Paul Vallée has spent his career championing remote working as a way to bring economic opportunity to remote communities and hard-hit resource towns. Interest in the topic has skyrocketed the past few weeks – for reasons the veteran technology entrepreneur hadn’t imagined.
As companies try to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, firms that provide technology to facilitate working from home are experiencing a surge in demand. That’s put executives such as Mr. Vallée in an awkward position – they’re concerned about the spread of the virus, but pleased by the new business.
Mr. Vallée’s Ottawa-based startup Tehama Inc. sells cloud-based software that allows employees to remotely and securely access sensitive company data on their laptops. Tehama got 142 customer inquiries in the first eight days of March, up from four in the same period in February. Revenues this quarter will likely be 20 per cent higher than the past three months.
In Toronto, Claudio Erba, the chief executive of Canadian-Italian employee-training software firm Docebo Inc., said inbound requests spiked 36 per cent last Friday, compared with two days earlier. Fridays are usually the slowest day of the week.
“While we are cautious about the current coronavirus environment ... it is also bringing more opportunities for us,” Mr. Erba said to analysts Thursday on an earnings conference call.
Tehama and Docebo are among many Canadian tech firms that stand to benefit from the impact of an opportunity nobody wanted. “It is a little odd,” Mr. Vallée said in an interview. “I’m as worried as anyone … [but] the reality is, I have mixed feelings. I don’t feel any sense of crass commercialism about it, but I do want to get the word out.”
Executives are trying to strike the right tone by showing concern, empathy and good corporate citizenship, while eyeing prosperity that could come from virus-containment efforts.
Ottawa-based Mitel Networks Corp., which makes corporate telephony and video-conference products, has seen a 20-per-cent jump in inbound calls in recent weeks, said Mona Abou-Sayed, vice-president of collaboration and applications.
Ms. Abou-Sayed says she sees this “as more of a short-term scare, as everyone scrambles to try to figure out what [technology is] out there." But it could be "an interesting inflection point in our business of seeing more people embrace remote working,” she added.
Mike Silagadze, CEO of Toronto-based digital textbook provider Tophatmonocle Corp., said he sees this as "an opportunity to reach customers.” He’s offering free access to the company’s online platform until the end of the semester for new and existing customers at 800 universities.
“We are treating this as a way to add value, and potentially show our customer we can be a partner” as schools send students home, Mr. Silagadze said.
Waterloo’s Axonify Inc., which provides software used by large companies to remotely train workers, has received 30 customer requests for content about COVID-19. It is providing a free package “to help these organizations rapidly educate their work force” on preventive habits, such a handwashing, social distancing and avoiding face touching, CEO Carol Leaman said.
“[Their] front-line employees don’t have the luxury to work from home," she said. "They are customer-facing and at a higher risk as a result.”
Other businesses are pitching their offerings as solutions to virus-related social challenges. Qase Inc., a Vancouver cloud software startup that connects lawyers and clients online, this week said Oakland’s Alameda County Bar Association would use its platform to hold free online legal clinics with low-income residents instead of meeting in person.
“We now have the technology to ensure communities continue to get the help they need without compromising their health and safety," Qase CEO Dan Zollman said in a news release.
Meanwhile, Toronto-based Ritual Technologies, whose online service lets people order and prepay for takeout food, e-mailed users Wednesday, saying it offers “the smarter choice to get your lunch during the COVID-19 situation” because customers don’t have to wait in lines, dine in food courts or handle “cash that’s been who knows where. ... You don’t even have to interact with another human unless you want to.”
The tongue-in-cheek tone fell flat. The company quickly sent a follow-up message stating, “It was not our intent to make light of a serious situation, but rather offer some reassurance on ways people can keep supporting local restaurants during this time of uncertainty.”