By Kaveri Braid
Photographs by Jon Miller
“The easiest way to stay ahead is to go so fast that you never have to look in your rear-view mirror.”
That’s how Jeff Tomlin, chief marketing officer at Vendasta, describes how his company stays ahead of its worldwide competitors. He says the digital marketing industry moves so fast that if
you don’t comfortably change with it, you could risk your business.
“You have to have a drive to keep evolving because if you stay stagnant, especially in the market that we are in – and we are in a very, very competitive market – if you take any time to rest on your laurels a bit, you will quickly go into a state of decline,” says Tomlin.
Vendasta is a platform that sells digital marketing solutions to local businesses, and for the past 10 years it has been one of Saskatoon’s best-kept business secrets. But it won’t be for long, because the company’s growing revenue and workforce are hard to ignore.
We know that small businesses don’t need to change what they do, but rather how they do it.
Vendasta employs 280 people in Saskatoon, and this year its leadership team has a $40 million run rate target. Many people in Saskatoon probably haven’t even heard of the company, but if
you are a small business you are probably using its digital products and don’t even know it. Vendasta has 6,000 customers that resell its products as their own, many of them media companies, newspapers, and radio, TV, and cable companies. In Canada, 411.ca and OpenSail are partners, but 91% of Vendasta’s business is in the United States.
“We know that small businesses don’t need to change what they do, but rather how they do it. They do the same things, they advertise, they provide good service, but how they do it has changed dramatically and we’re giving them the tools to do that,” says Brendan King, chief executive officer of Vendasta. “There are about 5,000 digital tools out there and we simplify it down to the best ones.”
King and Tomlin are the two main visionaries behind Vendasta; they met working at another technology company. A group of colleagues at the business – including King and Tomlin – took a risk
and left to start something new.
“A bunch of us had brand new babies at the time, but we picked up and took a leap of faith and we were able to secure some consulting work so we could eat,” said Tomlin. “Half of the group focused on the consulting side of the business so we could pay the bills and keep the lights on, and the other half of us started building a marketing plan and a complete business plan to build our own thing. And that’s what Vendasta is today.”
Make change a habit
That was at the beginning of 2008 and now, a decade later, the company takes up four floors of the Avenue Building in downtown Saskatoon. King and Tomlin admit that it wasn’t a straight path to what the business is today, and there have been lots of twists and turns, but listening to exactly what clients need is what led to their success.
“The idea that we had at the beginning was a really viable idea and an exciting opportunity, but we saw an immediate need and an opportunity to grow our business in the reputational management space, so that was a big change and we completely shifted our focus,” says Tomlin.
And that wasn’t the only time the focus shifted. Tomlin and King say they were flexible and pivoted the business when necessary, which created a lot of change. Sometimes that wasn’t easy on employees or their leadership team.
“You have to make change a habit because as you grow and you double the size of your company, and double the number of employees, you have to change your organizational structure and that’s really stressful on an organization. So we got into the habit of changing, probably even more frequently than we had to, justso we could get people used to change,” says Tomlin.
“And I wouldn’t say it was either forced or natural change. I would say it was planned. I would say it was a calculated change based on the opportunities and risks, so it’s neither forced nor organic, it’s a thing that you plan for,” says King.
And as the company changed fast, King and Tomlin say one of the keys to making sure their leadership team and their employees were comfortable was to be extremely transparent with everyone at Vendasta. Every week they hold what’s called an “all hands” meeting, which everyone in the company attends and where employees are able to ask any question or voice any concerns. King and Tomlin will answer them honestly, including sharing what each department is working on, whether it’s sales, marketing, or software development.
Practise radical candour
That transparency is also what keeps Tomlin and King’s business partnership a successful one.
King, who has a degree in physics and geophysics, has been a serial entrepreneur, creating and selling off successful companies for years. He says he loves the competition side of it and loves building something out of nothing.
Tomlin, an economics graduate, has a similar history. He dabbled in property management out of university but soon learned how to build websites and taught himself digital marketing, online marketing, and search engine optimization, which led him to sell a quarter million dollars’ worth of simple Word document products. When the two came together they realized they
complemented each other, compensating for the other’s weaknesses. They admit there have been passionate debates while building the business but it only makes their relationship stronger.
“When you are trying to do something big there’s a lot of pressure and if you are doing things the right way there’s going to be fighting. If you have a lot of passionate discussion about what the right thing to do is and when you’re going to do it, but you’ve worked together long enough and gotten to know each other well enough, it’s OK to have those passionate discussions. It’s not going to blow up the relationship,” says Tomlin.
King agrees. “It’s the radical candour, the transparency, coupled with respect for others. You know we base a lot of what we have done on a couple of learnings: Jim Collins’s Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t and Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. We follow those things a lot more than people realize. We don’t necessarily mean, ‘oh, just read these books and it’s all going to be good,’ but it’s the principles in there that are long lived, and we apply them over and over.”
Aside from Vendasta’s culture of being a great place to work and its many perks – from free breakfasts and lunches for employees to parking, transit, and bicycle subsidies – Tomlin and King have worked hard on maintaining the company’s four core values: drive, respect, innovation, and agility. But they agree it takes work to keep those values at the forefront, especially as the workforce gets bigger. King says you can’t clarify your direction and purpose enough.
“Find the right people and get them on the bus and then make sure they know where the bus is going. And I know that is the oldest saying but it’s so true: get the right people together and make sure they all agree and understand where they are going together. Once that’s accomplished, you can do anything,” says King.
But King freely admits they have made some mistakes. But, he says, “I don’t call them mistakes if you can correct them. Any decision is better than no decision, as long as you can change it. As an example, we’ve hired the right people for the wrong positions, but we learn from it and we don’t do it again. So if you recover quickly on top of that, they don’t really become mistakes, they become learning,” says King.
Despite some of those mistakes, Vendasta has been building up its success, and it’s been very strategic in the past 10 years. Along with the company’s values the team is also governed by a few guiding principles, based on business and software development, which change slightly every year to match the company’s fast-paced industry environment. If you look on the walls in one of the conference rooms, you will see Vendasta’s goals, which lay out a plan for its 3–5-, 10-, and 25-year future.
“The next milestone we have publicly laid out for our company is to get to $100 million in revenue by the end of 2020. Now that is a very tough goal and sometimes I feel a bit exposed talking about it because people think maybe that’s not possible. But when you look at the number of companies that have done it in the timeframe we’re trying to do it in, it would be incredibly rare, a real feat to do it,” says King.
But both King and Tomlin have the determination and commitment to get there, and they agree it’s exactly what being an entrepreneur is about. “There are a lot of people who have great ideas and all they have to do is get up and do something and take that first step. Just to execute is the hardest thing but if you get something in your head, just do it and start working on it,” says Tomlin.
First published in the September 2018 edition of The Business Advisor.