Ottawa photo-sharing app Foko gains traction among major retailers

Marc Gingras
Foko’s Marc Gingras became the firm’s chief executive in 2014. (Photo by Mark Holleron)

Harnessing the combined powers of visual communication and social media, a fast-growing Ottawa startup is shaking things up in a retail industry that’s “ripe for disruption.”

Foko began in 2013 as a photo-sharing social app for businesses, gaining initial traction with companies using it primarily to share their office culture and goings-on with their employees around the world.

But about a year and a half ago, the firm decided to narrow its focus to the merchandising aspect of the retail industry, and since then has been growing fast enough that it can barely keep up. Foko counts numerous big-name brands among its client roster, including David’s Tea, Dior, Esprit, Fabletics, Helly Hansen, Indigo, Nike, Uniqlo and Whole Foods.

Because retail stores put lots of thought and effort into store layouts, product displays, in-store advertising and the overall buying experience, Foko decided to focus its app on making it quicker, easier and more effective for company headquarters to communicate merchandising directions to their store locations and ensure those instructions are being followed properly.

“It’s a very visual industry,” says chief executive Marc Gingras. “The amount of visual content that they share internally is phenomenal already, but the tools they’re using to share that visual content are basically archaic: e-mails, intranets, shared drives. It doesn’t give you the ease of use to view and consume it and it’s not very engaging, so we saw a huge opportunity.”

With Foko, a store manager receives a merchandising task over an Instagram-like interface that shows how the result should look, then follows the instructions and uploads their own photos once they’ve completed the job. Corporate managers can give instant feedback, “like you would on social networks,” Mr. Gingras explains.

“When they first get introduced to our software, they’re like, ‘I can’t believe we don’t have this already. I can’t believe this doesn’t exist already. Why didn’t I think of that?’ We get a lot of that.”

Before using Foko it would often take five or six days before a manager would get confirmation that merchandising tasks such as product displays were done according to head office standards, Mr. Gingras says, but the app brings that time down to two or three hours.

“It’s a significant amount of time-saving to complete the work and to actually validate that it’s done properly.”

Foko was founded by entrepreneurs Colin McDonald and Eric Sauvé; Mr. Sauvé left the company in September. Mr. Gingras initially got involved as an angel investor and became CEO in 2014. After landing $2.2 million US in seed funding on top of a previous C$400,000 friends-and-family round, Foko is now positioning for a Series-A round in the summer. The firm is backed by Real Ventures, BDC Capital and Ottawa’s Mistral Venture Partners, plus angel investors who include current and former executives at Apple, David’s Tea and LinkedIn.

The company says its sales over the last year have been growing steadily by 20 per cent each month, and Mr. Gingras says Foko is “a stone’s throw away” from becoming profitable.

And it will soon be hiring: Currently employing nearly 20 people, Foko plans to increase its headcount by 50 per cent, if not more, in the next year or so, Mr. Gingras says.

As it chases further growth, Foko plans to continue expanding its client base while also exploring market segments other than merchandising, such as operations, product sourcing and employee training – while still maintaining its focus on visual media that has sparked its early success.

“There are a lot of different areas where visual plays a very key role that we’re slowly getting into as well,” Mr. Gingras says. “The opportunity is there and the opportunity is huge when it comes to the transformation that the retail space is undergoing … Focus is our main challenge.”