Ottawa’s e-commerce story, some may believe, begins and ends with Shopify. Not so, says Smith – a Gatineau-based e-commerce services firm that’s building on more than two decades in the industry.
Its executives say the company’s local expansions are being boosted by its prominent neighbour across the river. However, Smith’s Gatineau operations pre-date Shopify, launching more than 20 years ago as Cactus Commerce.
In 2011, Washington’s Ascentium acquired Cactus, which at that time developed an e-commerce platform of its own. The merger formed Smith, an e-commerce services firm with locations in Seattle, Spokane and a few satellite offices, totalling around 170 employees globally. At the time of the merger, the two firms combined for $65 million in annual revenues.
While Cactus had a last-reported high of 230 employees in 2008, the divestiture of its e-commerce platform development operations has brought the local headcount closer to 90 today.
Smith no longer sells its own product, focussing instead on customer engagement campaigns and helping clients launch their own online sales platforms. It does develop its own in-house intellectual property (back-end code, for example), but solely to serve a client base that includes Microsoft, Cisco, AT&T and Best Buy.
Chief operating officer Fab DiCarlantonio, who joined Cactus in 2002 and helped orchestrate the firm’s acquisition nearly a decade later, says the Ottawa-Gatineau operations remain Smith’s “tech centre of gravity.”
“There’s a lot of talent in Ottawa and we’ve taken advantage of that,” DiCarlantonio says. “We’ve got a really strong team in the office and it’s growing.”
The firm is expanding the space at its St. Joseph Street location this summer, where DiCarlantonio says a sense of claustrophobia is beginning to dawn on the staff. Renovations will give the 18,000-square-foot office a more open-concept feel, and are anticipated to cost $750,000. The modest extension will give Smith a bit more breathing room and some fresh tech to boot.
Twenty-two isn’t exactly youthful in startup years, but the firm remains nimble, seeing a great deal of potential in the future of commerce. Smith has been involved in the development of voice-interface purchasing through systems such as Amazon’s Alexa, and DiCarlantonio teases forthcoming announcements in this space.
In the past six years since Cactus became Smith, the firm has found its groove in e-commerce as a full-services company. Now, with the creative edge Ascentium brought to the merger, the local company is benefiting from offering diversified services.
“We’re a different agency than we were back in the Cactus days,” DiCarlantonio says.
DiCarlantonio doesn’t feel dwarfed by Shopify, noting that the two companies aren’t competitors and that Smith has even helped to install Shopify’s platform for its clients. He does, however, take a bit of pride in having been established in the city before the relatively-new kid set up shop across the river.
Having Shopify nearby is great, DiCarlantonio adds, for building the region’s brand in e-commerce. He says Smith’s satellite offices are largely set up to take advantage of talent in cities such as Toronto and Montreal, but if he had his choice, he would rather stay put in Ottawa.
“I think that it’s great for the city. We want to create more buzz, we want to attract more talent.”