Winning any of the Sarnia Lambton Chamber of Commerce Outstanding Business Achievement Awards categories is no small feat but being the first to take home a new award—Tech-Novation—is particularly special in the mind of Mat Berube, co-founder of LEADWAVE Technologies.
A co-winner (along with the City of Sarnia) of the inaugural award, Berube has called Sarnia home since he moved here as a nine-year-old from a small town 20 minutes from Kapuskasing, Ont.
Even before arriving here, Berube recalls an early love of computers, so much so that he had asked his parents at the age of six or seven if they would get him a Commodore 64, one of the earliest “home computers” that at least some of our readers will remember.
If not, ask your parents.
What the young Berube got instead was a television set, the result of a teacher telling his parents that he would get bored with a computer.
Clearly, that was wrong.
Berube finally did get his own personal computer when he was around 12, going to work in teaching himself BASIC programming, which was the start of a path that he remains on today.
He attended Saint-François-Xavier, Sarnia’s French language high school.
And beyond that?
As is the case with at least a few technology focused talents in the world (think Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg as notable examples), Berube really didn’t see the need for further formal education.
Having already taught himself the tools needed to keep advancing down the road, Berube sees himself as the type of learner who is very much hands on.
“I didn’t feel where I was at the time that I needed anything else,” he says today. “I’m not putting down school at all; it’s just I think it’s not for everyone.”
What Berube did do was build a career as a networking professional, adding some web design and building PCs (when that was something people actually did).
He’d build software applications for the Windows world, taking on jobs with larger companies, designing and selling software, all working either as a sole proprietor or with various IT firms.
At one of those jobs, Berube met Aaron Weir, which became one of the steps in a natural progression that became LEADWAVE Technologies.
That was 2006 and “back then” Berube notes there weren’t a lot of companies that were focused on the small business market, which was what LEADWAVE was eyeing as its target.
“We were looking at companies that would be typically looking at suppliers outside Sarnia for what they needed,” he said. “They figured no one here would have the expertise for what they needed.”
They figured wrong.
Within a couple of years, LEADWAVE had grown to the point where it was ready to take its first leap into the kind of business it is today, acquiring the server and desktop support part of an established business.
What Berube and Weir left behind was the web design business “that we wanted nothing to do with.”
That comment triggered a follow up question which was “how come?”
Berube has no hesitation in explaining.
“There’s a lot of managed services providers out there that will try to do everything,” he says. “They’ll do web design, software, accounting package integration. Everything. That’s not what we do. We focus on what we believe we’re the strongest at doing and stick with that.”
We’ve just heard the term “managed services” but it wasn’t always that way for LEADWAVE.
Indeed, it was early on when the LEADWAVE founders saw they had just had one of their strongest months from a revenue perspective. And then they quickly realized that the only reason for that surge was that their clients were suffering during that same period.
What LEADWAVE had been founded on was a so-called “break-fix” model of IT support, with a fee structure that counts on problems occurring if the computer services company is to make a profit.
“We both realized that that was not the way to deliver a good customer experience,” says Berube. “We survive on our customers and if the only time they see us is when something goes wrong on the system, it’s not a good alignment of values.”
So LEADWAVE changed direction, gradually (depending on the definition of that word) moving its client base away from the “break-fix” model to the flat monthly fee that is known as managed services.
And what about push back from clients who had become accustomed to the “old way” of doing business?
Berube admits that at first there was some of that, but he makes a powerful argument that the flat fee way of doing business is ultimately one that is in the best interests of both the client and the company.
“We used to do a la carte,” notes Berube. “But under the managed services way of doing things, now if our clients’ systems weren’t operating at full potential, if we didn’t do our job properly, it would cost us. So it’s in our best interest to ensure that the systems run well all the time.”
That “alignment” of interests began to produce the kind of results that Berube and his team have come to appreciate.
But it’s also become a way of making sure the value equation behind IT services remains balanced.
“What we’re saying is that we’re not for everyone,” Berube adds. “Our clients are companies that have between 10 and 200 people and we don’t play outside that field.”
What Berube is confident of is that the systems LEADWAVE install and maintain create the best value for their clients.
Much of that has come with a “tweaking” of the original managed services model that had given clients the option of choosing among what LEADWAVE would deliver.
That resulted in a fundamental flaw that LEADWAVE realized they needed to correct.
“If we’re saying to you that this is the ideal solution, for example, a firewall that will protect your systems from malware, we’re lying to you if we say it’s okay for you to use your own solution,” said Berube. “In all likelihood, the decision is being made on the basis of cost, but not the most value for our client base.”
With what’s now in place, every client gets a standardized offering, one that has the added benefit of having every one of the 13 people working at LEADWAVE are trained on standardized systems.
“In this model, you’re basically giving me the keys to your IT,” adds Berube. “I’m both responsible and accountable but what that also means is that we’re not going to allow someone to put in place an inferior anti-virus system that will infect the entire system.”
Again, the limited amount of pushback on the new model had the effect of “sorting” LEADWAVE clients.
“We’ve had to say to some that we can’t work with you anymore and you’re better served by one of the other IT companies in town,” Berube added.
Today, LEADWAVE, even in the wake of having won the Chamber Tech-Novation award (shared with the City of Sarnia), continues to innovate on how it delivers services.
“We’re always trying to be ahead of the game,” said Berube. “Part of that is attending IT conferences but it’s also about maintaining the services that we provide.”
And looking ahead?
Berube acknowledges that the industry, already moving at breakneck speed, is poised to change even more with services migrating to the Cloud (although he’s personally not a fan of that word).
“It’s about changing our business in ways that will develop new says of providing value,” he adds. “If we’re not maintaining equipment, where else can we add value. That’s more of a business analyst role and less technician work.”
Even so, Berube doesn’t see his “sweet spot” changing (the 10 to 200 employee target for his client base).
“We’ve always just grown based on our own path, not on what others are doing to grow their business. They have their own success and their own reasons for what we do. Our case is to focus on a service delivery model that works, adding our personal touch and our customer experience along the way.”
In telling that story, Berube makes one last point: that it’s the Sarnia business community that has made LEADWAVE so successful.
“Our clients are Chamber members and our addressable market is in the Chamber. We’ve been members of the Chamber since day one and it’s great to be recognized and see that we’ve built something that people have come to appreciate.”