could see it right side up (mind blowing). I made the kind of friends that would stay up until 4AM to make sure I was ready for exams. And I took part in traditions that have been around for longer than I’ve been alive. The entire experience made me feel like I was part of community that strived for excellence and didn’t leave anyone behind, and I try to create that same environment on every team I am a part of now.

What did you wish you knew before entering the workforce?

That perfection gets in the way of progress. I’ve never seen a perfect product in the workplace. Things are messy and chaotic, but that’s the only way I’ve seen things get done. I was afraid to put things out into the world until they were “ready” but the most important thing I’ve learned is that I alone cannot determine when that is. You need to get feedback from others, take responsibility for things that go wrong, and be willing to adjust and change quickly to reach your goals. It can’t be done in a vacuum (aka alone in your basement/garage).

What personal characteristics do you feel are necessary to be a successful entrepreneur?

I think entrepreneurs need to love or least have a very high tolerance for uncertainty. There are a lot of ups and downs on these journeys, and it can take a long time for things to stabilize. You must be patient in the extreme.

The ability to keep calm when things go wrong and make critical decision is another key skill and one of the things, I admire most in my co-founder Michael. There have been countless occasions when things have not gone according to plan, and not once have I ever seen him blame someone on our team for it. Instead, he takes responsibility and immediately begins thinking of solutions. He leads by example and as a result the rest of the team has developed the same attitude.

I also think entrepreneurs need to be adaptable. When people ask me what my title is at InStage, I like to joke by saying ‘Depends what day of the week it is!’ On Monday if I’m speaking at a conference, I’m the co-founder. On Tuesday if we’re testing something I could be a back-end developer. On Wednesday if there’s a customer issue I could be head of support. You have to take on so many different roles that if you don’t thrive in chaos, it stops being fun. Entrepreneurs learn to live through the chaos of running a business and enjoy it (most of the time).

Lastly, I think you need to be passionate about helping people. That characteristic is very clear in my co-founder, Nicole. She knows the problem we are trying to solve firsthand and feels a sense of responsibility to help solve it for others. So, whenever I need extra energy to solve a problem or get through a challenge, I think about the people relying on me, and that’s what motivates me to keep going. I think personal ambition can only take you so far, but there is no limit to what you can do if you have a genuine desire to help others.

Imran Mouna
Imran Mouna (third from right) as an undergraduate at Queen's