When your business is to handle sensitive data for major financial institutions, dependability is an asset. And while Global Relay Communications has built a reputation for securely and reliably archiving the e-mail, instant messages, texts and other communications of its corporate clients, company president Shannon Rogers has a consistent accomplishment all of her own. Rogers tops the 2015 PROFIT/Chatelaine Ranking of Canada’s Top Female Entrepreneurs, the third time she’s taken the #1 spot in five years.
What does it take to achieve such consistent success? Canada’s Top Female Entrepreneur explained to Carol Toller why identifying your company’s corporate culture is the key to successful expansion and why you can’t rush the sales process.
We’re conditioned to believe that as Canadians we can’t compete globally—you reach revenues of $20 million or $50 million and people say to you, You’re going to sell the company, right?’ But our experience shows that Canadians can do a really good job serving the world.
“We would not be alive today had we not gone into the U.S. market—something Canadians don’t do often enough. We had to go to the U.S. and find some success before we could get traction here. In many ways, Canada is actually a much harder market. People do things a little differently here—we’re a little more reserved.
“Americans will give you one chance, and if you do well, they don’t really care who you are. They just want to find the one thing that will give them the advantage in their market—they’re really open to that. When we went into the U.S., we only had about $14,000 in revenues—to support four people. We had no real market, no funding and growing debts. In the broader technology industry, the dot-com bubble had burst with no recovery in sight. We pitched virtually every venture capitalist in Canada, all of whom declined to invest. One prominent venture capitalist even said, If this was a good idea, an American would have thought of it.’ So we started in the U.S. in 2003, and we started getting bites. The client might be just a five- or 10-person company, but they’d tell two friends, and they’d tell two friends, and things started taking off. We’re really proud of what we’ve accomplished globally: 97% of our revenues are foreign revenues that we bring back to Canada.
“We know we’re competing against the Americans too, especially when it comes to hiring. As a technology company, we’re competing against Microsoft, against Amazon—big companies that come in with big signing bonuses, saying, Come work for us.’ We’ve had to protect against that, and one thing we’ve done is create a really fun, open work environment. It’s as secure as it can be in terms of holding critical data, but once you’re past the security and you walk in, you feel a buzz.
“It’s an open environment, and there are places for people to hang out. We’ve brought in a chef and a Starbucks setup and a beer-keg setup. The food is subsidized: The most expensive item is a prime rib thing that costs $3. Everything is between free to $3. The beer is free and the wine is free and, of course, because we’ve got the developer side, we brought in foosball and bubble hockey. We’ve really blended the two sides of our business. Our focus is on the financial sector, so we have that very professional side, but we also have the playfulness of the technology sector.
“It’s funny, but one thing we’ve actually learned about corporate culture is that we have one. I think we learned that the most when we expanded globally—to New York, to London, to Singapore. When we opened those offices, at first we didn’t put an existing employee from Global Relay in them.
“We just hired locally and expected everything would be fine. In New York, we hired high-end sales guys, but they didn’t understand the company. It was an expensive lesson: We learned that even when you don’t think you have one, you do have a corporate culture. And when you want to expand, you have to be very conscious of what it is.
“For us, selling isn’t pitching—we never really pitch a company. We gain strength from having a good reputation, from being known as strong subject matter experts. Selling is a very gradual process. Our sales cycles for big enterprise can go on for years. They’re really relying on you with their critical data. And these days, with cybersecurity attacks, with what’s going on with data, everyone is realizing there are risks. So they’re going to take their time to find a really good vendor.”