Faiz Abdulla felt he had discovered a winning business formula. His startup company, Vancouver-based PaySavvy Canada Inc., uses cloud-based leading-edge technology to offer online payroll services and staff scheduling that can work for up to tens of thousands of employees within an organization. PaySavvy's paperless systems are environmentally friendly, and Mr. Abdulla believes they are much faster and more efficient than some competitors, which are still using 30-year-old technology.
Since launching a year ago, however, PaySavvy faced challenges in attracting larger clients; those signing on were small startups, with fewer than 30 employees. Since the company charges based on the number of company employees, its revenue is driven by the size of its client companies.
Mr. Abdulla began to suspect that his company's relaxed, image was driving away bigger potential clients, such as government agencies or insurance companies. He and his colleagues typically wore jeans to client presentations, which were held as informal affairs at PaySavvy's offices in Vancouver's trendy Gastown district.
"These potential clients didn't tell us outright that they disliked our brand or how it was projected," says Mr. Abdullah, the company's chief executive officer.
"But while they were very impressed by our innovative online systems, it became apparent that they questioned our credibility. Some even said they wanted to see something more serious from our presentations."
If PaySavvy was going to be able to attract larger clients, Mr. Abdulla needed to pinpoint exactly what was wrong with the company's branding – and find a way to fix it.
Having been an entrepreneur for 25 years, Mr. Abdulla previously ran fast-food franchises and led residential and commercial property development In 2009, he decided to go back to school to pursue his goal to move into a business-to-business professional-service role. While studying for his certified management accountant (CMA) designation, he researched the payroll industry and spotted a gap in the market.
"I felt there was a huge opportunity for someone with current technology skills to streamline the existing old-fashioned payroll process and fully convert it online," he says. "With PaySavvy, payroll managers can process pay on their iPad or iPhone, from anywhere in the world."
Mr. Abdulla founded PaySavvy a year ago with his two sons, Wisam, a business school graduate, and Tim, a software engineer; they are now chief operating officer and chief technology officer, respectively.
Although based in Vancouver, they process payrolls nationally and have been vetted by the Canada Revenue Agency as an approved provider.
Clients subscribe to use PaySavvy's software. Mr. Abdulla, his sons and eight employees offer support, managing the implementation and training of the online system and tools.
Their aim is to provide the best service available in the payroll market. Though they had harnessed the power of new technology to launch PaySavvy, it seemed their brand needed a makeover to earn the trust and business of large corporations.
Mr. Abdulla and his sons felt that the best way to find out how to improve their brand was to gain insights on payroll systems from focus groups of people in their target demographic: CEOs, CFOs and HR managers of large corporations.
In March, they approached the Certified Management Accountants' executive program in Vancouver and identified a class, consisting of students holding senior HR or finance roles in their day jobs, as an idea focus group.
Mr. Abdulla surveyed the CMA class, first on PaySavvy's main competitors, asking the executive students for opinions about the competitors' image, branding and website. Then he questioned them about PaySavvy, its website's brightly coloured design and slick copywriting. He also gave them a mock client presentation and pitched PaySavvy in his customary laidback, conversational tone while dressed in his usual casual outfit.
The class was unanimous in its feedback, says Mr. Abdulla. They liked PaySavvy's use of cloud-based technology, and approved of the functionality, powerful reporting tools and flexibility of the software that allowed managers to access and approve payroll from anywhere globally.
But they also said they wanted to see "a more serious, corporate and reliable company image that would reassure them about financial security and the privacy of payees," Mr. Abdulla says.
With these results, as well as similar feedback from existing clients and business associates, Mr. Abdulla and his sons decided it was time to revamp PaySavvy's image and branding.
"We redesigned our website to a more formal navy-blue and green colour scheme with content that was more corporate in language," he said. It is due to launch at the end of September.
They also revised their client presentations, adopting a more serious tone and losing the jokes.
Last, they upgraded their wardrobes – gone are jeans and in their place are smart suits to match the attire of the clients Mr. Abdulla and his sons encounter during presentations: directors of finance, HR managers and CEOs.
"We achieved amazing results right after our rebranding in April," says Mr. Abdulla.
"Thanks to our new, more formal presentations, as well as our corporate dress code, we signed up two well-known Vancouver law firms and the largest insurance broker in B.C., with over 500 employees, and a retail chain operating in 16 locations."
Attracting larger clients has had a significant effect on PaySavvy's revenue. The company was processing about $3-million of payroll in the first quarter of this year. That figure is now up to $47-million, and is on track to double by the end of the year, Mr. Abdulla says.
"The lessons I learned from this are that if you face a challenge, just go out and talk to people – ideally your target market. That's how we found the answers," says Mr. Abdulla.
PaySavvy hopes to continue to attract larger clients, and to expand its business further by opening an office in Toronto next year.
"Our goal is to double our business every year for the next five years," Mr. Abdulla says.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Jeff Kroeker is a lecturer in the accounting division at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia.
This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on theReport on Small Businesswebsite.
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