Pivot to SME mar­ket a sig­na­ture move for Ot­tawa-based soft­ware startup

De­spite a seven-fig­ure fund­ing round, Sig­nor­ity felt it had no choice but to boldly change course and hire new staff in ef­fort to achieve ‘vi­ral’ growth

Ottawa Business Journal - - SPECIAL REPORT | SMALL BUSINESS WEEK - BY DAVID SALI david@obj.ca

Bol­stered by a solid prod­uct and $1 mil­lion in fresh fund­ing, it ap­peared that Ot­tawa startup Sig­nor­ity was set for a break­out year at the be­gin­ning of 2016.

A soft­ware-as-a-ser­vice com­pany, Sig­nor­ity makes a prod­uct that al­lows cus­tomers to sign doc­u­ments elec­tron­i­cally. Founded in 2010, the firm had a back story not un­like count­less other star­tups.

Sig­nor­ity was launched in co-founder Jane He’s base­ment with fund­ing help from the fed­eral govern­ment’s In­dus­trial Re­search As­sis­tance Pro­gram, even­tu­ally land­ing space at In­vest Ot­tawa head­quar­ters. The com­pany dili­gently de­vel­oped the tech­nol­ogy to the point that a group of local and in­ter­na­tional in­vestors deemed it wor­thy of a sev­en­fig­ure seed-fund­ing round last De­cem­ber.

But Ms. He says she knew in her heart she needed to shake things up if the firm was go­ing to sur­vive and ul­ti­mately thrive.

Even though Sig­nor­ity al­ready had more than 100 cus­tomers and six-fig­ure rev­enues, Ms. He boldly de­cided early this year to al­ter course and shift the com­pany’s fo­cus from large en­ter­prise cus­tomers like the fed­eral govern­ment to small and medium-sized busi­nesses.

“It’s a risk we need to take,” the ex-Nor­tel en­gi­neer says. “If some­thing doesn’t work, you have to make a de­ci­sion. Maybe that de­ci­sion is wrong – but if you don’t make a de­ci­sion, it’s even worse. Noth­ing will work.”

The prod­uct had gar­nered over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive feed­back, she ex­plains, yet the com­pany wasn’t see­ing the “vi­ral” pace of growth its founders were hop­ing for. In March, she be­gan the process of over­haul­ing the com­pany, re­vamp­ing its web­site and bring­ing in a whole new sales and mar­ket­ing team led by Gus­tavo Sanchez, a for­mer mar­ket­ing direc­tor at local soft­ware firm Kivuto So­lu­tions.

“I ex­per­i­mented with several dif­fer­ent teams, and it didn’t work,” she says, ex­plain­ing her de­ci­sion. “I had lots of sleep­less nights. If you’ve never ex­pe­ri­enced this, never ex­pe­ri­enced sleep­less nights, you can­not call your­self an en­trepreneur. I’ve had lots of sleep­less nights.”

Mr. Sanchez – whom Ms. He fondly refers to as Sig­nor­ity’s “Don Draper” af­ter the gifted ad exec of Mad Men fame – came on board in early May.

His chal­lenge, he says, was to make the com­pany more nim­ble. Whereas sales cy­cles for en­ter­prise clients typ­i­cally take months, SMEs usu­ally expect deals to be done in days or weeks at the most.

“A lot of peo­ple think the switch from en­ter­prise to SMB is easy,” he says. “No. Your prod­uct has to change, your on­board­ing has to change, the way you ser­vice cus­tomers has to change, the sales cy­cle changes, the mar­ket­ing changes. It’s al­most like a new com­pany.”

Sig­nor­ity now pledges to re­spond to cus­tomer in­quiries within 24 hours and is much more ag­gres­sive in sign­ing up new clients, Mr. Sanchez says.

“We went through a bit of a pe­riod of read­just­ment,” he adds. “We were a lot re­ac­tive be­fore with how we helped cus­tomers.”

Ms. He says the change in course has taught her a valu­able les­son: Peo­ple truly are a busi­ness’s most valu­able re­source.

“The mind­set has to be there,” she says. “When you have the (right) peo­ple, it changes ev­ery­thing.”

Sig­nor­ity is now see­ing av­er­age rev­enue growth of 15 per cent month over month, and Ms. He pre­dicts the com­pany will hit seven-digit rev­enues by next year. Mean­while, its ros­ter of cus­tomers – who range from in­di­vid­ual free­lancers to 50-per­son law firms – con­tin­ues to grow.

A suc­cess­ful pivot re­quires 100 per cent com­mit­ment from top to bot­tom, Mr. Sanchez says.

“A lot of things are go­ing to hap­pen in the jour­ney that are go­ing to make (a busi­ness owner) sec­ond-guess that de­ci­sion,” he says. “But once they’ve made the de­ter­mi­na­tion, they need to keep go­ing for­ward. Once you have a full grasp of who you’re sell­ing to and what their pain point is and how you add value to that, then it’s all about en­sur­ing that the en­tire or­ga­ni­za­tion is be­hind that new goal.”

Ms. He sounds con­fi­dent that all the sweat and toil – not to men­tion all those sleep­less nights – are be­gin­ning to bear fruit.

“Now, our prod­uct is ready, we have our Don Draper here,” she says, turn­ing to Mr. Sanchez with a smile. “It’s time.”

“If you’ve never ex­pe­ri­enced this, never ex­pe­ri­enced sleep­less nights, you can­not call your­self an en­trepreneur. I’ve had lots of sleep­less nights.”

– SIG­NOR­ITY CO-FOUNDER JANE HE

PHOTO BY MARK HOLLERON

Sig­nor­ity mar­ket­ing chief Gus­tavo Sanchez and co-founder Jane He.

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