Growing Ottawa startup has a Knak for email design software

Knak software
Ottawa-based Knak has grown its team to 20 and has continued to hire during the pandemic. Photo courtesy Knak

Few entrepreneurs in Ottawa are probably more excited to see commercial construction projects resume than Pierce Ujjainwalla.

The founder of local email creation platform Knak is eagerly awaiting his company’s move into a south-end business park later this summer. Once renovations at the new office are complete, Ujjainwalla and his co-workers will finally have a home to call their own after sharing space in Invest Ottawa’s pre-accelerator at Bayview Yards.

Knak has all the elements of a classic startup story: Ujjainwalla, who was then running a consulting firm catering to customers of multinational email service provider Marketo, hatched the company in his basement after realizing many clients dreaded the costly, time-consuming process of working with web designers and developers to craft custom marketing emails.

Sensing an opportunity, Ujjainwalla launched Knak in 2015. Initially, the fledgling operation set up templates for marketers to help reduce the time and cost of designing custom emails aimed at luring new clients and delivered via platforms such as Marketo and Salesforce Marketing Cloud.

The concept quickly took off, and within six months Knak had more than 100 customers. A few years later, the company had a client roster 600 names long. 

But Ujjainwalla says its business model ​– most of Knak’s clients were smaller operations attracted to its month-to-month billing structure ​– led to constant customer turnover and limited its potential for long-term growth. 

“The product wasn’t that sticky,” he explains. “We realized we needed to pivot if we were going to really make this thing a lot bigger.” 

In 2017, the Ottawa company got the break it was looking for when one of the biggest names in the pharmaceutical industry asked it to design a custom template tailored to its specific needs. Ujjainwalla and his team spent the better part of a year developing a product that would allow the big pharma firm’s marketing experts to design their own emails in a matter of minutes without being required to know how to code or use software such as Photoshop.

“That was the big turning point for us,” Ujjainwalla says. 

That work led to jobs with other large enterprise customers, including Google, Verizon and one of the world’s most popular social media platforms. Meanwhile, the company’s revenue picture – and its long-term scale-up prospects – have brightened considerably as Knak’s reputation has risen.

“Being able to drop some of those names I think gives our prospects a lot of confidence,” Ujjainwalla says. 

Instead of charging hundreds and hundreds of smaller customers by the month, Knak now boasts a smaller crop of stable and more lucrative long-term deals. The company’s revenues have doubled every year since it reeled in that first big fish, and Knak recently achieved another major milestone when it graduated from Invest Ottawa’s pre-accelerator into its scaleup program.

Now at 20 employees, the company has continued to grow throughout the pandemic. It’s also benefiting from the valuable mentorship of a high-powered board of advisers that includes former Cognos chief executive Rob Ashe, TEC Canada small business chair Pascal St-Jean, Leah MacMillan, who leads the marketing team at Trend Micro, and Solace chief marketing officer Mychelle Mollot.

Although about half its employees work remotely from other parts of Canada, Ujjainwalla says the growing firm has no plans to abandon its home. And although he concedes that landing top talent in a tech hotbed is never easy, he says the payoff when you find the right people makes it all worthwhile. 

“I think we have a very underrated workforce here,” he says. “Definitely, we believe in Ottawa.”