Global Report

How Vigil built instant credibility in the U.S. market

Victoria tech firm on cracking the world's biggest economy

U.S. flag flying by city skyscraper

(Ditto/Getty)

Troy Griffiths, president of Vigil Health Solutions, knew his company was in an enviable position. It was the turn of the millennium, and Vigil—a Victoria-based tech company that provides solutions for retirement residences—was about to introduce a revolutionary product in a rapidly growing market.

That market, however, would not be found in Canada, where the public health-care system stifles enterprise. Rather, the opportunity was in the U.S., where high-end retirement residences were springing up everywhere. And that trend was bound to accelerate as baby boomers entered their golden years.

Still, the challenges for a Canadian startup breaking into the American market with a new product were daunting. Executives in the senior-living industry had never seen anything like Vigil’s technology—which uses motion detectors to monitor Alzheimer’s and dementia patients discreetly—and few potential customers had considered the need for it.

“The challenge of entering a new market with a new product is that you really have to educate the market,” says Griffiths,” and that’s not necessarily a great place to be.” In other words, Vigil would have to create the demand before it could capitalize.

The years since then have been tumultuous for Vigil. The company relies almost entirely on exports, drawing 90% of its $4 million in revenue from clients south of the border. Sales had risen by 50% annually until the Great Recession struck in 2009, freezing construction of retirement residences and taking the wind out of Vigil’s sails.

The company has managed a solid recovery, though. Vigil, which trades publicly, has posted an auspicious string of financial statements. It ranked No. 363 on the 2013 PROFIT 500.

The startup years did, however, teach Griffiths a thing or two about introducing new technology in the U.S. market. Here are his most valuable pointers:

1. MAKE A SPLASH: In The Count of Monte Cristo, the mysterious protagonist moves to Paris and creates an instant mystique around himself. That’s what you have to do as a foreign company introducing an innovation into a new market, says Griffiths: “It’s really about making sure you cast as big a shadow as you can in that segment, so people know who you are and that they’ve heard about you.”

How to accomplish that? Polish your sales pitch. If your company’s product is truly revolutionary, you have to be able to sell people on the revolution—and that requires some charisma and a convincing story. Once you have the song and dance committed to memory, you have to get busy at networking and building a presence at trade shows and associations.

2. FOCUS ON GROWTH AREAS: When you’re selling a new product in a new market, it’s hard to know where your sales are going to come from. The temptation is to try to be everywhere at once—but that’s a big mistake. Griffiths began with a broad market strategy in the U.S., but he quickly started to see pockets of strength—in Ohio, Oregon and Texas—where sales were growing and the company was getting a lot of attention. “If I were to do it again,” he says, “I probably would have been a bit more focused from the get-go, because we could have accelerated our growth.”

3. BUILD A SUITE AROUND YOUR INNOVATION: Some of Vigil’s clients were impressed by the company’s dementia monitoring system but weren’t prepared to buy in. As Griffiths says: “We couldn’t survive with that on its own.” Vigil had to develop a suite of more conventional products, such as emergency pendants and wireless calling devices. These more familiar systems, says Griffiths, acted as a kind of intro to Vigil and allowed clients to upgrade later, when they felt more comfortable with Griffiths’ company. Without these conventional products, many Vigil clients would have been scared into the arms of a competitor.

4. KEEP EVOLVING: When a company enjoys an innovation advantage, that can be a crutch—just ask any of BlackBerry’s former employees. There’s a feeling of invulnerability that leads certain companies to rely too much on their signature technology. That’s short-sighted, says Griffiths. It’s only a matter of time, he adds, before a competitor either beats you at your own game or leapfrogs you with better technology. “That’s just about the innovation race,” he says. “You just try to stay ahead of everybody else, evolving your product, so when they have what they think is you figured out, you come out with a better version.”

Having survived the economic downturn, Vigil is poised for continued growth in the U.S. market. When the company started, the focus was almost entirely on systems for dementia patients. Today, Vigil has broadened its product line significantly, offering solutions for assisted living and independent living.

Vigil’s sales still are 90% dependent on the U.S. market, and Griffiths says diversifying exports is not out of the question. That said, there’s still lots of room for growth south of the border, and Griffiths wants to make sure he has built his company into an established North American player before he considers branching out: “We really just want to dominate this market before we start trying to go to other places.”