The oldest employee at Teach Away Inc. is 31, so it’s hardly surprising that its Liberty Village office isn’t a fusty museum of cord-dangling phones and desk-chained PCs.
Dave Frey helps manage Teach Away, which recruits teachers and other educational professionals for foreign governments. It doesn’t seem like he has much to learn about innovation in telecommunications solutions around the office.
Instead of traditional phone service, Teach Away uses VoIP phones through Vonage Canada to save money, since everyone spends “half the day on the phone to Korea or Japan,” negotiating with education ministries, Mr. Frey says. They even have a Vancouver number – though no Vancouver office – to help clients save on long distance fees.
All of the employees use laptops, because they travel frequently, both around the world and around the city, where they use Wi-Fi hotspots instead of paying for mobile Internet data sticks through large companies, such as Rogers Communications Inc.
“We’ve grown quickly but we have to be dynamic,” Mr. Frey said. “We started out with a more traditional package … but there was no point in having standard lines that can’t be moved around. We have laptops because we move around.”
As the economic downturn quenched many big business’s thirst for risk and innovation, large telecom firms have taken a renewed look at small businesses, which were doing everything they could to cut costs, innovate and stay afloat. The speed at which small businesses rise, and fall, make them the ideal targets for big companies such as Rogers and Telus Corp.
“The new shoots of growth that have emerged most strongly in Canada have been in the area of small business,” says Gordon Stein, vice-president of Rogers’ business unit. “They’re more willing than larger businesses to try new innovation and to adopt new ideas.”
Mr. Stein says Rogers regularly holds focus groups with young companies to figure out how their needs are evolving. One of its new solutions for small businesses – a mobile hub that can provide both wired Ethernet ports and wireless Internet to nearby laptops – came out of conversations with a construction company that was tired of being unable to have secure Internet at job sites.
But with that shift, and with small businesses looking to cut costs and stay nimble, there is a chance that large providers are not adjusting to small business’s emerging needs fast enough, says Carmi Levy, an independent technology analyst.
“The large carriers still seem to operate with the mentality that enterprise-class solutions can be easily scaled down to meet the needs of the SMB [small and medium business]market,” said Mr. Levy.
Jim Senko, vice-president of small business at Telus, agrees that advances in technology have allowed the big telecoms to offer enterprise-style solutions to small companies. But he disagrees with the conclusion that this is bad for small business.
“We’re seeing a shift to SMB,” Mr. Senko says. “One, because they’re a very dynamic and interesting market. But also, a lot of the technology that the larger businesses have enjoyed are now available more down-market, which is creating more opportunities.”
Out in the oil patch, in the Vancouver-based telco’s home territory, Telus introduced GPS technology that allowed one company to better monitor its 100-strong fleet of vehicles. Some technicians were driving upwards of 145 kilometers’ per hour, burning through gas. The company cracked the whip and now saves $500,000 a year in fuel expenses.
“It’s not sexy, but it’s really innovative,” Mr. Senko says, of the technology Telus provided.
Mr. Frey, who uses both Bell Canada and Rogers, says innovative solutions are fine, but he is not completely sure whether big companies’ small business pitches got through to him.
“I think I went through their small business people, but I have no idea,” Mr. Frey said. “I just call around until I get the best price.”