The mobile technology world is like a fast-moving river. When Mario Bouchard launched iBwave in 2003, most cellphones flipped open, while tiny strands of wireless data travelled on an odd-looking pager called a BlackBerry. But the veteran engineer from Bell and Telus sensed a shift.
He noticed that a growing number of cellphone users were trying to get reception inside buildings. Unsuccessfully, as it turned out.
Slightly more than a decade later, Bouchard’s Montreal-based firm (which ranked 132nd on the 2013 PROFIT 500 ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies) has customers in more than 80 countries around the world. The reason: iBwave has aggressively sold technology that can deliver wireless voice and data signals inside office buildings, airports, malls and other large structures. iBwave’s customers include mobile carriers, equipment giants such as Ericsson and systems integrators, all of which have a stake in improved reception. As Bouchard notes, the rapidly growing use of tablets and 3G or 4G smartphones has created an urgent demand for high-quality indoor connectivity in countries around the world.
At one level, the story of how iBwave grew from a bootstrapped software shop into a marketing machine with more than $10 million in revenue is all about marrying a smart technology to a communications revolution. But, as Bouchard explains, the rapid expansion didn’t happen of its own accord; it represents a decade of careful strategic planning and a highly focused approach to growth.
Early on, Bouchard and his partners used their contacts to gain a toehold with Canadian carriers, which wanted to improve their coverage as a means of reducing customer churn. iBwave knew the Canadian market wasn’t large enough, so, in 2004, the firm’s management decided to risk $15,000 on a booth at a small Miami trade show that drew mobile carriers and equipment suppliers. The next year, iBwave went to a similar show in Germany. The response to IBwave’s technology, Bouchard recalls, was enthusiastic: “People were saying, Where were you for all these years?'”
While Bouchard came away from those shows with fists full of business cards and sales leads, he knew that a firm with fewer than a dozen employees couldn’t begin to service far-flung customers. Instead of setting up costly field offices, iBwave’s management figured the firm could expand more quickly and without a lot of regulatory headaches by retaining local contractors who would sell as well as help customers implement the company’s technology.
Finding the contractors, however, took time. “The goal was to travel a lot,” Bouchard says. “We were spending 60% to 70% of our time on planes, meeting people.” Today, iBwave has 110 employees, 45 of whom work outside Canada. But there’s still no international office; the contractors are freelancers who have only one client: iBwave.
This nimble workforce strategy allowed Bouchard and his team to focus on the bigger picture. They understand that when mobile device and tablet penetration in a given country reaches a certain threshold, subscriber demand for high-quality indoor reception spikes and the carriers have to respond. Because iBwave’s technology is unique, the company can move rapidly into those regions, signing up carriers and equipment providers. That way, Bouchard says, iBwave’s technology has become the de facto industry standard in a given geographical market. “Our goal is to lock markets, one after the other,” he says. “It’s a bit like playing Risk.”
As Bouchard points out, any new entrant—and a few have surfaced in recent years—would have to convert the whole technology “ecosystem” (carrier, equipment manufacturer and systems integrator) in order to displace iBwave. So far, no one is nipping at the company’s heels, which explains why Bouchard can boast that his firm has posted an average compound annual growth rate of 41% over the past six years, and has been profitable since the beginning.
With iBwave’s expansion strategy rolling through Latin America, Southeast Asia and heading for Africa, Bouchard already has deployed the second, well, wave of iBwave’s growth plan. As carriers adopt new voice and data technologies such as 4G and LTE, iBwave marketing managers have been consulting with their customers to find out what technologies they require in order to effectively distribute wireless signals indoors. “We came up with new products based on our customers’ demands,” Bouchard says. “Once they’re locked in, we’ll go back and upsell and upsell and upsell.”
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