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When Ron deBruyne first developed software for a Vancouver Island tugboat operator in the late 1990s, he thought it might be of interest to other companies. So he asked the client about the potential for reselling the software, called TugAssist. “He said to me, ‘Well you might sell one or two but you’ll never make any money at it. Go ahead and try,’” deBruyne recalled.
Ron deBruyne, chief executive officer and
Bill Reid, president of Edoc Systems Group Ltd.
Still, deBruyne credits that client, Daryl Jones, president of Jones Marine Services Ltd., with bankrolling the venture, even buying him the computers and providing the office space to get started. Today, his company, Edoc Systems Group Ltd., boasts annual sales of almost $4 million to 28 customers across North America.
The company, based in Victoria, also recently signed a deal with “a market-leading work boat company” that deBruyne, the chief executive officer, said will give Edoc a global reach. “We have a non-disclosure agreement until a certain stage of the implementation,” deBruyne said. “So we can’t specifically name the organization.” In anticipation of that, Edoc recently acquired extra space on the fourth floor of a brick heritage building on the Victoria waterfront. “We see two of our clients operating every day out here,” said company president Bill Reid.
Edoc’s first foray outside Canada came in 2003 when someone at Honolulu-based Hawaiian Tug & Barge was searching the Internet for a towing transportation system, said Mr. Reid, who joined Edoc in 2002 and has been its president since 2007. “They found us on the Web,” deBruyne recalled. “I couldn’t find us on the Web at that time but they did.”
That led Edoc to develop its marine operations enterprise software called Helm. Reid describes it as a “harbour docking and barging software system.” About the same time that Edoc gained a beachhead in Hawaii, deBruyne and Reid attended the International WorkBoat Show in New Orleans. “That’s like the mecca of work boats in North America,” Reid recalled.
The real breakthrough came, however, with Blessey Marine Services Inc., a barge and towing company based in Harahan, La., that was looking to develop a customized system with a third-party vendor, Reid recalled. At the time, Edoc had only a half dozen employees and occupied a small office inland in downtown Victoria. It was so small that one employee worked out of the kitchen, Reid said.
An operations manager from Blessey flew to Victoria for a presentation. In anticipation of that, staff worked tirelessly for two weeks to tweak the program and also spruce up the office. “We wanted to make sure we did everything possible to look big enough and credible enough for this large client from Louisiana,” Reid said. It worked, and Blessey remains a customer to this day.
Helm provides a range of functions, including dispatch, payroll, scheduling, maintenance and safety. “Every towboat company in the world that I know of needs to get good clean data from the vessels to the shore as soon as possible,” Mr. Reid said. Blessey, for example, started out using the dispatch and logistics functions, and more recently added the purchasing and safety features, but has yet to roll out the maintenance function. “There’s two problems we solve,” Reid said. “One is they don’t have a system at all or they have a bunch of Excel spreadsheets. And the other problem is they have systems but they’re all disconnected.”
In the Mississippi region, Edoc found many companies “not well serviced by software,” Reid said. “Every single one of our clients had a failed software system that we replaced.” Reid, 40, and deBruyne, 46, each admitted that their company did “everything” wrong in the early years of building the business.
If deBruyne could give only one piece of advice to a budding technology entrepreneur, it would be “go find a mentor who has been there and done that.” He did that through courses offered by AceTech, a Vancouver CEO mentoring and training organization of which he is now a director.
Last fall, deBruyne called one of his mentors, tech entrepreneur Phil Holland, in a panic after coming across a request for information that described Edoc perfectly. “But we can’t win it,” de Bruyne recalled telling Holland. “Because we’re too small and we’re up against Microsoft and SAP and seven other vendors.”
Mr. Holland, though, reassured him that small companies do win big contracts. “That’s how small companies turn into big companies,” Holland said. Then he worked with deBruyne for two weeks, often until 4 a.m., to perfect the RFI response. It paid off. “We won the contract,” deBruyne said. “We beat Microsoft.”