Valu­able lessons

Brad Loiselle needed time and pa­tience to crack the In­dian e-learn­ing mar­ket, but he says his ef­forts are now start­ing to pay ma­jor div­i­dends

Ottawa Business Journal - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID SALI david@obj.ca to Be an En­tre­pre­neur.

E-learn­ing firm SKILLS­dox’s pa­tient pur­suit of In­dian clients is pay­ing off in a big way

The first time Brad Loiselle vis­ited In­dia, he didn’t think he would ever go back. “It was just a dif­fer­ent mar­ket,” the Ot­tawa busi­ness­man says of that ini­tial trip a few years ago. “It was like the Wild West. It was such a shock for some­one who’s never ex­pe­ri­enced that level of poverty. I grew up poor, but noth­ing com­pared to what I saw there.”

But the se­rial en­tre­pre­neur also saw some­thing else in the world’s sec­ond­most pop­u­lous na­tion: op­por­tu­nity.

Mr. Loiselle had been toy­ing with the idea of get­ting into the online ed­u­ca­tion space. When he re­turned to Canada, he started think­ing about what it would be like to crack a mar­ket of more than 1.2 bil­lion peo­ple, many of them poor and with lim­ited ac­cess to higher learn­ing.

“If you want to build a big com­pany, you’ve got to do some­thing no one else is do­ing,” he says.

Since then, the route to Delhi and Mum­bai has be­come as fa­mil­iar to Mr. Loiselle as the daily com­mute on the Queensway is to most Ot­tawans. Later this month, the 43-year-old founder of lo­cal e-learn­ing firm SKILLS­dox will cross the Pa­cific for the 17th time.

Mr. Loiselle, whose com­pany of­fers a plat­form for In­di­ans to ac­cess ed­u­ca­tion and skills train­ing from North Amer­i­can part­ners, has spent most of those vis­its earn­ing the equiv­a­lent of a master’s de­gree in do­ing busi­ness in a coun­try that doesn’t al­ways welcome for­eign­ers with open arms.

He re­mem­bers a Cana­dian trade com­mis­sioner once telling him he’d never land a sin­gle con­tract un­til he truly un­der­stood the cul­ture.

“In­dian busi­ness is all about re­la­tion­ships,” he says. “So I told my­self, ‘I’m go­ing to take my time. I’m not go­ing to push any deals and I’m go­ing to try and build re­la­tion­ships.’”

That pa­tience and per­sis­tence has paid off. To­day, SKILLS­dox has con­tracts with sev­eral or­ga­ni­za­tions, in­clud­ing the Bom­bay Stock Ex­change and the As­so­ci­a­tion of In­ter­na­tional Wealth Man­age­ment of In­dia, and shares course rev­enues with more than a dozen ed­u­ca­tion part­ners, such as Al­go­nquin Col­lege and the Univer­sity of

Fred­er­ic­ton.

Deals with other ma­jor in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing Van­cou­ver’s Si­mon Fraser Univer­sity, are in the works. The firm is now in the midst of a drive to raise $5 mil­lion in ven­ture cap­i­tal, with the tar­get of go­ing public on the TSX Ven­ture Ex­change this fall.

An OBJ Forty Un­der 40 re­cip­i­ent in 2003, Mr. Loiselle has plenty of ex­pe­ri­ence build­ing com­pa­nies from scratch, in­clud­ing pa­per goods man­u­fac­turer Box-It So­lu­tions. But he be­lieves SKILLS­dox will dwarf any­thing he’s done in the past, say­ing his goal is to turn it into a “bil­lion-dol­lar com­pany” with mil­lions of clients.

“That’s our fo­cus,” says Mr. Loiselle, who self-pub­lished a book de­tail­ing his pre­vi­ous startup tri­umphs and fail­ures called Keep Mov­ing 4Ward: What it Takes

“The regis­tra­tions that we’re go­ing to get on our por­tal are go­ing to be mas­sive. We’re not just tar­get­ing small sec­tions of In­dia – we’re tar­get­ing all of In­dia.”

