Ottawa's VideoShip breaks down tech – and language – barriers in China

Colin Grimes
Colin Grimes is VideoShip’s vice-president of business development.

Even as it helps clients around the world break down technological barriers to the swift flow of information, Ottawa’s VideoShip faces its own share of hurdles that can bog down communication with those very customers.

The Richmond Road firm makes software that helps broadcasters, including major U.S. organizations such as CNN and NBC, quickly share files or live-stream video over the internet. It now sells its products on every continent, and it recently debuted a cloud-based exchange service that allows members of news co-operatives to pick up each other’s live feeds and go straight to air with virtually no delays in transmission.

It’s high-tech stuff tailored for an industry where time is of the essence. It’s also good business: The privately held company has seen its revenues jump 250 per cent over the past five years as live-streaming and video file-sharing become more and more commonplace.

Earlier this year, the firm inked what could ultimately be one of the most important deals in its 14-year history: a partnership with a Chinese organization called CNLive to launch Ring7 FastTrack, a service that delivers authorized video content to and from the world’s most populous country.

In April, China began cracking down on unauthorized private networks that allowed internet traffic to breach the country’s “Great Firewall” that aims to restrict the flow of online content such as movies and TV shows. Ring7 will provide content producers and distributors with a state-sanctioned vehicle for delivering their products to the massive Chinese audience.

“It could be huge for our company,” says Colin Grimes, VideoShip’s vice-president of business development.

“It’s very difficult for a content distributor to find a potential buyer in China. Looking at media consumption, it’s one of the top markets in the world. The service that we’re attempting to provide …  is something that doesn’t exist right now.”

Founded in 2004 by CEO Tom Grimes, chief financial officer Michael Grimes, vice-president of development Johanne Bouchard and chief operating officer Mark Mayne, VideoShip currently has about 25 full-time employees split between the company’s Ottawa headquarters and its Florida tech support office.

Colin Grimes would not reveal the firm’s revenues, but he says the employee-owned enterprise is profitable. The SaaS venture’s biggest ongoing challenge, he adds, is to “make sure we don’t get left behind with industry trends.”

The company is hoping agreements such as the one with CNLive help it stay ahead of the technology curve. Yet VideoShip’s bid to help keep the internet’s pipeline to and from China open has sometimes been hampered by the language barrier between the firm’s Ottawa-based R&D team and its compatriots across the Pacific.

Grimes, for example, has no comprehension of Mandarin, and many of his counterparts in China don’t speak a word of English.

“Developing that connection where we can try to work together fluidly and effectively is very difficult when we have to go through an interpreter each time we need to communicate with each other,” he says.

Instant messaging and texting – complete with slang and emojis – are also far more common means of business communication in China than in North America, Grimes adds. The expectation of an almost-instant reply can lead to some anxious moments.

“It’s not seen as too informal,” he says of using texts to send business-related correspondence. “They seem to be more used to working that way ​– doing things really quickly, contacting each other whenever they need (to), whatever time of day, and just trying to get straight to the point with things.”

Hands-on approach

VideoShip now has two Chinese expatriates on staff to help navigate the language and cultural barriers between the two countries, but high-level management discussions between the two sides have continued to be a “big challenge,” Grimes concedes.

Other issues have also arisen during the transatlantic courtship.

With so many far-flung clients, VideoShip’s employees were used to conducting virtual meetings or holding conference calls with foreign business partners. But when they began working on Ring7, they soon realized it was going to take a more hands-on approach.

“We tried to do Skype and videoconferencing, but it didn’t lead to as much progress as we had hoped,” Grimes says. “What we’ve learned is that when trying to build the type of business relationship that you need in a partnership with a Chinese organization, you just have to bite the bullet and spend a lot of time travelling to have face-to-face meetings, at least for the first year or two, to build up the rapport and the connection.”

Still, he says, the firm has been able to overcome those obstacles.

“It’s a long flight, but it’s an easy country to travel to,” Grimes notes.

Apart from China, VideoShip’s other major focus right now is Africa. The firm is working on establishing a foothold for its file-sharing and live-feed exchange services on the continent through a deal with the African Union of Broadcasting, a venture that includes 45 members from dozens of countries.

In addition, Grimes sees Africa as fertile ground for the company’s other main product, a platform called NewsPro that’s designed to make it easier to send videos recorded on mobile phones to news outlets. The app will be free for content producers, but VideoShip plans to monetize NewsPro by charging media outlets a subscription fee.