Ottawa CEOs Waitman, Cody and Turner share scaling struggles at I3


By Lucy Screnci

It turns out, not all Canadian businesses are created equal.

This was the message from Mark Freel, professor with the Telfer School of Management, at Thursday’s Industry, Issues and Insights event.

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Mr. Freel opened the cocktail reception sharing his perspective on Canada’s small business landscape, categorizing firms into three categories: mice, elephants and gazelles.

Mice are businesses with slim margins and most vulnerable to customer whims. Elephants are lumbering businesses that are slow to innovate and embrace change, and have high margins.  

Gazelles are agile companies that create the most amount of growth and jobs, yet are vastly underrepresented in Canada. What’s more, many firms attain gazelle status, but are unable to retain it.

“Lots of firms grow, but few sustain growth,” Mr. Freel said.

This scaling conundrum is at the root of Freel’s current research into innovation policy, and it’s an issue that many business leaders face as they attempt to grow companies.

Tales from the scale

Three of Ottawa’s tech leaders were on hand to discuss their experiences in scaling and solidifying their young companies into bona fide firms.

Andrew Waitman, CEO of Assent Compliance, spoke about scaling the SaaS company helping corporations with compliance issues and data management.

Although Assent’s client list includes Fortune 500 companies, Mr. Waitman reflected on the early days when potential customers would ask for the company’s financials before entering into a contract with them.

Today, Assent Compliance boasts the aforementioned marquee brand as clients and raised more than $50 million in venture capital in the span of a year. The head count went from 15 to 275 people over the course of three years, and Mr. Waitman says he’s made a concerted effort to bring on a solid executive team.

The next frontiers for the company? First, they’re still on a mission to bring awareness to their solution.

“We’re in the push market – we’re still trying to educate. A company like Shopify is in the pull market – people are aware of what Shopify does around the world and it’s what you call fantastic total addressable market.”

Mr. Waitman also points to the deluge of data they’re managing for companies, and how they could harness the power of that information with the help of AI, saying that “data is the new oil.”

While Mr. Waitman’s career was spent in some of Ottawa’s most storied tech institutions like Nortel, the CEO of FarmLead Brennan Turner came from a small farming town and had brief stints as both a pro hockey player and on Wall Street.

Mr. Turner discussed digitizing the process of buying and selling grain with his company, using his upbringing on a farm and his knowledge of commodities to create FarmLead.

“We’re in the push market – we’re still trying to educate. A company like Shopify is in the pull market – people are aware of what Shopify does around the world and it’s what you call fantastic total addressable market.”

He recalled that in the company’s first 16 months he painstakingly signed up 600 farmers singlehandedly. Today, about half of his users are word-of-mouth referrals and he’s steadily drove the cost of customer acquisition down.

While the farming community is traditional and may shy away from digital products, Mr. Turner says that the FarmLead platform can yield sellers five to six per cent more on transactions, as opposed to conventional means of negotiating.

Turner is indeed disrupting the traditional way of negotiating grain sales: the FarmLead platform has processed transactions for 2.4 million tonnes of grain in three and a half years, deals worth a total of US$30 million. The firm has farmers outside of North America signing up for the platform, and they have some of the largest wheat processors in the country as clients.

Today, the company’s head count has increased to 34 from nine and in the spring of 2016 they raised $6.5 million from Monsanto Venture Capital.

The last entrepreneur to speak was Steve Cody, a successful small business owner behind a slew of rental shops and other stores such as Cody Party. Mr. Cody took his first step into tech startups with the Better Software Co., a firm he stepped aside from this past summer.

Mr. Cody is taking advantage of the sharing economy with his nascent company Ruckify, a marketplace in which people can rent things they may not want to own outright, such as an RV or sports gear.

Right now, Mr. Cody is in stealth mode, preparing for a soft launch for the end of October. The serial founder is betting that the sharing economy will consolidate, much like years ago when Home Depot became the one-stop shop that replaced individual plumbing and electrical stores.

Cody says that they are looking to amalgamate specialized markets for vehicle and tool rental as these types of goods made available on the Ruckify platform.

“An obstacle is that thinking differently about something is difficult,” said Mr. Cody.

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