We Are Makers Of The Modern Web
Happy Birthday

Happy Birthday Brushfire - Part 2

By: Mike McKinnon
| Category: Entrepreneurship
Annie Spratt

This is a continuation in the multi-part blog series.  If you have stumbled here and not read Part 1 please start with that! Click here to read “Happy Birthday Brushfire – Part 1".

Positioning the Company

So after about the first year to year and a half we started needing to really think about how to market ourselves.  We positioned our company as a digital extension of the advertising agency and we actively targeted agencies for business because:

  1. we knew lots of people at them and;
  2. they were all shedding their development teams and;
  3. we couldn’t design for shit and knew Agencies could design and provide us tidy layered Photoshop files to play with.

We pitched honest hard work and delivering on-time and on-budget.  We pitched that we already knew the agency model, understood marketing timelines (aka deliver in weeks not months), and we could integrate well with creative teams, account teams, and agency project managers.   They liked what we were selling.  We quickly signed on with Delvinia, which is an amazing Toronto based Agency and is still going strong, and soon after that worked with Dentsu, Monster Media, Think33, Sandbox Communications, Zync, and Saatchi & Saatchi.  We were building a mix of marketing landing pages, contest micro-sites, and flash interactive games and sites.  Work was piling up, we were eating (sort of) and it was time to staff up.

Staffing Up

Employees working in the office

In my extreme naivety, I decided that we would ONLY hire developers! (What a stupid idea in retrospect).  Our first hire was a dude named Nathaniel Kessler, and he was a good front end developer with Flash skills and he could actually design too!  We brought him on and he stayed with us for almost 4 full years.  Nathaniel now works at another Toronto development shop and if you ever meet him know you are working with a true professional and a class act.  I miss Nathaniel and his triceps (they’re some of the best in the biz).  I do not miss his spelling though.  Good guy that Nathaniel.

Trucking along, we hired a core team of some REALLY talented developers and frankly this company would not be what it is today, or even here if it wasn’t for them.  I already mentioned Nathaniel who allowed us to start offering creative services, and who really upped our game especially when it came to the proliferation of mobile devices.  When we started the iPhone wasn’t even available in Canada yet.  So, the dawn of the mobile web was something we were on the cusp of.   Besides Nathaniel we hired Anthony Roberts and Michal Valovcik.  Anthony and Mike were both full stack guys with serious .NET / C# chops and good database skills as well.  Anthony Roberts is now in Silicon Valley living the software engineers dream and Michal is in Toronto working at IBM.  These guys were our foundation and once we brought them into the fold we were rocking and rolling.  We started acquiring clients that were not agencies.  We worked with the always awesome TAB group of companies, Heenan Blaikie (now defunct top Canadian law firm), Butterfield & Robinson, Softchoice and more.  During this time my buddy, Jon Voigt was focused on building a web based CMS he called Agility.  We started work on that and to this day we still build amazing sites delivered on that CMS platform.  We evolved into what were Adaptive mobile sites and then fully client-side responsive sites.  Then we met a guy by the name of Marc Moore who had an agency called M33/Koda Media Group and started working on stuff for the Bank of Montreal.

Time to move

Testing bar at our Brunswick Building officesI’ve always been enamored with that agency vibe.  The brick and beam offices, half-day Friday’s, drinks during work hours, team building, foosball, all that fun stuff.  So when it came time to move from our humble beginnings and look at a new space we looked to the Brunswick Building in Liberty Village.  This is the building where the Academy of Spherical Arts was located for those of you in the know.  And it was a hot spot.  Looked and felt like the Carpet Factory but with a cheaper rate.  It was quite literally my dream spot.  We had over 2000 square feet on the top floor, overlooking the gym we all went to and some bars we all went to.  I felt like we made it! What a space, what a blast! I am a huge soccer fan and had season tickets to Toronto FC.  I would have all my buddies at my office before the games, drinking and having a great time.  Feeling like the king of the world as all my buddies marveled at this amazing office space I created myself.  Ego to the moon! That’s for sure.

I want to share a funny story about how we got this space.  Because it’s a lesson and a half for anyone looking for commercial space in Toronto.   Grant and I were looking all over Liberty Village and we found this spot we loved in the Brunswick building.  We got the lease offer back from the landlord and our agent advised us that we should have a lawyer review this.  At the time, we were closely working with Heenan Blaikie which was one of the top firms in the country.  Me, thinking I’m all cool asked my contact if someone from their firm could review this.  I then flew off to Florida for a family vacation and left the contract negotiations with Grant.  While I am in Florida the lawyers come back with the marked-up document.  Now keep in mind the lease offer was already around 100 pages, and this lawyer marked up almost every page.  They basically said the deal was not at all in our favour and we would be remiss if we didn’t bring these changes up.  Grant and I got on a conference call with the lawyer and went through the doc, learning about each clause and what it meant.  Remember I’m in Florida for this and Grant is in Toronto trying to do both our jobs.   So we review this with the lawyer and send it back to the landlord.  The landlord came back to us and said they would change precisely NOTHING in the lease offer and we could either “Sign it, or not.” And they would be fine with either result.   We signed it, and paid the lawyers more than five thousand dollars for all their hard work. 

