Three years ago, Silicon Valley came knocking at Ottawa’s doorstep. SurveyMonkey, the Palo Alto-based survey software provider, was calling for Fluidware, a local startup with its own form-building applications.
It wasn’t the first time a large tech company had come to the Capital to acquire a homegrown success, but the story didn’t end when the Fluidware’s co-founders Aydin Mirzaee and Eli Fathi signed over their company.
All 75 of the startup’s staff would be retained, including Mirzaee who would stay on for a transition period. He departed the company he helped to build roughly a year ago, but not before his local team had grown to 90.
Now, the team at SurveyMonkey’s York Street office is 110 strong, but when I meet CEO Zander Lurie there, he tells me that number will likely double in the next two years. That investment in the local office will eventually come with a new location as well as an Ottawa-based data centre, due to open in the next few months.
Ottawa-Silicon Valley hybrid
Lurie says the pace of growth in Ottawa will likely outstrip growth in the rest of the company, which just surpassed 700 employees. The vision for the local team is “a much more strategic investment focus than a back office,” complete with fully-functional marketing, sales, design, engineering and legal teams.
Lurie’s bullish outlook for Ottawa stems from the local team’s unique blend of startup and large company vibes.
“I think there is an energy and a culture in this office: It has the same esprit de corps that a really great startup has, but it has all the resources and capital access of a much bigger company.”
That culture is what drew Pej Javaheri, head of SurveyMonkey’s Ottawa outpost, to the company. The Carleton University graduate has worked for giants such as IBM and Microsoft in the city, but found the startup grind he was looking for at SurveyMonkey.
“Having the opportunity to work for a Silicon Valley company in Ottawa was something I jumped at,” he says.
Before his stints with the aforementioned tech giants, Javaheri worked for Ottawa-based Cognos, which was acquired by IBM in 2009. The connection between Cognos, which specialized in business intelligence software, and SurveyMonkey, a firm that brands itself as “people-powered data,” was obvious to him.
Surveys are what provide nuance to data, Lurie adds.
SurveyMonkey was founded in 1999. Surveys have changed since 1999.
Filling out quarterly and annual reports with pages and pages of questions is no longer the norm. Today, as is the case with most business and consumer-facing applications, it’s all about mobile.
Think about the last time you took a trip with Uber, or ordered food from a delivery app: You’re asked to rate the speed, efficiency and general enjoyment of the ride or delivery in a five-second interaction. Not only have surveys become condensed on the smartphone, they’ve become a critical element of the sharing economy.
“Every single time you take a ride, you’re taking a survey. That data feeds the driver’s reputation, and the driver’s taking a survey about you,” Lurie says. That’s the future SurveyMonkey must operate in.
“The history of innovation in the Valley goes to the folks who are planting seeds for the next few years.”
Disruption doesn’t end there. SurveyMonkey is hoping to stay ahead of the curve of machine learning and big data with products such as SurveyMonkey Genius. The application evaluates a user’s questionnaire based on data drawn from the millions of surveys filed on its servers. It can tell you whether your first question is likely to intrigue a user into taking the rest of your survey, or how long a respondent might take to complete it.
“We’re all about trying to disrupt ourselves,” Lurie says. “The history of innovation in the Valley goes to the folks who are planting seeds for the next few years.”
New brand, familiar foundations
On July 17th, SurveyMonkey launched a rebrand. FluidReview, a flagship product of Fluidware, became SurveyMonkey Apply, a product that helps scholarship and grant committees select their recipients.
The foundations of SurveyMonkey Apply are firmly entrenched in the work done by the Ottawa team, both before and after the acquisition.
“This really is the Ottawa-based business. SurveyMonkey Apply is built here, it’s sold here, it’s serviced here and it has such world-class customers,” Lurie says. “It’s soup to nuts an Ottawa operation.”
Lurie says the company is building up more technology expertise in Ottawa than its other locations. That’s not a one-way street, though: Javaheri says SurveyMonkey is working with Invest Ottawa and partnering with other local technology companies to build up the brand of the city’s tech sector.
SurveyMonkey is not just a California company, Lurie and Javaheri say. Its roots as an Ottawa startup are firmly set, positioning it for long-term growth in the Capital.
“We’re at the cusp of a real leadership position here in Ottawa as a company,” Lurie says.