Dan Shimmerman wanted more. Several years ago, when he was selling software for Clarity Systems, a business performance solutions company, he was keen to join the management team. But they turned him down. That rejection would become a driving factor in his career, spurring him to launch his own business.
"Certainly there was some element of 'yeah, I've got something to prove,'" says Mr. Shimmerman, 38, president and CEO of Varicent Software Inc., which ranked first on PROFIT magazine's top 100 list of Canada's Fastest-Growing Companies this year. "But really it was about proving something to oneself and the people with whom you're working, and less about proving something to the folks over at Clarity, a company I respect."
While still at Clarity - just up the street from Varicent's current Toronto headquarters - Mr. Shimmerman decided to form a company and arranged to pitch to a potential investor before he even had an idea or a product. So he invited one of Clarity's talented new hires, Marc Altshuller, to join forces with him and come up with something over dinner. The investor didn't come through, but the pair's idea to develop sales-management software that can analyze and make sense of complicated commissions and incentives filled a market niche. The fledgling partnership eventually raised $500,000 to develop their product, a process that took about a year.
"The biggest challenge in setting up the company was the decision to actually do it," says Mr. Shimmerman, a chartered accountant and MBA who spent about a decade in technology sales. "Luckily for me, I've got an unhealthy appetite for risk. My plan was to come up with an idea, find a partner and raise some money. I was fortunate in that they all converged at the same time."
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The two partners continued at Clarity by day and developed their own business model, product and team in their off hours, working in Mr. Altshuller's basement.
"Once we determined we could take the product to market, we were ready to go," says Mr. Shimmerman. "Next we had to get a customer base and prospects base to ensure we could really commercialize what we'd built and turn it into a viable business."
Since he left Clarity in 2004, Varicent's sales have grown from $200,000 in the first year to more than $25-million this past year, with a projected $35-million for this year. The company has offices throughout North America and in Britain and Hong Kong. For Mr. Shimmerman, who had no management experience, it's been a dramatic learning curve.
"It's been a challenge for me initially just to understand how to find the right talent, make sure they're doing the right things, keep them engaged in what they're doing, but also hold them accountable," says Mr. Shimmerman.
"I've formed a very strong network, both internally to learn from the people we hired, and externally, through an informal network of mentors and advisers who act as a sounding board. It's never been a problem for me to reach out and network. Being able to attract the mentors and advisers that I have has been invaluable."
What's essential to him in his leadership role is to communicate the company vision, help promote collaboration and communication among staff, and to dig deep in areas where they need to improve.
"I continuously challenge the people here to push themselves outside of where we were yesterday," says Mr. Shimmerman. "My own inspiration is born of a love of what I do, and I try to find people who love what they do too. It takes a lot of time, commitment and sacrifice and if you don't love it, then you're not going to be able to draw from that inner passion.
"When it comes to new ideas and concepts, we embrace and solicit input and feedback from everybody in the company," says Mr. Shimmerman. "I think it's important to build a culture of transparency where people are encouraged to speak their minds, to criticize, dispute or argue in a safe environment where they're not going to get shot down.
"You really just don't know where the next big idea is going to come from."