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Evoco’s customer list includes Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Staples, Lowe’s and Cineplex. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
Evoco’s customer list includes Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Staples, Lowe’s and Cineplex. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Software

Growth story that started in the days of the modem Add to ...

Calgary-based Evoco Inc. has found an unusual niche – it helps large retail chains with the endless job of building new stores and renovating old ones.

“We’ve really become the leader in understanding what it takes to manage a large, multi-location build program,” says Alice Reimer, Evoco’s chief executive and one of its three co-founders.

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Evoco’s customer list includes Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Staples, Lowe’s and Cineplex.

The company’s current focus is the result of an evolution. When Ms. Reimer, her husband, Brian Reimer, and Sean Fynn started Evoco in 1999, their goal was to offer a way of sharing large engineering and architectural drawings over the Internet.

That may seem like a small thing if you haven’t seen the amount of paper involved in a commercial building project. The drawings and documents for one store can cost $3,000 to $4,000, including distribution, Ms. Reimer says.

Electronic distribution was more of a challenge in the late 1990s, Ms. Reimer notes, as some businesses still used dial-up modems.

Quite early in its existence, Evoco acquired a very important customer – Ms. Reimer says she can’t name the company, but it’s a large retailer. Evoco won that business through a strategy Ms. Reimer says has served the company well over the years – a “crawl, walk, run” approach of solving one specific, manageable problem first, thus building credibility with the customer and then gaining more business over time.

In this case, the first promise was to cut printing and distribution costs for the large retailer, which Evoco did. Having proved it could deliver, Evoco got more business from that company, and the credibility that brought helped persuade more major chains to try its Fuze software.

Recognizing that major retailers faced many challenges in their large building programs, Evoco set out to augment its file-sharing service with other tools to help solve those problems. “We recognized the market opportunity and the impact that it could have for our retail owners,” Ms. Reimer says. The result is a comprehensive system that not only shares drawings but takes care of assorted other headaches, such as managing change orders and bids, invoicing and inspections.

Launching Evoco in the midst of the dot-com boom, Ms. Reimer admits, “we believed that if we created this great business we’d be bazillionaires.”

The reality is a bit more modest, but Evoco did better than many start-ups of the period – it survived the bust that followed that boom, and went on to prosper, because it had something real to offer and because its principals didn’t let the boom mentality lure them into spending money foolishly, they say.

“We didn’t ever have big, fancy offices,” Ms. Reimer says. “We still don’t have big, fancy offices.” The founders financed Evoco on their credit cards and through contributions from friends and family for as long as they could, with a small funding round at the end of 2002.

In 2003, Mr. Reimer, Evoco’s original chief executive, handed the job over to John Eddy, a former director of information systems at Dome Petroleum who had headed Replicon Inc., another Calgary software company. Mr. Eddy “helped us turn Evoco into a business,” Ms. Reimer says.

Ms. Reimer became president in 2008 and took over the chief executive’s job from Mr. Eddy in 2009; he remains on Evoco’s board.

Today Evoco has about 60 employees. It was a winner in the 2008 Canada’s Top 10 Technology Companies competition, and appeared on Profit magazine’s Top 100 list of the country’s fastest-growing companies for 2008 through 2010.

Because of its original mission of sharing files online, Evoco took a software-as-a-service approach from the beginning. In those days that made the company an application service provider (ASP), a term that has fallen into disuse. Today it’s called cloud computing, meaning that Evoco was in on the cloud trend before it was fashionable.

In the early days, Ms. Reimer says, Evoco had to work at explaining its software-as-a-service model to customers who weren’t yet used to the idea. Today, “that’s started to become the accepted norm.”

The advantages of the cloud approach for Evoco’s customers are low up-front cost and the vendor’s ability to offer frequent updates without any disruption for customers, Ms. Reimer says. It does bring some challenges, though. One is that when Evoco wins new business, most of its costs come up front, to get the new customer up and running. The revenue in a cloud model, however, is spread out over time. Ms. Reimer says that necessitates careful cash-flow management.

Another challenge the cloud model presents for Evoco is that as the company’s business grows worldwide, it has become more difficult to find times of day when Evoco can do maintenance on its servers without affecting customers in different time zones.

That’s a nice sort of problem to have, though, and it comes with a push into international markets that Ms. Reimer says is just beginning. She sees good retail industry opportunities in Mexico and the BRIC emerging-economy countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China. The company is also looking at expanding into selected market segments other than retail chains – such as hospitality and the oil-and-gas industry, both of which also do plenty of construction in multiple locations.

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