Pivoting for a dime

Courtney
Courtney Symons
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Benbria shifts focus from emergency notifications to customer engagement

After five years of selling emergency notification systems to universities and governments, local tech firm Benbria decided it was time for a change.

Ronald Richardson, Benbria’s co-founder and vice-president of sales.

“We saw a very strong and compelling use case and white space in the market for inbound messaging from the consumer to the business,” says Ronald Richardson, Benbria co-founder and vice-president of sales.

Benbria, a product of the Wesley Clover group of companies and an OBJ Startup to Watch in 2010, originally offered two-way mass communication systems on multiple platforms for one person to send messages to many.

But the firm has flipped that technology on its head to access new markets.

“We are effectively resetting the startup process, not quite back to zero, but we’re testing the hypothesis of the business from zero,” Mr. Richardson says.

Now, Benbria targets retailers, fast food chains and the hospitality sector, offering mobile customer engagement. Instead of a detailed survey, customers can send immediate feedback to the business based on their experience. In some cases, the company can respond before the customer has left the building.

“It’s happening on the spot during that decisive moment during the shopping experience,” says Tony Busa, Benbria’s director of marketing. “We’re helping businesses recover at-risk customers while they’re still in the store.”

Ottawa customers include various Quiznos, Domino’s, Second Cup and BeaverTails locations, as well as the Brookstreet Hotel.

Future markets might include other service industries and the financial sector.

The company still provides its mass notification service to its previous clients, but it can now upsell with the new version of the technology, called BlazeLoop.

Recently hired developers spend 75 per cent of their time on the new product, while new sales staff research the market. Benbria’s advisory board has shifted to focus on the new direction.

There are many risks: changing markets, changing distribution channels, having no customer testimonials and bringing in no new revenues right away.

OBJ asked two business experts to take a look at Benbria and share their thoughts on how to carry out the transition. Here are their edited responses:

EVALUATE MARKETING SKILLS

Sandra Harvey, president of Murphy Business Ottawa:

“You don’t want to make a huge market shift too often. It could confuse the market. But strategically, in terms of the long-term viability, it makes sense to open up new revenue streams. You need to have a very well-researched understanding of what the market opportunities are. Understand what your internal strengths are and what other skill sets you might need to bring on in order to make the right shift. If your sales and marketing (team) is focused on the knowledge-based sector, moving into enterprise is a different sales process and needs a different marketing expertise. You need to understand what gaps you might have when you’re shifting the type of customer you might have. More commercialization, for the long run of the company, is probably a good choice as long as they do it carefully and have the right plan and the right expertise to guide that change.”

DON’T FORGET EXISTING CUSTOMERS

Jeffrey Dale, chairman for Welch LLP’s Chairman’s View program and co-founder of Odawa Group Inc.:

“You’ll find that most very successful companies will reinvent themselves constantly because customer requirements change and social norms change. Benbria was once good at telephony, but how many of us have landlines anymore? Very few – most of us have mobile (devices). If you’re looking to expand your market, continue to support the customer base you have as well as new customers. You have to make sure you’re still paying attention to old customers. Very often, a lot of companies will focus on the new products and revenue streams and forget about the old ones. The steady revenue streams they were counting on to fund the expansion efforts dry up. Every single company that we’ve seen that’s been successful has focused on innovation. As (hockey player Wayne) Gretzky says, ‘Skate where the puck is going, not where it’s been.’ It’s intuition for entrepreneurs. When you see it, you’ve got to go for it.”

Organizations: OBJ Startup, Murphy Business, Odawa Group

Geographic location: Ottawa

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  • Mark Wendman
    January 20, 2013 - 12:05

    This pivot "evaluation" ( market testing ) is possibly SUPERB. The actual potential market size and growth is far higher in retail than it is in mostly government and institutional sales - likely hugely, and market size ( vertical ) is a critical determinant to ultimate possible sales ( and profits ). Remember when the inventor of Ethernet started 3Com with a 120 page business plan, when he found his 1st customer, oops he tore up the plan ( gladly ) and rewrote the history of his firm, a plan from anew ( another 120 pages ) and commercial ethernet. Business pivots ( spinoffs, market refocusing whatever ) are important to avoid sales saturation / declines in limited $ / size markets, BY FINDING the NEW. And key for sustained market share capture is to file and gain PATENTs as many as one might - at least tending towards that. And yet it is important for reputation to fully support existing customers, even if support plans ( revenue from ongoing technical support / service ) is needed post sales to keep existing customers happy and content - as reputation is important as is karma.