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Michael Nowlan is president and chief executive officer of Marketwire Inc., a Toronto-based communications company that serves businesses ranging from start-ups to Fortune 100 firms. A chartered accountant by profession, he helps companies get the best bang for their public-relations buck by distributing press releases and other promotional material to major media. The company also reaches out to bloggers, analysts and consumers and uses Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and other social media.
Michael Nowlan, president and chief
executive officer of Marketwire Inc.
In June, Marketwire launched a new tool, a social communications platform designed for professionals in public relations and marketing. Resonate for Small Business allows them to create and collaborate, participate in real-time social media and perform search-engine optimization and on-demand measurement.
It offers communicators more control and value for their content distribution investment, Nowlan says. “Up until now it’s been difficult to build real-time social media insight from the conversations taking place among those stakeholders into news releases sent over the wire,” says Nowlan, who is a graduate of the Queen’s University School of Business. “Marketwire Resonate pulls social intelligence directly into the process of creating and distributing news releases and other content.”
“It lets our clients create that content while listening to conversations on Twitter, Facebook and other online networks so they can better align their messages with their target audiences, and get a real feel for how they make an impact.”
What’s your market?
Our target customers are professionals in investor relations, public relations and marketing in any organization, almost anywhere in the world, from the smallest start-ups to large multinationals, non-profits and government agencies. Anyone with a message to communicate and a stakeholder to engage. Geographically, we serve customers across Canada and the United States through 14 offices, including our head office in Toronto, and across Europe, the Middle East and Africa from our office in London.
How did you tackle global expansion?
Our biggest success was expansion into the U.S. market. We purchased a small company in Los Angeles and very quickly that business has expanded to be our largest operation; it continues to be the largest engine of our growth to this day. As a result of that expansion, we have signed deals on an order of magnitude we just could not contemplate at home. The competition in the U.S. is intense, and the expectations and demands of clients are very high, but this has made us a far better company as a whole because it drives every area of our business to be better.
How important has the U.S. market been?
The U.S. is a very challenging market. Customers are very well-informed and demanding on all levels; they expect great service, great innovation and very competitive prices. On the positive side, however, the U.S. customer is far more open to change, and makes buying decisions faster than customers in most other markets. We very quickly learned that to compete in the U.S. we needed to be very quick to respond and adapt in order to keep pace.
Where are your foreign offices?
We have offices in the United States, Britain and the Far East. Six years ago the U.S. locations even seemed foreign to me. Since then, we have continued to expand across the United States, though it now feels as much of a domestic market to me as Canada does.
Is staffing an issue?
Staffing is a challenge everywhere. Even in a slow economy, high-quality staff in key roles is always difficult to attract and retain. Staffing in London and New York can be very expensive, but the talent pools are very deep.
How do you handle hiring?
The most important step is to hire a great local manager. The business community is very global today, so leveraging contacts for referrals is a huge plus for identifying recruiters and even specific candidates. With a strong local manager in place, the process of sourcing and interviewing is much more efficient because local customs and behaviours are understood by that local manager. We have recently strengthened our human resources department by including foreign recruiting as a key area of focus.
Do you travel for business?
For several years I was on the road more than 50% of the time, across North America including Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Calgary and Vancouver, and Europe, primarily London, with some continental travel also.
How does Canada compare with other nations in doing business?
Differences in government regulations and bureaucracies are very burdensome. Canada tends to have a rather centralized process for much of our government-compliance work for taxation, while the U.S. is very fragmented, with little co-ordination between federal, state and city government reporting requirements. The British audit and reporting requirements for local subsidiaries are different than in North America. This can make things more challenging and intensive to stay on top of at first. I guess this has been one of the bigger surprises: We hear so much about the globalization of business and I was taken aback by the amount of government-compliance work across the different jurisdictions.
Is it worth the grief?
It is absolutely worth doing because the opportunities are tremendous. We need to have more Canadian-headquartered businesses expand in other markets because it creates more jobs and expertise in our economy. When we first embarked on our global expansion in 2003, we employed fewer than 80 staff across all Canada. Today, we employ close to 400 people globally, with some 250 of those positions in Canada.
Additionally, our entire economy benefits. The demands and expectations of foreign customers, particularly from the United States, have driven our product development and have resulted in better products for all our clients.
What advice would you give Canadian entrepreneurs taking their businesses abroad?
Recognize the scale of the opportunity in global markets. In Canada we operate in relatively small local markets and we tend to make decisions in the context of those markets. When you are dealing with very large global markets you have to adjust your thinking and prepare to scale: the scale of infrastructure, back office systems, staffing requirements, marketing tactics and spend, sales resources, customer support teams—it all has to be adjusted. Approaching foreign markets unprepared and not scaling appropriately may mean you alienate your customers and prospects.
Ensure you spend time in the markets to understand the local customer and employment behaviour. You cannot execute a global expansion properly simply by sitting in Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver. You need to visit the areas in which you are expanding in order to get a sense for the local conditions.
The one thing you wish someone had told you?
Don’t try to be everything to everyone in all markets. If you try too many foreign markets simultaneously, the risk is far greater. Focus and learn the inevitable lessons before tackling too many markets and scaling too quickly. Simple matters like ensuring you have local contracts, determining the currencies you will price and accept payment in, and what bundles and service offerings you will make in the local market—all have to be established and adhered to. Obviously, the time it takes to scale and learn depends on the type of business you’re in, but it’s important to be focused and have clear plans for each market you choose to enter.
This interview has been edited and condensed.