Grand occasion: supply-chain software ‘trailblazer’ Assent hits 1,000-employee milestone

If Shopify was Ottawa’s tech rocket ship in the early days of the pandemic, supply-chain software maker Assent was, in the words of chief executive Andrew Waitman, “Steady Eddy.”

As e-commerce boomed in a work-from-home world, Shopify’s valuation soared. Meanwhile, Assent kept plugging away, backed by $160 million in venture capital it raised in 2018 that helped it weather the prevailing economic uncertainty as COVID-19 swept across the globe.

Two-plus years later, Assent is stronger than ever. This week – while Shopify and other Canadian tech firms were in the midst of a wave of downsizing – the local firm previously known as Assent Compliance reached a major milestone: it hit the 1,000-employee mark, up from 800 at the start of the year.

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For chief executive Andrew Waitman, Assent’s rapid growth over the past couple of years is more proof that his company’s platform is perfectly positioned for a world in which supply-chain issues are on seemingly every C-suite leader’s mind.

“We’re a trailblazer,” he says.

But in the spring of 2020, Assent’s prospects weren’t nearly as certain. Unsure how things would play out in the early going of the pandemic, the company cut 10 per cent of its 500-person workforce, including a few senior executives. 

But as governments the world over rallied to provide economic aid, companies quickly adapted to the new reality. What could have been a catastrophic disruption to Assent’s business ended up being a temporary blip. 

The firm began hiring again, and by early 2021 it had 600 employees. In January, Assent – which helps some of the world’s largest manufacturers ensure their suppliers are complying with an ever-growing list of government laws and regulations on everything from human rights to health and safety standards – landed US$350 million in fresh capital in a deal that valued the company at more than US$1 billion.

“One of the insights is, don’t overreact,” Waitman now says. 

Today, as Shopify and other tech giants such as Hootsuite are cutting jobs amid a new wave of uncertainty triggered by rising inflation, the war in Ukraine and other macroeconomic factors, Assent’s ascent is showing no signs of slowing down. Waitman says the company is on track to reach annualized revenues of US$100 million in the next few quarters.

The veteran CEO acknowledges that some of his fellow tech leaders have playfully suggested the company was fortunate to grab a huge chunk of additional capital before the bottom fell out of the VC funding pool earlier this year. 

“My view is serendipity is the residue of design and decisions. I didn’t just sit outside on St. Laurent Boulevard hoping gold would fall on my shoulders.”

Waitman, however, says luck had little to do with it.

“My view is serendipity is the residue of design and decisions,” he says. “I didn’t just sit outside on St. Laurent Boulevard hoping gold would fall on my shoulders.”

Waitman says Assent’s leadership team sensed years ago that environmental, social and ethical concerns were moving to the forefront of corporate decision-making and would play a bigger role in shaping consumer buying habits. 

No longer was supply-chain analysis simply about procuring goods at the lowest cost. Where those materials came from would be just as important – as evidenced by new regulations such as the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, a U.S. federal law passed late last year aimed at preventing goods produced by forced labour in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region from entering the United States.

The more such regulations get added to the books, the higher demand for Assent’s software rises, Waitman explains.

“You ignored how you got that mower for $89 at Wal-Mart,” he says. “You ignored how they achieved that. That world is over. From the western world’s perspective, knowing what is going in in your supply chain matters.” 

As someone whose career spans the dot-com bust of the early 2000s and the Great Recession of nearly a decade later, Waitman has kept a wise and steady hand on the tiller during his eight years at Assent. 

‘Mean-reversion times’

Amid topsy-turvy economic conditions that have prompted Assent to start revising its budget every quarter – rather than once a year as it did in the past – Waitman lives by a credo that’s served him well throughout his career: be quick to adapt, and be ready for anything.

“There are always these mean-reversion times,” he says, referring to the pounding that many blue-chip tech stocks have taken over the past six months. “The mean reversion I expected, so we planned for it. Now we’re using our scale and size to enhance our resilience.”

As Assent continues to expand its global sales and marketing footprint – fewer than half of its employees today live in Ottawa – Waitman says the company must work harder than ever to stay ahead of the curve.

While Assent’s revenues keep growing, he says global economic turbulence is causing more customers to think twice before pulling the trigger on major purchases, extending sales cycles and making reliable income projections more difficult. 

The burgeoning European market has been especially hard hit, he notes, with the war in Ukraine and inflationary pressures dampening demand in what has been a “major growth area” for Assent.

“In a volatile situation, things can get very jumpy,” Waitman says. “I would say the biggest challenge for a CEO today is we just don’t have the positive visibility we once did. We have to be more nimble and agile to adapt.”

Still, Waitman likes the trail Assent is blazing. With the US$100-million annualized revenue target clearly in his sights, he’s already got his eye on the next major milestone.

“Most of my mindset right now is, how do we get to ($200 million),” he says. “Those puzzles get quite challenging.”

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