Opinion: The keys to recurring success

Former Protus executives, investors, rally around automated billing startup

When you deal with digital security for customers such as the U.S. Army – as does the largest client of local startup Fusebill – there are significant considerations.

The customer is a Montreal-based tech outfit that provides secure, legal electronic signatures for more than two million users worldwide and needs to safely store information.

The client initially tried to use PayPal for invoicing and billing. After all, it’s easy to adopt, at least at first. But then the firm found that in order to handle huge numbers, multiple currencies, credit card declines and expiry dates, as well as client demands for different plans, it had to put three of its tech developers on their billing system, full-time.

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“You know tech projects tend to grow,” says Fusebill’s Kareem Sultan with a smile.

So when Fusebill came calling, it was an easy sell. The customer outsourced the entire system and put its people back to work on its own mission-critical stuff.

Behind Fusebill is tech developer Mr. Sultan, CEO Steve Adams and a Kanata team made up of veterans, including founders Greg Burwell and Tyler Eyamie. Together, they’re building a global billing system that handles recurring payments.

“We saw a gap in the marketplace … (and decided) to do things a little different,” says Mr. Adams.

Fusebill initially targeted tech startups, but it wasn’t long before company officials realized the firm’s market was much bigger: insurance, real estate organizations, self-storage, any type of vertical where recurring billing is a nightmare. Perhaps even season tickets for sports teams could soon be on the horizon.

Fusebill does some smart things, such as reversing out some of the work to customers of its customers. For example, it grants those clients access to a back-end system through a Fusebill portal to update credit card numbers, expiry dates and billing addresses.

Self-service improves overall efficiency via reduced labour costs and fewer declines. It provides more accurate information and decreases consumer complaints.

It may seem obvious now, but notifying people via e-mail or messaging service that their credit cards are about to expire, before it happens, is actually a profound change in the industry. It’s a wonder more companies didn’t figure this out sooner.

Fusebill currently has about 100 clients using its platform. Break-even will occur with fewer than 1,000 clients and company officials are confident the company will get there soon.

The startup does some other simple things, such as actually answering the phones, a rarity among software-as-a-service businesses.

“When a client is having trouble with their invoicing and billing system, they want to talk to someone NOW,” says Mr. Adams.

These guys know something about landing a lot of clients and surround themselves with high-octane business expertise.

Joseph Nour, one of the founders of Protus – where Mr. Adams also worked before it was sold to j2 Global for $213 million in December 2010 – chairs Fusebill’s board of directors.

Protus had 550,000 clients when it was sold. So the team took what they learned at Protus and turned it into a product at Fusebill.

Matt Hall from Toronto-based Covington Funds, which invested in Protus, is also on Fusebill’s five-member board, sitting as an outside director. Covington is hoping for an exit similar to what it achieved with Protus.

When I ask about exit plans, the Fusebill executives say, “Our focus right now is to build a sustainable business by making our customers more successful. The rest will take care of itself.”

When I ask if they are held back by having their headquarters in Ottawa instead of Boston or the Valley, Mr. Adams laughs.

“Occupancy costs and labour costs are way higher there than here. Plus, you have to expect you will lose half your development team in the Valley every two years. The talent is here.”

Pointing at Mr. Sultan, Mr. Adams continues.

“We have access to capital, office space, air transportation links, grant programs, cutting edge R&D, everything. Ottawa is a tier-one city now.”

Professor Bruce M. Firestone is entrepreneurship ambassador at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management; founder of the Ottawa Senators; executive director of Exploriem.org; and a broker at Century 21 Explorer Realty Inc. Follow him on Twitter @ProfBruce.

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