Pivot to SME market a signature move for Ottawa-based software startup

Bolstered by a solid product and $1 million in fresh funding, it appeared that Ottawa startup Signority was set for a breakout year at the beginning of 2016.

A software-as-a-service company, Signority makes a product that allows customers to sign documents electronically. Founded in 2010, the firm had a back story not unlike countless other startups. 

Signority was launched in co-founder Jane He’s basement with funding help from the federal government’s Industrial Research Assistance Program, eventually landing space at Invest Ottawa headquarters. The company diligently developed the technology to the point that a group of local and international investors deemed it worthy of a seven-figure seed-funding round last December.

But Ms. He says she knew in her heart she needed to shake things up if the firm was going to survive and ultimately thrive.

Even though Signority already had more than 100 customers and six-figure revenues, Ms. He boldly decided early this year to alter course and shift the company’s focus from large enterprise customers like the federal government to small and medium-sized businesses.

“It’s a risk we need to take,” the ex-Nortel engineer says. “If something doesn’t work, you have to make a decision. Maybe that decision is wrong – but if you don’t make a decision, it’s even worse. Nothing will work.”

The product had garnered overwhelmingly positive feedback, she explains, yet the company wasn’t seeing the “viral” pace of growth its founders were hoping for. In March, she began the process of overhauling the company, revamping its website and bringing in a whole new sales and marketing team led by Gustavo Sanchez, a former marketing director at local software firm Kivuto Solutions.

“I experimented with several different teams, and it didn’t work,” she says, explaining her decision. “I had lots of sleepless nights. If you’ve never experienced this, never experienced sleepless nights, you cannot call yourself an entrepreneur. I’ve had lots of sleepless nights.”

Mr. Sanchez – whom Ms. He fondly refers to as Signority’s “Don Draper” after the gifted ad exec of Mad Men fame – came on board in early May. 

His challenge, he says, was to make the company more nimble. Whereas sales cycles for enterprise clients typically take months, SMEs usually expect deals to be done in days or weeks at the most.

“A lot of people think the switch from enterprise to SMB is easy,” he says. “No. Your product has to change, your onboarding has to change, the way you service customers has to change, the sales cycle changes, the marketing changes. It’s almost like a new company.”

Signority now pledges to respond to customer inquiries within 24 hours and is much more aggressive in signing up new clients, Mr. Sanchez says.

“We went through a bit of a period of readjustment,” he adds. “We were a lot reactive before with how we helped customers.”

Ms. He says the change in course has taught her a valuable lesson: People truly are a business’s most valuable resource.

“The mindset has to be there,” she says. “When you have the (right) people, it changes everything.”

Signority is now seeing average revenue growth of 15 per cent month over month, and Ms. He predicts the company will hit seven-digit revenues by next year. Meanwhile, its roster of customers – who range from individual freelancers to 50-person law firms – continues to grow.

A successful pivot requires 100 per cent commitment from top to bottom, Mr. Sanchez says.

“A lot of things are going to happen in the journey that are going to make (a business owner) second-guess that decision,” he says. “But once they’ve made the determination, they need to keep going forward. Once you have a full grasp of who you’re selling to and what their pain point is and how you add value to that, then it’s all about ensuring that the entire organization is behind that new goal.”

Ms. He sounds confident that all the sweat and toil – not to mention all those sleepless nights – are beginning to bear fruit.

“Now, our product is ready, we have our Don Draper here,” she says, turning to Mr. Sanchez with a smile. “It’s time.”