It’s not unusual to find a startup in stealth mode in the lead-up to launch.
It’s somewhat less common to find an off-and-running startup whose product is stealth itself.
How do you sell something whose chief value proposition is that you don’t even know it’s there?
That’s the challenge – and the opportunity – facing Jason Cassidy and his team at Shinydocs, a seven-person software operation tucked upstairs in a nondescript grey building, beside the railway tracks, in central Kitchener.
Their most promising product, Shinydrive, overcomes a big, boring and expensive problem: the reluctance of office workers to store and share documents on company systems, and their risky reliance on local desktops and cloud solutions like Dropbox for these functions.
Shinydrive promises to dramatically boost employees’ use of company enterprise content management (ECM) systems, by essentially hiding those systems behind a simple, shared drive with a familiar interface.
“It’s doing all the permissions, categories and attributes, records management; it’s doing all your compliance in real time while you’re interacting with it, but as an end user, you don’t have a clue,” Cassidy told me this week at Shinydocs’ office on Ahrens Street. “There’s no such thing as figuring out our system; either you’ve used Windows or your Mac before or you haven’t, and if you have, then you know how to use our system.”
For companies, it can mean the difference between 20 per cent (and sometimes far lower) employee uptake of elaborate ECM systems, and 100 per cent adoption with zero training required.
That sounds like a bold claim until Cassidy tells you about the first major Shinydrive deal the company recently closed with the City of Derby in England – a major customer of Waterloo-based OpenText's ECM software.
“They already had OpenText in place, and it was underdeployed and underutilized,” Cassidy said, “and they identified our technology as a way to actually get their investment in OpenText deployed, and actually fulfill their obligations for records management.”
The value Shinydrive was able to unlock from OpenText's deployment in Derby – a metropolitan area roughly the size of Calgary that employs 8,000 municipal workers – was not lost on OpenText.
Cassidy and his team hope it’s the first of many successes for Shinydrive, upon which they aim to build channel-partner relationships with OpenText and other ECM providers, such as Microsoft SharePoint, IBM FileNet and EMC Documentum.
With just seven members, the Shinydocs bench is short, but its strength and experience run deep.
Cassidy was working for OpenText as a senior systems architect in 2000 when the company launched a spinoff venture, b2bScene Inc., a hosted commerce marketplace for businesses.
When the dot-com bubble burst, OpenText brought b2bScene back in house, and Cassidy ended up leaving the company in 2004. He founded his own company, Enterprise File System Inc., that same year.
Around that time, the Waterloo-based Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), founded by then-RIM co-CEO Jim Balsillie, was ramping up operations. Cassidy sent CIGI an unsolicited 12-page proposal to build it an online international governance portal, and it was accepted.
“So we came in and we built out their International Governance Leaders and Organizations Online portal, called IGLOO,” he said.
At CIGI, Cassidy reconnected with OpenText alum David Yoon, and met Khalid Merhi, an application developer, and Darcy Manderson, the think-tank’s IT manager.
When CIGI spun IGLOO out as a for-profit software company in 2008, Merhi went with it, while Yoon and Manderson stayed with CIGI. Cassidy resumed consulting for other companies, including Agfa HealthCare, and ultimately, OpenText.
“I had some money in the bank after IGLOO went and did its thing, and we had some opportunity and time, so I went and wrote this BlackBerry application that allowed you to connect to the OpenText content server and Exchange and a number of other content systems, like SharePoint,” Cassidy said. “It was a cool thing.”
OpenText’s positive response to the app kicked off a long string of consulting gigs that kept Cassidy busy helping to develop some of the company’s flagship products. He ended up pulling Yoon, Merhi and Manderson into his company as a result.
For about a year leading up to early 2013, Cassidy’s team was given a sprawling space on the fourth floor of OpenText’s then-new headquarters in Waterloo, where it ran “a full-on skunk-works” operation for Eugene Roman, the software giant’s then-Chief Technology Officer (Roman now holds the same title at Canadian Tire).
When their time was up, they moved into the basement of Cassidy’s home for six weeks, until they landed in their current location on Ahrens Street. A year ago, Shinydocs added another veteran to its team when it brought in Paul Kleinknecht to head up sales and business development.
Prior to brief stints at Axonify and Desire2Learn, Kleinknecht spent seven years with BlackBerry (then RIM), the last three as Director of Sales for the Caribbean and Latin America.
Asked to explain a career path that has taken him to progressively smaller companies, in direct opposition to the conventional route, Kleinknecht cited several factors.
“Certainly the intimacy is phenomenal,” he said. “The candidness and just the sheer excitement of seeing progress is difficult to find in a larger organization.”
Big companies also tend to measure success in defined increments, “versus here, where we have the ability to, relatively speaking, explode.”
It’s an explosion that could very well fly under the radar of the popular tech press, which, perhaps understandably, gravitates toward easy-to-grasp stories about consumer-facing companies.
“We’re probably the most exciting solution in a boring industry,” Kleinknecht said. “No disrespect to the industry; it’s not going away. But it is document management.”
With an already-profitable, debt-free, bootstrapped operation to run, Cassidy seems fine with that. After all, B2B companies that solve hard, if boring, problems are a mainstay of the Waterloo Region tech ecosystem.
“I think it’s just the simple fact that we only have so much money to grind with here in Canada, so if you’re going to chase something, you need to chase something that an oil company can use, or chase something that a pharmaceutical company can use, because that’s where the money is,” he said.
“These consumer apps, you just can’t bootstrap them, because a lot of them never see revenue. You can’t pay for something with nothing.”
By contrast, the Shinydocs team stands poised to make a tidy income from a product whose value hinges on users barely knowing it’s there.
“They don’t even have to be aware,” Yoon said. “It’s completely there, invisible and transparent, and they’re actually just using it.”
Photo: (Left to right) David Yoon, Jason Cassidy (seated) and Paul Kleinknecht at the Shinydocs office in Kitchener
Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo looks at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.