Heather Gamble, left, and Eva Gooderham, owners of SalesFuel, adapted their business to meet the demands of a potential client, Shaw Communications. (PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
When Heather Gamble and Eva Gooderham, owners of Toronto-based SalesFuel Inc., heard what potential client Shaw Communications Inc. was proposing, their reaction was sheer excitement.
“We were ecstatic,” Ms. Gamble recalled of the proposal that could potentially change their business model. “We knew it would be a challenge for us, but we never stopped to think of the possible negative repercussions of it and now we laugh when we think about that.”
The two women, each of whom had about 15 years experience in sales and marketing in the technology sector, launched SalesFuel in 2004, aiming at a specific business-to-business sales niche. When a tech or telecom company launches a new service, SalesFuel studies that service, determines what type of customers it would best serve, approaches potential customers to get them interested and then hands over the prospects to SalesFuel's client, who takes over the sale from there.
The co-founders had become pretty good at their work, with year-over-year revenue growth of about 60 per cent since SalesFuel launched. But Calgary-based Shaw, which wanted help increasing sales of its business phone and Internet services, was asking for something a little different.
“They'd heard good things about us,” Ms. Gamble said, “and they came to us and said, ‘We need you to extend your services to not just identify prospects, but to have that sales discussion and close the business for us.'”
The two partners had thought of this before, but hadn't had the opportunity to try it. “Clients are a very strong enabler and their request can help diversify and grow your business,” Ms. Gamble said. “And if one client has this need, there are probably many others who do as well.”
They were confident other clients were in the same boat as Shaw, which made its proposal last November, as the economic downturn began its ravages. “We knew [the clients'] sales people were in pain because they were losing resources and budget,” Ms. Gamble said.
And their clients weren't the only ones suffering from the bad economy: SalesFuel was feeling it, too. “Most of our clients delayed payment for at least 90 days, and we didn't know that would happen,” Ms. Gamble said. A handful of clients went under, not paying their outstanding accounts at all. SalesFuel began to feel cash-strapped.
So when Shaw's proposal came carrying the caveat that it would not pay a cent until SalesFuel met Shaw's sales targets at the end of a three-month period, the partners knew the risk was high.
“Our cash flow was extremely tight,” Ms. Gamble said. “If we didn't succeed, we could have potentially lost our business and our credibility.” But the payoff could be equally dramatic: “Shaw said that if we delivered, they would expand our services into more regions.”
And even Shaw was a bit skeptical of its own proposal. The company wanted SalesFuel to sell services in the Edmonton region from Toronto, but “they weren't sure how successful we'd be as a ‘416' calling a ‘403' number,” Ms. Gooderham said, referring to the area codes.
Despite the risks, SalesFuel spent $70,000 of its own money (forcing Ms. Gamble and Ms. Gooderham to forego their pay for three months) to hire 10 employees immediately, and buy more desks and computers. SalesFuel also had to deliver on other projects it had on the go, while staff immersed themselves in Shaw's products – intimately enough that they could persuade potential customers to buy them. “We had to learn to work with Shaw processes, we had to master all the paper work,” Ms. Gamble said.
SalesFuel staff also had to learn about providing customer service, because the company would be the contact point for Shaw customers during installation of new services. “They would be calling us – not Shaw. We would then speak to someone at Shaw and resolve it for them,” Ms. Gamble said.
The work began at the end of November, and at the halfway mark in January, the two partners met with Shaw. “They said if we continued at this pace, they would have us expand into other areas. That was very positive but we still didn't have anything secure,” Ms. Gamble said.
By the end of the three-month period, SalesFuel had overshot the sales targets by 25 per cent – and landed a $1-million, year-long contract with Shaw covering five areas (Edmonton, Vancouver, Vancouver Island, Calgary and Winnipeg).
With Shaw's continued commitment, SalesFuel kept the 10 newly hired staff; the partners are now hiring another 10, and expect to hire 10 more in coming months, tripling their staff.
In January, after hearing about its work for Shaw, a U.S. conference-service company approached SalesFuel with a similar request. “They wanted to break into the Canadian market and they wanted someone to be responsible for the full sales cycle,” Ms. Gamble said. The result was a second million-dollar contract.
In addition to the financial results and higher corporate profile, the co-founders are pleased about the effect on staff morale. “It's always positive when you have this feeling of accomplishment,” Ms. Gamble said. “It makes for a vibrant organization to be part of. That's important for our people.… It's essential we have a high-thriving, high-engaging environment for them.”
On the record
Ms. Gamble joined us live on Friday to discuss her company's breakthrough. Click here to read the discussion.
"I think good business people bend their business model as the economy changes and as they learn things. Very few startups out there are in the exact same business as when they started," says Robert Lalonde, CEO of AnyWare Group. Mr. Lalonde joins us on Wednesday to discuss why businesses must adapt to survive.