Four Lessons from Building a Successful Tech Company in Edmonton
Written by Helen Zhao, Rainforest Contributor
Colin Bramm, CEO of Showbie Inc Joined Rainforest on April 24th to share his journey behind building a software company Showbie.
Prior to launching Showbie Inc, Colin worked at an educational technology consulting company for several years. Noticing that the classroom transitioning to using the iPad, he saw a business opportunity of developing an app that could make the classroom experience more enjoyable and fun.
Colin founded his company Showbie Inc. in 2013. The company features education apps: Showbie and Socrative are the two brands. Showbie is a school work assignment manager and teacher feedback tool, which makes it easier for students to turn in assignments. Depending on the type of assignments, Showbie provides a variety of apps to accommodate. It also provides digital annotation tools for teachers to give feedback on students’ work. To visualize this, think if an e-Signing type of experience: this allows teachers to mark the homework quick and gives feedback in the form of voice messages. Online notifications keep both students and parents in the loop of the process. Socrative was acquired by Showbie in 2018. It is a real-time classroom response app that makes the class time fun and engaging: besides being used for online testing, it also enables teachers to give live quizzes and polls during class and to see the feedback on their smartboard, laptop, tablet or phone.
Colin is also a successful entrepreneur who knows how to market his idea. Showbie operates with B2C2B model, which also makes it easy for him to achieve such a goal. He started with a lightweight free version of the app that enables teachers to sign up to experience. Through getting their feedback and regular communication, Colin then developed and marketed a pro edition and was able to sell it successfully. In other words, he was skilled at converting Freemium customers to Premium customers: there is no secret; one simply needs to listen to your customers’ needs and talk to them on a regular basis. Both Showbie and Socrative have a variety of Premium features to entice teachers and their organizations to pay for the upgraded editions.
Data analytics is the key to identify the target market. The freemium model helped to spread Showbie's apps through word of mouth, and the result was quite significant. Colin then used the data gathered from product utilization to determine specific regions where the apps could be popular and formulate his market strategy for those particular areas. In some places, this involves reseller partners and in others, his team at HQ in Edmonton is servicing the area remotely through telesales/email/online meetings, etc.
Throughout building his business since 2013, Colin has four important lessons to share:
#1: Have A Vision
During his early career in consulting, Colin realized he wasn’t able to make the impact he desired due to the structure of the business itself. He saw the necessity of pivoting his career to focus on building and offering product based services in order to create something that would scale and create the impact he desired.
#2: Experimenting and Testing
Colin likes to test ideas rather than go "all in". His way of validating if he should go any further before investing incrementally is through sharing his ideas and “what if” scenarios with others in the industry. Besides, he uses data wherever possible to justify existing ideas for solutions.
When an idea popped into his mind, Colin would carve out some personal time to explore it before exposing it to a lot of people. When hearing anything strange or interesting, from customers, partners, or a unique opportunity, Colin usually tries to explore it in person.
#3.Trust Your Gut Feeling
It took a long time before Colin realized he was in a unique position to determine and make decisions on the company’s overall strategies. He stopped asking permission to do things and instead used all the channels available to him to synthesize the decisions made for the betterment of the company.
#4. Have a Balance
Colin used to work a lot and had little time left to spend with himself and his family. It put him under stress. These days, he learned to find a better work-life balance. Spending time away from work helps him to relax and generate new ideas. That why having the balance is critical to productivity.
Questions and Answers:
- Q: How do you build trust with your team?
- A: By being as transparent as possible, upholding my commitments, and being openly vulnerable when things don't go as planned. I also am increasingly trying to share more about my personal life whereas in the past I kept work and home very separate. Getting to know everyone in the company on more of a personal level has helped increase connection with people and I think that naturally builds trust rather than forcing it through formal corporate exercises.
- Q: How do you innovate?
- A: We listen to our customers very actively through many channels, watch our data; increasingly anticipating outcomes when we launch new innovations and see if our expectations were met, and we also maintain our own thesis on where the market is going so we're always building something that we think will help us address the growth of future needs.
- Q: How do you convert freemium users to premium users?
- A: We initially launched our free offering and then used the user feature requests as a way to find where more value could be offered. We then marketed that we were going to launch a Pro edition and were able to pre-sell it off the popularity of the pro features we were going to create. We also ask teachers the school they belong to when they sign up to our apps. Once a small group of teachers are using our apps or individually paying for them at a school, we outreach to them and work to see if the school might be a good fit for the premium editions of our products. In short, there is no secret. Talking to your customer and listening to their needs on a regular basis really helps.
- Q: How do you define your target market?
- A: The freemium model enables word of mouth spread of our apps–which is quite strong. We then can utilize the data generated from the product utilization to determine specific regions where we are popular and formulate our go to market strategy for that particular area. In some places, this involves reseller partners and in others, our team at HQ is servicing the area remotely through telesales/email/online meetings, etc.
- Q: How do you create buy-in for your ideas with potential investors, business partners, and employees?
- A: We're lucky to work in a field where our work products are going to have a positive ripple effect in terms of educational outcomes. If our products help teachers who in turn help students who then go on to have more success then we see our work as having a force multiplier in terms of benefits to the world. There is a real social impact side to the work we do that goes beyond simply building good software products, helping customers and making money. I think everyone can intuitively understand this social benefit, but we've been recently doing new things like having some of our key teacher users speak at our all-hands town halls as a way to ensure everyone in the company can hear straight from the end user the benefit of the "life-changing" work they are involved with. I think that has created some magic buy-in that's impossible for someone like me to directly provide.