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Report on Business ‘Not reinventing the wheel:’ Toronto’s Vena finds a niche souping up Excel

Don Mal, co-founder and CEO of Vena Solutions.

Christopher Katsarov/Globe and Mail

Don Mal was set to return to his first love – playing in a rock 'n’ roll band – when he retired from his thriving software firm Vena Solutions Inc. That was in May. Now he’s back for an unexpected encore as CEO of the Toronto company he co-founded in 2011.

“I’m really cranked about being back,” Mr. Mal said in an interview. “I feel more excited about running the business than I did before.”

The reason for his optimism: The market where Mr. Mal’s seven-year-old company plays – providing cloud-based budgeting, forecasting, planning, reporting and analytics software for corporate finance departments – has yielded two big hits this year.

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Just weeks after Vena announced Mr. Mal’s departure, Vena’s larger competitor, Silicon Valley-based Adaptive Insights Inc. filed to go public. Within days, software giant Workday Inc. snapped up Adaptive for US$1.55-billion. Then in October, another Vena rival, San Francisco-based Anaplan Inc., saw its stock soar on the day it went public. It closed Friday 65 per cent above its US$17 IPO price. Market observers believe the sector for what are referred to as cloud “corporate performance management” software is still in its infancy and could generate well more than $10-billion in total sales by early next decade.

“When we do our analysis, we are on the exact same trajectory,” said Mr. Mal, whose company expects its revenue to increase by more than 50 per cent from 2017 levels to $30-million-plus in 2018 and recently recruited former senior Adaptive executive Neil Thomas as chief revenue officer. “We’re sitting on the next great story in our industry.”

Now, Mr. Mal said Vena, with 250 employees and 500 customers (typically “mid-market” organizations ranging in size from $20-million to $2-billion in revenue including White Castle, Maritime Travel and the University of British Columbia), is looking to raise “considerably more” than the $30-million it secured in a 2016 venture financing led by U.S. private equity firm Centana Growth Partners.

“We have talked to a number of private equity firms and investors and they told us they believe there’s tons of room in this market for other companies like Vena to be successful,” Vena chairman David Wilson said.

Vena started life as an idea scratched out on a napkin in a Starbucks. Mr. Mal, who was born in India and grew up on Prince Edward Island, played for years in a Police cover band that never hit it big. He needed a day job and discovered he had a knack for software sales, eventually leading North American sales for Toronto-based financial governance software provider Clarity Systems before its 2010 sale to IBM.

Shortly thereafter he and two IBM engineers, Rishi Grover and George Papayiannis, hatched their idea. Countless companies were trying to disrupt the spreadsheet market dominated by Excel. There were many complaints about the legacy Microsoft product; users couldn’t collaborate easily on the same document and it lacked analytical capabilities and security features. In many organizations, hundreds of spreadsheets moved back and forth between users, a complex, laborious effort prone to human error.

Newer players offered cloud-based alternatives that enabled users to collaborate on central documents, reducing complexity and prompting several CFOs to push their finance teams to cut their use of Excel.

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Mr. Mal and his colleagues took a different approach. Rather than disrupt Excel, they figured most corporate finance groups were reasonably content and familiar with Excel, they just wanted it to be better. So they decided to start Vena (Mr. Grover is chief solutions architect while Mr. Papayiannis is chief technology officer) and build a tool to effectively soup up the Microsoft program. Vena customers continue working in the familiar legacy Excel platform, but get similar cloud capabilities to those offered by rivals, which cuts the learning curve for users, said Seth Lippincott, principal analyst with Boston-based Nucleus Research.

“Not reinventing the wheel. … I see as a winning strategy,” Mr. Lippincott said. “People have built careers around being proficient with Excel. [Vena’s software] is a powerful tool that has served organizations in lower and mid-market for a long time. If you mix that with benefits in a [modern] solution, there is a lot of benefit for an organization.”

Vena became one of Canada’s fastest-growing companies, according to Deloitte’s Fast 50 report, and in 2017 recruited veteran tech executive Shawn Cadeau as chief operating officer and moved into a renovated 19th-century bread factory in Toronto’s hip Liberty Village neighbourhood.

But that year Mr. Mal also got a health scare when a routine checkup revealed he had a congested artery. He got a stent, entered rehabilitation, and decided that, at age 55, he wanted to focus on his family and personal pursuits – including getting more serious about rock 'n' roll. The company announced last May that Mr. Cadeau would succeed Mr. Mal.

That plan was short-lived. Mr. Cadeau abruptly left in mid-October for reasons neither he nor the company will disclose other than to say they were not performance-related. With Mr. Cadeau’s unexpected exit and investment activity heating up in the sector, Mr. Mal agreed to return. “I’m actually happy to be back and business is booming,” he said.

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