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Mario Bouchard admits he knew nothing about business when he and a colleague, Dominique Gauthier, left secure jobs to market the product they’d created—software that enables cellular networks to function inside buildings. Just eight years later, the software designed by their company, iBwave Solutions Inc. of Montreal, is in use in 80 countries, and has more than 300 customers.
Photo: MarioBouchard, iBwave
Although he succeeded by tapping into a network of contacts for advice, Bouchard believes that more government support aimed at teaching new entrepreneurs the ropes of international business would complement the strong supports already available for research and development.
iBwave has 55 employees in Montreal and another 25 in the United States, Europe, Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. Bouchard, 42, studied electronics at a CEGEP (junior college) in Quebec, went to work for Bell Canada as a technician, and eventually became manager of engineering before moving on to Telus Mobility. He describes himself as a “driver, a self-learner.”
What was the biggest hurdle getting iBwave off the ground?
We were two engineers. It’s nice to create software, but I think it’s true for many start-ups in Canada—it’s always technical people. I think the biggest challenge for all those companies and us is selling and marketing and finance, all the important stuff of a business. The Canadian government is giving a lot of money for R&D tax credits to create innovation and research. They’re not funding anything in terms of “how do you sell those products?” A lot of people create products and they go bankrupt after.
What policy would you prescribe to help improve commercialization of Canadian products?
We’re seeing crappy products on the market that have amazing marketing spin and they’re making a lot of money, and we have amazing products that are going bankrupt because it’s not about the product. It’s about how you sell it and all the buzz around it. We should teach the entrepreneur a lot more about sales and marketing and how to commercialize a product rather than just focusing on how to make it.
The Quebec Government started a program for companies like mine. It selects 10 companies, 10 CEOs per year, and gives them $100,000 each to be taught about international sales and marketing at the MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], so I was one of the guys. I did the program two years ago.
When you began, how did you acquire all that knowledge to get your good idea out there?
We started looking at our contacts and found the ex-boss of my partner who had sold his company to Nortel. So he was kind of in-between. He had cash. He gave us advice, coaching, and then he decided to join and so he was in charge of putting the foundation in place. At that point we even created an advisory board, even though we were about four employees. Our advisory board was targeted around sales and marketing. Again, we looked at our network and our new partner’s network. He found three good people, all VPs of sales or marketing in tech companies. We paid them something like $300 a session, and every month we met and they taught us how to do it. They helped us to understand the concept of going to the market, selling and monitoring sales, and how to build a pipeline.
How do you build out that sales function?
In the beginning, by trying to contact all our contacts in the industry. Because my background was Bell and Telus for 15 years, I knew a lot of people. In our own backyard we could show the product. The tough part was, once you’ve sold to your friends, what do you do after? That’s why we decided to go international, even if we were six in the company.
Explain how you accomplished that.
We did our first show in Miami in December 2004. We saw a very targeted, in-building wireless show in Miami so we said: Let’s take $10,000 and have a booth there and see if we’re going to be able to interest people. We arrived in Miami with our booth and our little golf shirts—we were really junior—but the tool was so innovative and was the only tool on the market. We had 100 people in our booth. It was crazy. We generated a lot of traction, a lot of interest, got a lot of business cards and started relationships with a bunch of companies. A few months after, we saw the same type of show in Germany, and the same thing happened, and we created that same buzz in Europe. From the get-go, our goal was to become a standard, like Excel. Everybody has Excel on his machine worldwide and everybody’s using it. If you’re sending a file, an Excel spreadsheet, to somebody in Japan, you know that person will be able to open it. In the business plan, we said we want to be the standard; and if we’re looking today, we are the standard. In the North American market, all the tier-one operators are using our tool.
How does the global slowdown affect you?
The wireless industry is one of the fastest growing markets. People are not cutting on wireless expenses. We saw great opportunity even during the slowdown. The fact that we were in 80 countries helped us to balance the revenues; the U.S. was a bit down at one point, but other markets were still going full steam. And when other markets started slowing down, the U.S. came back with the Obama plan. Last year we grew by 85%.
What is a lesson of your success?
Surround myself with better people than me in sales, marketing, finance. Have an advisory board or real board, have very good people around you, where you can be challenged. Every time you have a plan, they will challenge you and it’s good. You make fewer mistakes and grow faster and focus. I’m coaching a lot of companies and younger entrepreneurs and that’s always the same thing. It’s lack of focus and they don’t have the right team in place and they don’t have the guts to let them go.
This interview has been edited and condensed.