By Ray Penner
If there had been a Grandmother of the Year Award in the 1990s, surely Grandma Morrison would have been in the running. In 1996, she gave her grandson Dan and his bride, Garnette, a computer as a wedding gift. Not everyone had a home computer then, and computers were expensive. Almost everyone at the wedding must have thought a vacuum cleaner would have been a much more practical gift. After all, just three years before, in 1993, there was a grand total of 130 websites in the world. But by 1996, that number had ballooned to 257,601. Grandma Morrison may have been among the few who understood that the internet and websites were not just a fad. It’s unlikely, though, that even she would have predicted that by 2019 there would be almost two billion websites globally.
The newlyweds wasted no time putting their gift to good use. They learned how to build a website and earned their first money as home-based entrepreneurs creating a site for a Saskatoon business owner. They were still pursuing their chosen careers at the time – Garnette as a physical therapist and Dan as a researcher. Dan’s work took the couple to Connecticut, but they continued to explore the potential of computers. At that time, quantitative research was a laborious undertaking usually handled by telephone call centres and research teams. Dan realized how valuable computers could be in research, as more and more people joined the rush to be online, thus creating useful sample sizes. Garnette also saw the potential and was the driving force behind the Webers’ expanding business. They were, without question, on the leading edge of a new era of customer reconnaissance.
The majority of their clients were from the northeastern US, but the reputation of Interactive Tracking Systems Inc. – itracks – was spreading just about as rapidly as internet was becoming a household word and desktop computers a common household possession. “We realized that we needed to acquire office space, hire people, and continue expanding,” recalls Dan. But where? He remembers the night he and Garnette came to a remarkable conclusion. They would move to one of the least likely places to start an information technology company: their home province, Saskatchewan.
Why Saskatchewan? If the Webers had a dollar for every time they were asked that question … and as it turns out, they do. It’s a reasonable question in their case, however. There was only a handful of prospective clients in the province, and they had little or no motivation to use itracks’ services. The Webers’ target market was in heavily populated areas, where the infrastructure was much more up to speed (literally) and where they could obtain valid data because of the sample size. Even today, practically all of itracks’ clients are in the US and abroad, including Disney, 3M, Honda, Crayola, Nielsen Research, and Johnson & Johnson.
WE WERE SO FORTUNATE TO HAVE OUR FAMILIES HERE WHEN OUR KIDS WERE YOUNG.
So again, why Saskatchewan? Not all connections in this world are electronic. There were other connections that weighed heavily in favour of the move. “In fact,” says Garnette, “I don’t think we ever could have started itracks anywhere else but Saskatoon.” She and Dan are business partners, but they are first and foremost husband and wife. They wanted to start a family and, as any working parent will tell you, the child-care support of your family can be invaluable. “We were so fortunate to have our families here when our kids were young,” says Garnette, whose advice to parents embarking on a similar path is, “Make sure you build a strong support system first – people you can rely on – because things will come up.” Then, as your children grow up, “Be creative. Children are all different. You’ll find a way to handle it.” Garnette speaks from experience. Their business continues to benefit from having both partners running it full time. She and Dan have a daughter, now 18, and two boys, aged 16 and 11.
Another reason for the move was their network within the business community. Garnette grew up in a business family. Her grandfather owned a hatchery with locations throughout the province. Her father owned a business in Saskatoon, where by grade 10 Garnette was helping with business planning and the payroll. Dan also came from an entrepreneurial background. Their connections to experienced business leaders and mentors was a key factor in their decision.
There was also SaskTel. “Back in the ’90s, traditional lenders weren’t too keen on handing out their money to information tech companies like itracks,” explains Dan. “Thankfully, we were able to convince SaskTel to invest in our idea to set up a call centre in Saskatoon, doing more traditional research by telephone. They saw the fit and agreed to invest several million dollars in us to establish a centre employing around 150 people.”
