For the past 34 years, the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) has mounted Small Business Week in the third week of October to celebrate the contributions that small and medium sized businesses make to the Canadian economy. In conferences, workshops and other events across the country, the weeklong salute aims at providing entrepreneurs with an opportunity to learn and share their experiences with peers. "Map your future growth " is the theme of this year’s celebration, an invitation to small business owners to consider, build and execute on plans to develop markets for their goods or services.
But efforts to support SMBs are not restricted to this week, or to governmental institutions. Indeed, many private sector organizations willingly play a role in nurturing the entrepreneurial class. A good example of this activity may be found in Dell sponsorship of the Dell Women’s Entrepreneurial Network (DWEN), a global group that aims at creating an environment for women entrepreneurs and technologists to expand their networks and learn more about the technology enablement of business success. Echoing this year’s Small Business Week theme, DWEN in Canada held a breakfast roundtable at the end of September designed to explore challenges associated with "Scaling for the Future."
As a piece of outreach to the SMB community, Dell demonstrated its commitment to this group of entrepreneurs by inviting Steve Felice, Dell president and chief commercial officer, to moderate the discussion. Felice and panelists, including Catherine Graham, co-founder and CEO of commonsku (web-based management platform for promotional products distributors) and the president of RIGHTSLEEVE (promotional products design agency), Mary Aitken, founder of the private women’s club Verity, which hosted the breakfast event, and Marla Schwartz, president of Benecaid Health Benefit Solutions Inc., a provider of healthcare benefits solutions for business, as well as several small business owners were welcomed to the session by Kevin Peesker, current president of Dell Canada, and former GM of Dell consumer and small business customer segments in Europe.
According to Peesker, Felice has been a strong proponent of diversity within Dell and of DWEN in particular, which was "founded on the principle of driving connections around technology, around networks and access to capital, which something every entrepreneur can benefit from." Felice began the discussion with a question to panelists on their definition and measurement of growth. Responses were varied as the businesses present at the breakfast event: while Verity grows one member at a time, slowly feeding its private hotel, restaurant and spa on-premise businesses, Benecaid measures the numbers of individuals administered by its programs (currently at 60,000), as well as revenue and gross margins, and RIGHTSLEEVE has recently shifted from a straight revenue metric to what Graham called "quality of customer" as a sustainable foundation for growth going forward.
Verity and Benecaid presented other approaches to ‘scaling’ the business. For Verity, building to maximum capacity is key (the club is now at 800 of its target 1,200 membership) and Aitken also noted the potential for introducing new services and price increases. For Benecaid, technology has served as a primary means to growth. According to Schwartz, the company launched using manual systems but this past July introduced an online system platform, "which provides the company with significant and almost infinite scalability growth." The company is no longer defined by a particular product or client, she explained, and the technology has enabled standardization of processes which serves as the basis for systematic and more rapid scale. "We are really able to do things for our clients now that we weren’t able to do before. Using a system on behalf of clients is significant: it captures data and everything is auditable. We want always to know who touches our client data and an online platform allows us to do that. We can also add products until the cows come home... and we can display data to our clients in a way that is useful to them and which helps them really understand what they are doing in their plan for their employees," she added.
As Graham explained, the cost of IT systems and infrastructure can present a significant challenge to the small business: "you can’t afford to implement SAP when you are a five person company," but in order to scale, her company found it necessary in 2005 to invest in building its own systems. In contrast, Graham pointed to the many more technology options that are available to small businesses today that can provide the process and rigour in business operations needed to support growth. Beyond scale, these technologies are now also supporting the quick launch of startup businesses. Jacquelyn Cyr, cofounder and managing director of R3VOLVED, who attended the event, described her company’s approach to technology as follows: "most of our stuff is in the cloud."
R3VOLVED is a 10 month old manufacturer and marketer of sustainable promotional products, which sources materials and manufactures directly in China to keep costs low and to remove the "middle man" or other suppliers and agents. In this way, the company ensures that recyclable rPET plastic products are affordable to business buyers. The China team works on locating factories that are socially compliant, sourcing rPET supplies, and managing the manufacturing process, including quality assurance, product testing and certification by third-parties such as Intertek and SGS. But this staff must stay in close touch with the production director who works out of the company’s Toronto office.
All told, R3VOLVED has 20 employees (which are shared with the Marin line of business) that it must support with IT services. Due to its distributed operation and different operational processes (manufacturing and marketing), the company has diverse IT needs. R3VOLVED fulfills these with a number of cloud applications, including ShareFile, a secure document sharing platform from Citrix that is used for internal collaboration and for sales and other communication with clients, Shopify for its ecommerce solution, Salesforce.com for project management, sales tracking and as a data repository and reporting tool for internal management. The company has built its social presence using LinkedIn, Twitter and Hootsuite. R3VOLVED also maintains a server in-house for storage of all transactional and communications data, and has recently implemented a system for automatic backup of its applications data to in-house storage. As Cyr explained, the company has put off moving storage to the cloud as "we just have so much information on our servers, it’s one of those things that keeps getting de-prioritized, though it is on our radar."
Cyr’s resolve to deploy cloud apps where possible comes from an assessment of productivity enablement: "Anything that can make things more efficient, I am immediately drawn towards... These are really important initiatives for us as a small business because you only have so many man hours every day and if you are spending those hours following up on things that didn’t really need to be followed up on, or reaching out to people that really aren’t very interested, or sending out information yet again to China thinking they didn’t get it, it greats inefficiencies. If we are able to make ourselves more efficient and more like a large organization, that’s very useful. I love anything that will simplify things–Shopify, for example, I can set up and customize myself. And the intelligence we get from it [our cloud applications] is really amazing."
For Cyr, concerns over cloud uptime and reliability are non issues since any outages are very time limited: she expressed confidence in the ability of large IT service providers to manage potential problems in a way that meets R3VOLVED requirements. With cloud, and with the outsourcing of the company’s IT needs to a local specialist, R3VOLVED staff can focus on the business of marketing sustainable promotional products.
So far, the R3ROLVED formula appears to be working. Cyr noted company growth, but also the quality of clients it has managed to reach out to–TD Bank, for example, is a client. In this effort, Cyr has found membership in DWEN to be extremely helpful: "My first interaction was at the Rio de Janeiro conference three years ago, and it was amazing. People from all over the world were fascinating and there was a lot of interesting information on growth and access to capital, things that you don’t really think about when you are managing your day-to-day business." Cyr in fact owes foundation of the company to DWEN. Cancelled flights to the group’s India conference put her in close conversations with fellow traveller, Suzanne Diamond, who ultimately became co-founder of R3VOLVED–networking on steroids!