But to do that, he first needed to get his foot in the door. Even multi­na­tional com­pa­nies are of­ten flum­moxed by the In­dian mar­ket, he says, be­cause many stan­dard busi­ness prac­tices in the western world don’t ap­ply there.

For ex­am­ple, online com­merce in North Amer­ica and Europe re­lies on credit cards for pay­ment, an op­tion that sim­ply isn’t avail­able to the vast ma­jor­ity of In­di­ans, he notes. As a re­sult, Mr. Loiselle spent two years set­ting up an In­dia-based com­pany and many more months nav­i­gat­ing through red tape to open an In­dian bank ac­count, all so the firm could ac­cept money trans­fers from stu­dents in ru­pees.

Af­ter that, he still needed a ve­hi­cle to reach those mil­lions of po­ten­tial clients. It came cour­tesy of his re­la­tion­ship with spir­i­tual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, whom he had met in his role as a di­rec­tor of the Indo-Canada Ot­tawa Busi­ness Cham­ber.

Mr. Loiselle had just made a mar­ket­ing pitch to the Times of In­dia, the coun­try’s

“In­dian busi­ness is all about re­la­tion­ships. So I told my­self, ‘I’m go­ing to take my time. I’m not go­ing to push any deals and I’m go­ing to try and build re­la­tion­ships.’”

— BRAD LOISELLE, FOUNDER OF SKILLS­DOX

largest English news­pa­per, and de­cided to take Mr. Shankar up on his of­fer to visit him at an ashram a few hours from the south­ern city of Ban­ga­lore. He was dis­cussing his long-term plans for SKILLS­dox when the famed hu­man­i­tar­ian pointed to a woman be­side him.

She turned out to be Indu Jain, the chair­per­son of the Times of In­dia’s par­ent com­pany and the coun­try’s largest media group, Ben­nett, Coleman & Co. Ltd.

“(Mr. Shankar) is like, ‘Well, isn’t that a con­ci­dence,’” Mr. Loiselle says with a laugh. It was, he says now, enough to make him be­lieve in karma.

Im­pressed with Mr. Loiselle’s busi­ness con­cept and com­mit­ment to her coun­try, Ms. Jain hap­pily lent her sup­port to his bid. Ul­ti­mately, that led to a break­fast with BCCL chief ex­ec­u­tive Raj Jain, who all but agreed to sign off on a ma­jor mar­ket­ing agree­ment with SKILLS­dox.

But he still had one ques­tion, the same one Mr. Loiselle has heard over and over in the past cou­ple of years: what was a white guy from Canada do­ing set­ting up an online ed­u­ca­tion plat­form in In­dia?

“At the end of the day, what­ever we do for In­dia will trickle across the world,” Mr. Loiselle ex­plains. “I said, ‘You guys have a skill base and a pop­u­la­tion that could solve a lot of prob­lems from a lot of dif­fer­ent coun­tries. If we’re able to train you with North Amer­i­can con­tent and qual­ify you guys to be em­ploy­able (in North Amer­ica), you guys will solve a lot of is­sues.’”

That an­swer sealed the deal. In April, SKILLS­dox signed a con­tract that will see BCCL and its dozens of print, broad­cast and online media prop­er­ties in­vest $30 mil­lion to mar­ket Mr. Loiselle’s plat­form across the coun­try over the next five years.

The deal gives SKILLS­dox “a value propo­si­tion that no other (e-learn­ing) com­pany has any­where,” Mr. Loiselle says. “Not one.”

It’s been a three-year jour­ney that has made the mar­ried fa­ther of three more fa­mil­iar with In­dian air­ports than he ever wanted to be. But if his vi­sion comes to fruition, it will all be worth it.

“When we first started build­ing it, no one be­lieved what we were build­ing was pos­si­ble,” he says. “The life of an en­tre­pre­neur – it’s al­ways like that.”

PHOTO COUR­TESY BRAD LOISELLE

Brad Loiselle’s im­pres­sive list of In­dian con­tacts in­cludes Indu Jain, the chair­per­son of the coun­try’s largest media group, Ben­nett, Coleman & Co. Ltd.

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