MAKE SURE YOU BUILD A STRONG SUPPORT SYSTEM FIRST – PEOPLE YOU CAN RELY ON– BECAUSE THINGS WILL COME UP. THEN, AS YOUR CHILDREN GROW UP, BE CREATIVE. CHILDREN ARE ALL DIFFERENT. YOU’LL FIND A WAY TO HANDLE IT.
The day the Webers signed that deal counts as one of the biggest days in the history of their business. It turned out to be a profitable investment for SaskTel, which saw a good return and was paid back in full by itracks when the relationship was dissolved. For Dan and Garnette, it provided the cash flow they needed to keep developing their internet-based research products and services. The call centre was eventually disbanded when it was clear that online research was the only viable way forward. Today, itracks has 35 employees, with representatives in their major market – the US.
The company offers online and mobile qualitative software that fits your style of research, along with a suite of unique tools and a strong support system. Essentially, that means that their typical client – a large corporation with a full-time research division – can work with itracks to develop specific web-based tools to conduct research and analyze the data. The newest product allows research teams and executives to collectively observe and comment on focus groups in real time using what could be described as a virtual one-way mirror.
New product development is a major function at itracks, which continuously prioritizes attracting and retaining people with outstanding creative as well as technical ability. Garnette and Dan have visited a number of software development companies with the ambience and open-space layout that evokes Silicon Valley cool. Their repurposed call centre space was the antithesis, which motivated them to purchase a former high-end restaurant building in the fashionable warehouse district of Saskatoon, which had already attracted creative businesses such as ad agencies and production houses. “Buying that building has been one of our proudest moments in business,” says Garnette. “In some ways, it’s a reward for the great people who are already with us.” One of the features of the new space will be what tech development companies call “war rooms,” where teams of four to six software developers will work undisturbed and in isolation from the rest of the office in “sprints” of several weeks, then take a break before returning to the intense business of software invention.
Spend even a few minutes with Dan and Garnette Weber, and it’s obvious the entrepreneurial energy they shared as newlyweds has not subsided. Whereas some husband-and-wife business partnerships have destroyed both the marriage and the business, the couple feed off each other. “As a married couple and as business partners, we understand when one of us has to work late or is stressed out,” says Dan. He and Garnette have managed to allocate their responsibilities by gravitating to them. Dan is the socializer and does the majority of work to get new clients in the door. Garnette is the one who then works on the details of the relationship, ensuring that contracts are clear and effective. “Many people have asked if Garnette is a lawyer,” laughs Dan.
That entrepreneurial tradition continues in the next generation of Webers. “In North America, the typical career model is you go to school, get a job, and that’s it. We’ve told our kids to think outside of that. We tell them being entrepreneurial is a job, so don’t be afraid to take chances.
AS A MARRIED COUPLE AND AS BUSINESS PARTNERS, WE UNDERSTAND WHEN ONE OF US HAS TO WORK LATE OR IS STRESSED OUT.
Our daughter just finished her first year in kinesiology at the U of S, and she did very well. But then she came to us and told us she wanted to switch colleges to Fine Arts and pursue a career as an artist. We told her to go for it. After all, you can’t get any more entrepreneurial than being an artist!”
Dan and Garnette offer that same advice to all people with entrepreneurial ambitions, with one additional piece of advice from Dan: “Do it while you’re young, when you’re used to eating Kraft Dinner. You can work for long hours, and you don’t have a lot to lose.”
He could have added the sage advice to all business owners that to be successful you should treat each day in your business as if it were the first. Intensely immersed in the final stages of renovations to their new space, planning the annual corporate trips to the US and abroad, and working with their team to keep high-powered clients happy, Dan and Garnette have no intention of taking their foot off the gas. When asked if they have ever thought of leaving it all behind, Garnette responds, “There always seems to have been the ‘next thing’ to do.”
Do your research on the Webers and you will be able to predict with 100% certainty that there will always be a “next thing” under way at their trendy new digs. As long as companies want to know more about their customers, they’ll want to know more about this dynamic company.
First published in the September 2019 edition of The Business Advisor.