Two lessons here:

  • Don’t use high priced lawyers unless you really need to. My lease was given the major league treatment and really it just needed a Minor A treatment
  • Toronto commercial leases are never in the tenants favour and the sooner you realize that the better you will be. Take it and hope they at least get you drunk.  

We paid a lot of money for good work from an expensive law firm and it didn’t make an ounce of difference.  We still got a shit lease and they still kicked us out of the office before the lease expired.  Such is the life of a startup in Liberty Village.

Enter the banks

We started working on a SharePoint implementation of an online employee magazine called BMO / Harris @Work which was their quarterly employee facing publication.  M33 owned the relationship and controlled the design and Brushfire North was tasked with figuring out how to make SharePoint behave and how to build out a site on that did not look like a site on SharePoint.  Meaning it was going to look good for once.  :D

This was a massive job and got us ushered into the banking world.  I had a BMO issued laptop with access to the SharePoint portal, I had a FOB and desk access on-site at an office in mid-town Toronto, and I had NO CLUE how to use SharePoint.  I’ll spare you the late-night details but I finally got this site template done and it was a beauty.  We managed to ride this contract for almost two years producing quarterly publications and basically handling the content entry, tweaking, and front-end development.  I learned so much about how the banks work, and mostly how much I hate SharePoint.  We bent that program until we almost broke it! But alas other than that and a few flash pieces the BMO work dried up for us.  Not without making some great contacts and doing some great stuff though.  Which is all you can really ask for.

I’ve always been a Scotiabank fanboy.   I’ve worked for that bank in a few capacities, I’ve had a “Getting There” account since I was seven.  My mom retired from there as a personal banking officer and to this day I still use them for business and personal banking.    We were put in touch with the director of digital marketing sometime in our 3rd year I believe.  So, Scotiabank is finally at my table, talking about building out a CMS solution that would serve almost 30 countries in the Caribbean and Latin America, this was going to be a centralized hub for campaigns and apps that needed to be created but couldn’t be done internally for whatever number of reasons.  I knew enough about how the bank worked, and I knew enough that I had to say yes to whatever they asked, that this point right here could be the defining moment for Brushfire North.  It was really right place at right time and always saying yes that got us that customer.  They wanted a platform we worked with, they had relationships with partners and vendors we knew, and they wanted to give me money! I almost lost them right at the beginning twice.  Once because I was just dense and stupid (another blog post for another time) and the second time I had to decide – did I want to provide hosting services for them?  Because to get the account I needed to solve ALL their problems. Not just the ones I felt comfortable with.  What should I do?

By this point I had moved from my tiny condo to my first house in Leslieville.  I’ll never forget this- it was sometime around 9pm on a weeknight, I was on the phone with Rackspace trying to figure out how to scope and price out a pair of load balanced servers and a load balancer (which I had never even used before) in a data center in Texas.  All pricing was USD, the guy on the phone was clearly pissed with me because I had no clue what I was talking about and I was nervously doing mental math to ensure what I sent to Scotiabank didn’t end up costing me money! I can see myself on that back porch almost like watching a movie, sitting in the dark with a beer and a cell phone, starting a journey with MY bank, MY people, that I am still on today.  Wow.

That night I set something in motion that would lead me to consult, design, and build hundreds of web applications, campaigns, sites, databases, etc. for Scotiabank International and their associated brands in Latin America.  We built global country sites for Puerto Rico, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Costa Rica, Uruguay, El Salvador.  We did campaigns that ran in 30+ Caribbean countries almost weekly, and we delivered everything on time and on budget.  We helped Scotiabank’s marketing team streamline their business and their operations in-country and built their branch locator for international locations. We even built their front-end templates for the past two global redesign projects.  As of late I’ve consulted and trained their IT teams on migration, scaling and monitoring in the cloud and we even provide developer training for in-country teams.   Honestly Scotiabank has been the one constant in a sea of change for the past five years.  We still continue to do serious work with them all the time and although the faces and contacts have changed, the work is still there and still needs to be done.   And I still thank them for that to this day.

Scotiabank kept us very busy with all kinds of new products, tools, technologies, and sites to build, learn, and work with.   

I’ll finish this off with Part Three which will be up soon! Stay tuned kiddies and as always if you want to talk to me for any reason use our handy contact form by clicking here.