‘We’re not building a company to be acquired’

Courtney
Courtney Symons
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How Serence became Klipfolio and survived its first decade

In 2001, three Ottawa entrepreneurs founded Serence with a good idea and not much else.

Klipfolio president Allan Wille.

CEO and president Allan Wille offered up his basement as the headquarters, chief experience officer Peter Matthews sold his beloved 1998 Audi A4, chief technology officer James Scott chipped in his own money alongside the other two, and all three began working with no salary.

In 2002, OBJ followed them for a 12-part series outlining what it’s like to be a startup in Ottawa.

A decade later, the company has renamed itself Klipfolio and has been doubling revenues since 2007.

Klipfolio has now grown into something a little more mature, said Mr. Wille, and after 10 years of struggling as a startup, it’s time to look back and remember the growing pains.

“Honestly, that first year was not pretty,” he said.

Serence began building branded desktop dashboards called Klipfolio, which consolidated Internet data for companies and their customers. While a traditional app merely bears a company’s logo until you click on it, branded desktop apps provide up-to-the-minute information about the company, much like a scrolling stock ticker. Many early adopters were interested in the technology, but no one was paying.

“They were all drinking the Kool-Aid, but it really didn’t have a path to revenue,” he said.

The partners struggled along, working long days and making no money.

Then, a miracle. In 2004, Staples became one of its first paying customers. Serence created a downloadable app depicting the Staples “easy” button so that customers could see current deals and get single-click access to an online store.

The brand-name customer injected revenue into Serence and allowed it to grow.

“We very quickly went from no customers to a company that had some of the biggest consumer brands in the world,” said Mr. Wille. “All of a sudden, we were legitimate.”

Those customers included Intel Corp., American Express and H&R Block.

But what Serence built for one company wasn’t reusable for another. Other than the core platform, the bulk of the effort wasn’t transferable.

About four or five big contracts rolled in each year, at around $150,000 to $250,000 each, but Serence had to hire more and more staff to build custom software.

“It just didn’t feel right. We didn’t fundamentally see that as a way of growing the business,” said Mr. Wille. “The company had never had more profits, never grown quicker, but we were really considering jumping ship.”

Lufthansa Airlines called just in the nick of time. In early 2007, Europe’s largest airline asked Serence to build a dashboard to communicate with its employees, alerting them about news and operational changes. The company had never worked on an internal project like it, but was no stranger to providing real-time data to clients. Serence said yes, and Lufthansa licensed the dashboard site-wide to its 35,000 employees.

That was the catalyst that helped the company decide to exit the branded desktop space and begin marketing to enterprises. Soon, Serence’s revenue model was 80 per cent licensing and 20 per cent support and maintenance.

 

FROM SERENCE TO KLIPFOLIO

The more enterprise contracts the company took on, the more familiar the product name Klipfolio became. People constantly asked, “Who is Serence? Aren’t you the Klipfolio guys?”

“The guys from Research In Motion must be having the same debate over and over – why are we RIM when everyone knows BlackBerry?” said Mr. Wille.

In December 2010, the company launched a new website under the name Klipfolio Inc., marketing only to enterprises.

The company also released a mobile dashboard last September, and has been working with international partners who resell Klipfolio to clients.

Klipfolio has landed in an exploding market, Mr. Wille said, with new dashboard vendors popping up every other week. It’s the sort of growth that will soon wane, he added, when bigger companies acquire the smaller ones and some just go out of business. But Klipfolio is here to stay, he said.

“We’re not building a company to be acquired,” he said. “I fundamentally think that’s the wrong way to go about it, because you make decisions based on selling to your acquisition party, as opposed to making decisions that are best for your customer. We’re here to build an awesome company and an awesome product for our customers.”

What will keep the company afloat is its stellar client list, which other newer companies have yet to build, he said.

“With existing customers, we can say, ‘We’ve been there. We’ve done that. We’ve got a track record.’”

Organizations: Klipfolio, Lufthansa, Intel Corp. American Express Research In Motion

Geographic location: Europe

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