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'Geek at heart' on track to double revenue

MyPlanet Internet Solutions Ltd. founder and director Jason Cottrell.

Corina Clarin

There's yoga meditation at the office and craft beer on Fridays, but that doesn't mean Myplanet Internet Solutions Ltd. – better known as Myplanet Digital – isn't serious business.

Founder and director Jason Cottrell, 26, says his team has fun, but it knows when to put its collective head down and get to work. The privately held design and technology company is on track to double last year's annual revenue of just under $5-million.

Although Mr. Cottrell has been designing websites from his parents' basement since 2000, he never studied computer science.

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After completing an undergraduate degree in biomedical science, he enrolled in a three-year business administration program at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, where he started Myplanet in his last year. He refers to the company as being "pretty small" until after graduation in 2009, when he "really started ramping things up."

From an original team of five – all of whom are still on board – MyPlanet now has 55 employees with plans to be 100 strong by the end of this year. Based in Toronto, it also has a Chicago branch office. The company's clients include The Royal Conservatory of Music, Warner Music, the Town of Uxbridge, StockNetwork, and Carnegie Hall.

Q: What does Myplanet Digital do?

A: We're a digital strategy company that uses open platforms to create a meaningful user experience with interactive technology. In terms of the web platforms that most people might interact with – a government agency, a university or an enterprise – we mix our platform expertise with our expertise in delighting the end user to make the client look good.

Q: Why business over science?

A: I'm a geek at heart but more than anything else, I'm a builder. I enjoy the creation and process of building the team. When I started off, I did a lot of the building myself, but I really like the role I have now.

Q: What's that, exactly?

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A: I'm the director so it's the equivalent of the CEO or president. Our leadership team has directors for each functional area, so we have directors for operations, creative, technical, business development and administration. My specialty is trying to keep all those pieces moving together and setting the general direction for the company, making sure we're executing on our key initiatives and building our team.

Q: How did you build the company so quickly after graduating?

A: At first, I got a full-time job with a consulting company and thought I'd just do my own thing on the side. But we ended up getting a contract to do some work for a prominent consumer package group company so it reignited my interest.

Within that first year of graduating in 2009, we had grown the team to five people. I count them as the founding team at Myplanet so I refer to them as the co-founders. We got lucky in that this was a group that acted as if they were owners of the business and took responsibility for their different areas of specialty. Not only that, they've been able to grow with the business and continue to lead. I couldn't have grown the business to where we are without them. On the equity side, I've tried to provide options for them as well so they can be owners and not just act like owners.

Q: Who owns Myplanet Digital?

A: I sold part of the business, about 20 per cent of the company, to two of the co-founders about a year-and-a-half ago. They have about 20 per cent of the shares and I hold around 80 per cent of the company, so I remain the majority shareholder, with two minority partners.

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Q: Did you get investors?

A: No. We've been self-funded from the start and have been able to grow. It isn't always easy but it was the right choice for us. We have to watch what we do very carefully. We have a regular bank operating line and have also had financing through the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) because they offer financing beyond what a chartered bank will lend. For a growing company like us, that can make all the difference.

Q: What makes your company better at what it does than other companies?

A: A lot of companies when they start off have more of a technology bent or a design bent, and you tend to see that reflected in the venue. User experience has really had its opus in the past couple of years, and I think that we were able to capitalize on that. Design and technology had an equal focus for us right from the beginning. We had a strong technical director and a strong creative director who could lead those efforts and keep them balanced as we grew.

Part of our success was timing – having the right skills at the right time. If we didn't have that initial group and grow with that initial group, then we wouldn't be where we are. They're relatively young, but I can't think of who I would hire to replace them.

Q: Did you have a vision for the company from the start?

A: In 2009 and 2010, we were just pursuing the opportunities that were in front of us. When you're a team of five people in a relatively small room, it's pretty quick for you to pivot and pursue an opportunity. It started off with some custom application development, and then growing the sizes of the projects we worked on.

The pivot we did last year was really focusing on two open platforms – our content management system Drupal (a leading platform for content management and social publishing) and e-commerce platform Magento – and then tying that in with a strong focus on user experience. A year-and-a-half ago was where we really recognized that 'this will be big and we can be a top five player in this in North America.' That was the first time I'd say we set a true vision.

I'm lucky in that, while at Ivey, I worked with almost 20 startups in a variety of different business. Not only had I started a few businesses myself, but I was doing the web work for others. Sometimes I actually built an online product and sometimes just a website to support their operations. I was able to see the common trends of what worked and what didn't. What I saw was that the things they started off with, and what they thought would make money and appeal to customers, generally wasn't the best thing in the end. In our case, we started off doing custom programming but what we really found was that expertise in a certain area would actually be our huge growth market. We recognized that and tried to narrow down to that as soon as possible and run with it. So being open to changing who you are, especially in those early stages, and having the ability to pivot around, is really important.

Q: What's the biggest challenge with rapid growth in such a short time when you're so young?

A: There's all the standard things that you have to try to bring into place. You grow to a certain size and now you need marketing and a business development team to keep up with that. You grow a bit more and now you need a finance and recruiting process. A lot of it from my perspective is around capabilities building. Also, it's a challenge to keep upping the bar on ourselves as we grow larger. I'd say the biggest challenge has been making sure that we can continue building the right team.

Q: What's your leadership style?

A: I like to create autonomous teams so we give a lot of responsibility to our teams and team leads. I like to be involved in discussions. If I've asked someone to be responsible for something and I see them making only good decisions, I'll generally defer to their decision-making. I think that gives a lot of satisfaction and empowerment to the team. On my end, it allows us to grow faster because, wherever possible, I'm trying to remove myself as a bottleneck and let somebody else take on a different role.

Q: What's important to you in recruiting?

A: The question we ask is, 'Would I be excited to work with this person?' If it's not the right fit, we'll keep trying to find somebody to fill that position. I'd like to have 10 more people on the team in given roles right now to make life easier, but I know the short-term benefit could hold us back from our potential in the long term.

Q: What's next?

A: We're still adapting who we want to be and how we do things as we grow. Even the idea of having policies or written guidelines on, say, how vacation time might work, is a new thing, but we really didn't like the notion of someone sitting in a room and dictating what it would be. Those things will generally be drafted by someone who's an expert in the area, but so that the teams have input on the environment in which they work.

We'll continue to improve our product. Right now, we work with content management and e-commerce, but we can still apply the same skills to other open-source platforms and add on complementary ones that fit with what our clients need. We're constantly having discussions about where the market might go next and how we can position ourselves for two or three years out.

Q: What else do you have in your life?

A: This whole entrepreneur thing can take a lot of time. I used to be quite the workaholic, but exercise and meditation have helped give me balance. I've started to understand that I can take time off and enjoy travel and spending time with my family. Doing things I enjoy helps clear my mind so I can make better and more creative decisions at work.

Q: What's your advice to young entrepreneurs still working in their parents' basements?

A: Pick up a copy of The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. Set your initial vision, work hard toward that, but keep your eyes and ears open for other things in your journey that may have greater potential. Make sure you're ready to jump on that and pursue it when it arrives.

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