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Building small companies that roar

By Leo Valiquette

Small is the new big.

These words came from Jerry Everett, director of sales and founder of six-year-old conference services firm onconference Inc. Everett was part of a panel of speakers reflecting on six years of entrepreneurship in Ottawa at an OCRI event this week with the catchy title of “Blood on the Tracks.”

Small is the new big wasn’t the overarching theme of the event, but it certainly struck a chord with this nascent PR practitioner. Everett’s point was that consumers (and I’ll use that as the broad term for anyone on the receiving end of a service or product) have had enough with the kinds of customer-service experiences typical of large, monolithic organizations. They are ready and willing for a more customized personal approach typically found only with a smaller company. Peronalized service will increasingly become a key differentiator in the years to come.

We’ve heard this before, of course. A business strategy that focuses primarily on your product or service’s features likely has a short shelf life. New features and fancy bells and whistles come along all the time. It’s difficult to maintain an edge over the competition for long. As for price, well, somebody is always going to find a way to do something cheaper, be it with outsourcing, tightening up the supply chain, or simply focusing on volume over margins.

Service, on the other hand, falls into a whole other category where the emphasis is on behaviour and the relationships built with customers. When customers feel that their concerns and needs are being taken seriously and made a priority, they’re much more likely to become repeat customers.

At inmedia, our mantra is “global reach” with “high-touch local service.” How? By maintaining a laser focus on our client niche and the range of services we offer to them. By having a small, veteran team of counsellors who work together on each account to ensure continuity for the client regardless of who’s in the office. By holding ourselves accountable for the results of our media outreach efforts on behalf of our clients. Small is the new big has been a guiding principal for inmedia from day one.

Wake up call

But the emphasis of the event was much more specific to Ottawa. In an already-sour venture-capital climate, the question was asked, why has Ottawa fared so much worse in recent years than other tech centres across the country?

Panellist Debbie Weinstein, of tech-centric law firm Labarge Weinstein, spoke largely of the retooling of the Ottawa tech sector, from its heavy emphasis during the boom on telecom and semiconductors to emerging sectors such as clean and green, represented by firms such as Plasco, Iogen and Menova.

That may be part of it, but other tech veterans on the panel, namely David Vicary and Rainer Paduch, were somewhat more blunt: Most of the VC cash these days is coming from U.S. VCs and U.S. VCs will back a B-grade technology if there is an A-grade team behind it. The problem with Ottawa, is that the reality (or at least the perception, which often carries more weight than reality) is that we have A-grade technology but B-grade management talent.

(Then, of course, there was the argument from Everett of whether or not a company should even focus on VC capital for growth rather than bootstrapping, but that’s a topic all its own.)

Mr. Paduch emphasized the fact that as Canadians, we’re just too timid. We’re not ballsy enough compared to our American cousins.

Perhaps that’s partly to blame for the fact that we have this habit of hiding in a lab and engineering the hell out of a product before we even validate the need for it with potential customers. There’s too much upfront development cost and far too little initial marketing effort. We need to do a better job of getting out and selling an idea and gauging the market’s interest before putting all the money, time and effort into building the product.

“Entrepreneurship is part of the American dream. In Canada, an entrepreneurial economy is almost shunned,” Brian Hurley said in his opening remarks.

So why is Canada, and especially Ottawa, languishing when the experts say there is plenty of investment capital out there? What keeps us from building more anchor companies for the local tech sector that don’t end up a branch plant? Maybe the answer is only as far away as the nearest mirror.

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