Pierre-Olivier Charlebois has managed a feat countless harried executives probably thought impossible: He’s actually making businesses enthusiastic about the process of responding to RFPs.
The Ottawa-based entrepreneur says he’s come up with a secret sauce that big-name clients are lining up to buy – software that automates many of the mundane tasks involved in bidding on the contracts that keep revenue dollars flowing in.
His company, reDock, uses artificial intelligence and machine learning technology to “mine” data on its customers’ employees, their work history and the firms’ past projects. Its software analyzes that information and puts it into context, helping guide proposal writers through the RFP process to ensure their bids check all the required boxes.
“A boilerplate doesn’t win you a bid,” Mr. Charlebois said. “If you just reuse something you did in the past as is, you don’t take into consideration that your current customer maybe has different needs.”
Mr. Charlebois, a Montreal native who moved to Ottawa seven years ago and launched a consulting firm, said the idea for reDock grew out of his frustration over constantly spending hours and hours tracking down information to complete proposals.
“One of the parts of the business that I hated the most was responding to RFPs,” he said.
He soon found out he wasn’t alone. During a chat with a client who was a partner at BDO’s business consulting line, they vented about how the process of writing proposals ate up valuable time that could be put to better use growing their businesses in more productive ways.
They thought AI technology might provide the answer. Three years ago, Mr. Charlebois launched a pilot project with BDO, the world’s fifth-largest professional services firm. The success of that collaboration led the McGill grad to launch reDock in the spring of 2016.
Big value proposition
“When you look at consultants, you have really high-value people who spend their time looking for content, cutting and pasting, rewriting content that already exists,” said Mr. Charlebois, 34, an electrical engineer who started his professional career at video-game giant Ubisoft. “You have some of the brightest people that are really wasting their time doing menial work formatting in Word and so forth.”
The value proposition that enticed BDO has since caught the eye of other major clients in the professional services and IT consulting worlds, including Ottawa-based Welch LLP. Mr. Charlebois said reDock now has nearly a dozen customers, at least three of which are companies valued at more than a billion dollars.
“You have really high-value people who spend their time looking for content, cutting and pasting, rewriting content that already exists. You have some of the brightest people that are really wasting their time doing menial work formatting in Word and so forth.”
ReDock’s potential to capture the lion’s share of a significant global niche market and its high-profile customer base also captured the attention of renowned accelerator 500 Startups. Earlier this month, his firm was the only Ottawa outfit to gain a spot in the Silicon Valley-based organization’s latest cohort of 32 companies, which were selected from a pool of more than 5,000 applicants.
David Dufresne, a partner at 500 Startups Canada, said he’d met Mr. Charlebois at a few pitchfests and became intrigued by how reDock had found a “super smart” way to apply machine learning technology to an issue that was crying out for a modern solution.
“When you’re able to get a sophisticated customer to actually pay for your technology, pay for the product you’ve built, it’s worth 20 letters of intent,” he said of the startup’s relationship with BDO. “There’s so much hype right now around AI, machine learning, and to me that technology is super exciting, but mostly when it’s actually solving real-life problems. (RFPs are) a boring, old industry that is getting disrupted by new technologies.
“Bringing very clear ROI to customers is what gets me excited. I think he found the right niche, he found customers that were willing to consider it because they see very quick benefits.”
Mr. Charlebois has spent the past couple of weeks jetting back and forth between Ottawa and northern California, where he’s getting a “crash course” in fundamental business strategies such as customer acquisition and raising much-needed capital to help his enterprise scale up.
“I really wanted to get in the growth mindset and learn from the mentality that drives large successes in the Valley but really build a Canadian company with that,” he explained. “My goal is not to move there at all. It’s really to bring that expertise and that mindset to Ottawa and then hopefully be part of the thriving businesses like Shopify and PageCloud, Assent Compliance. People in the Valley, they know these companies.”
It’s still early days for reDock, which has 14 employees at its Canotek Road office and so far has funded itself through a combination of bootstrapping, government grants and seed capital from the founder’s friends and family.
‘Outside your comfort zone’
The company’s monthly recurring revenues have tripled since January, and Mr. Dufresne said 500 Startups will help shift that growth into overdrive. Mr. Charlebois “is going to learn in four months what will take any other company two to three years to learn,” he said.
“It just pushes everyone to work faster and work better. There’s a lot of collaboration that ends up happening between the different companies that are part of the same batch. It’s getting you outside of your comfort zone, getting you surrounded by people that are as ambitious or more ambitious than you and just pushing you to the limits.”
Mr. Charlebois said he’s eager to soak up all the knowledge he can in the Valley – especially the tricks of the trade when it comes to attracting lucrative investment deals.
“We sell to enterprise, and they have really high expectations, which is great,” he said. “But when you’re on a shoestring budget, there’s a bit of a disconnect between your resources and the expectations. We’ve done a good job of being lean and going really far. Now, I think we’re ready to really grow, and that will require capital.”
He concedes that managing client expectations can be a challenge for a small company with a product that is really just emerging from the beta stage.
“AI is still in its infancy,” he noted. “It won’t solve all your problems.”
He’s hoping the 500 Startups pitchfest in October will be a turning point for the fledgling firm.
When the time comes to get in a room with potential investors, Mr. Charlebois said he’ll be ready.
“Life is a continuum. It’s really about building your network, meeting people and sharing your story.”