Searching for Steve Jobs: Fred Dixon’s mission to educate the world

The world begins teaching each morning, thanks to Ottawa’s Blindside Networks


For 30 years I’ve worked with companies on their consumer engagement strategies. You know many of them. You drive them, drink them, or conduct business on them partly because of the work I do. I’m typically the point person tasked with figuring out how to persuade people to buy a company’s products.

The truth, however, is that many companies don’t have much that warrants your attention. And in a world of too much supply and too little time and money, being notable is important.

Searching for Steve Jobs is an editorial series based on my experience looking for the people and companies that would inspire me, so in my work, I could inspire others. This series is about showing you a little of what makes them worth paying attention to. 

OBJ360 (Sponsored)

Seeing potential

The World Economic Forum estimates that by April 2020, some 1.2 billion children across 186 countries had left the classroom and were expected to learn at a distance, mostly online, amid the pandemic.

If you’re a parent whose children learn from home, you’ve witnessed the lifeline technology is providing in keeping them connected to their teachers. You may be surprised to learn that a small Ottawa company, inspired by a Carleton University master’s thesis, is at the centre of making their education possible. That company is Blindside Networks. 

In 2007, Ottawa software developer Richard Alam wrote about the potential of open-source business models to disrupt existing business categories. At the time, there were roughly 150 web conferencing platforms, none of which specialized in education. A friend of his, Fred Dixon, read the piece and saw an opportunity by postulating that, as processing power and internet speeds improved, the potential for access to online education would grow.

Dixon is one of the many entrepreneurs who began their journey at Bell Northern Research, the precursor to Nortel Networks and so many leading lights in the tech sector. After graduating from the University of Waterloo, Dixon arrived with the goal of keeping his stop at the Canadian tech behemoth short. As a teen, he’d read about companies like Apple that were started in a garage, inspiring him to take his programming passion and turn it into a business.

The first few years of his career were instrumental in opening his eyes to the opportunities that would arrive without warning more than two decades later.

“My early days in tech showed me that when there’s a paradigm shift, everyone starts at zero; that large companies could be disrupted because a new direction changed what consumers would expect from a product,” he says. 

History books will eventually be written about how COVID-19 has created winners and losers in business. And how, for a few like Blindside Networks, it changed the very nature of their trajectory. 

Surfing a tsunami

When 2008 came along, Dixon had spent more than a dozen years building tech ventures. When he launched Blindside Networks later that year, his goal was to become critical to the world’s teaching needs – something he would come to achieve as four of the five major learning management system vendors came to embed his firm’s open-source virtual classroom software.

But when the pandemic hit, it was like surfing a tsunami. Schools the world over needed to immediately switch from the physical to the virtual classroom. 

Harvard University was the first of the Ivy Leagues to announce it would temporarily close its doors. Dixon knew that if Harvard was closing, other schools would follow suit.

“We literally had days, hours to adapt,” he recalls. “We were in a boardroom writing down what we’d need to scale, and it was mind-boggling.”

Virtually overnight, thousands of requests for assistance poured in from schools and companies around the world. Blindside Networks’ process of adding capacity to handle the volume needed to be reduced from one week to three hours, and eventually down to three minutes.

“For many of our staff, it was their first time in a high-growth environment,” Dixon says. “I had to explain to them they’d likely never have an experience like this again. It’s only now that we’re able to step back and look at what we’ve done – millions of classes, millions of people have used our product – (and) realize we’d pulled it off.

“If someone came to us last year with the need to add 50,000 users, we’d say no. Now it’s ‘Would you like to be up and running tomorrow?’” 

Something bigger than revenue

Dixon describes how he fantasized about one day backpacking through Africa, coming to a village and discovering its children were learning through the product he and his team created.

“Every child has the right to a quality education. Twelve months ago, that wasn’t possible. But it is now through what we’re doing,” he says. “If you can get online, then you have the road open to your potential. Increasing numbers of students will have the opportunities that we’ve taken for granted.”

Dixon is not what you’d commonly imagine an entrepreneur to be: he’s soft spoken, low-key, with a Zen-like air that belies his experience forming numerous tech startups. He looks at business as more than simply a vehicle for revenue generation, and instead sees its potential to put something exceptional into the world.

One day, as a global generation of children is graduating, we’ll look back and realize how exceptional Dixon and his small team in the middle of our city have really been. 

Robert Hocking is a marketing strategist and teacher who’s endlessly inspired by the creativity of commerce.

Get our email newsletters

Get up-to-date news about the companies, people and issues that impact businesses in Ottawa and beyond.

By signing up you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. You may unsubscribe at any time.