How Prizm Media stays agile—even when faced with financial setbacks

What happens when a key client goes under overnight? If, like Prizm Media, agility is built into the way you do business, you quickly plan, pivot and come out stronger.

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Growth 500: Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies

Prizm Media co-founders Zeeshan Hayat and Karina Hayat play foosball in their Vancouver offices. (Photograph by Vishala Marapon)

Enter the Vancouver offices of Prizm Media, a lead-generation business specializing in connecting chronically ill patients with health care providers, and the first thing one notices is the no-frills aesthetic. The reception area is functional but not flashy. The boardroom walls are plastered with colourful stickies, while hand-drawn posters outlining “Prizm Value Drivers” and vision statements line the walls.

Like the business they oversee, husband-and-wife co-founders Karina and Zeeshan Hayat avoid ostentation; she wears a simple black knit dress and cardigan, while he is dressed in a Lacoste sports shirt and blue trousers. Their respect for each other is evident: when one speaks, the other listens. They do not finish each other’s sentences.

Since 2001, their company has gone from a threadbare, two-person home-based upstart to an industry leader with more than 300 employees worldwide. In the past five years, Prizm Media’s revenues have grown 147%, earning it the No. 390 spot on the 2018 Growth 500 ranking. In 2017, the firm took in more than $10 million—a banner year that could have turned out very differently.

The reason? Early last year, a key client filed for bankruptcy, upending Prizm’s plans. Many companies would reflexively cut back. But the Hayats instead decided to pour their energy into developing new business via a series of ancillary vertical markets and new technology. The upshot: by the end of the year, Prizm not only replaced the lost income, but had grown overall sales by 30% from the previous year (and profits by 50%). Tapping into innate resourcefulness and agility helped the firm to weather a potentially devastating storm.

Professionally and personally, the Hayats’ story has always been a tale of triumph over great odds. Born in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1979, Zeeshan immigrated to Canada with his grandparents when he was seven, three years after his mother died. (He never knew his father.) Karina’s childhood was equally challenging: Born in 1980 in Guatemala City, her family fled to Canada as refugees due to her father’s political activism. “It was a huge culture shock,” she reflects. 

Karina and Zeeshan met in Vancouver while both were in high school, but their business partnership started in 2001 when they were in college. To offset education costs, they began selling nutritional supplements online, maxing out their credit cards to do so. “The concept of ‘funding’ was not there,” says Zeeshan. They sold and distributed the supplements locally, then migrated to an online-only mail-order presence. Within a few months, however, the Hayats saw a much larger opportunity: Instead of selling wholesalers’ products to consumers, why not sell consumers to the wholesalers?

E-commerce was still in its relative infancy; many of the company’s wholesale clients were struggling to reach customers via the web. “We realized we were really good at the marketing component,” says Karina. “And Zeeshan had figured out the math—how much it would cost to get an interested consumer ready to purchase.” In less than a year Prizm became a full-blown health care lead-generation business, one that went on to specialize in diabetes-related products: glucose monitors, lancets and test strips.

Prizm fills a unique niche. Its custom-designed marketing campaigns use a pay-for-performance model, guaranteeing that health care providers only pay to be put in touch with consumers who have already consented to be contacted about the clients’ offerings. It’s about quality, not quantity.

Business grew and grew until early 2017, when the Hayats were blindsided by the financial woes of that aforementioned client. While not critical, the client was important—Prizm had dedicated a separate business unit to servicing it. Replacing the resulting shortfall would, it seemed, be hard. But after thinking through contingencies—scaling back R&D would jeopardize the future, and layoffs, the Hayats decided, were out of the question—they found a solution already in hand. The Hayats knew that diabetic needs are often not one-dimensional; many conditions can co-exist with the disease. “We looked at what products we weren’t focusing on enough,” notes Karina. Chronic pain medications, dermatological and sleep apnea products, hearing aids, orthopaedic braces, catheters—all these may be required by patients over the course of their lives.

In short, there were a lot of under-mined verticals to leverage, right within Prizm’s own database. So, the Hayats went back to its patient pool and solicited consent to introduce users to additional products, while reaching out to new wholesale partners. Prizm also fast-tracked a new mobile app, RxtoMe, which connects patients with local pharmacies, and which augments Kudolife, an app that aims to help people make healthy choices about eating and exercise. All of it is intended to help patients order online while building an even more valuable store of data for Prizm. Together, these efforts made a tough year triumphant: “Our initial goals last year were to not go into the red, and to do the same revenue that we did in 2016,” says Zeeshan. “By September we exceeded that. The last quarter of 2017 was the best we’ve ever had.”

Prizm had another advantage, too: its company’s cost-conscious DNA. For instance, that nondescript head office, located in a south Vancouver business park, helps keep overhead low, which gives the company a buffer. “Our goal has always been to stay lean,” says Zeeshan, adding that the company has no loans or outside investors.

This enables agility, which “is the way business is evolving,” according to marketing and entrepreneurial professor Darren Dahl of the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business. “Any organization that can be that nimble is going to be successful, because they’ll see opportunities and they’ll be able to react much quicker.”

“It all comes down to being able to see opportunity where you typically wouldn’t,” Karina says. One of her formative Canadian memories involves collecting cans discarded after a fireworks display, and earning some $200 in refunds for her work. “It was like gold thrown on the ground, right?” she says. “But most people don’t see it that way.”

Considering what this type of ingenuity has done for Prizm, perhaps they should.

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