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Happy Birthday Brushfire - Part 3

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".

Other Customers

While much of the past five years has been focused on servicing Scotiabank and its various divisions we’ve managed to acquire a few other amazing customers and develop long term relationships with them as well.  We met with a wonderful woman named Adrienne Kovacs PhD, CPsych who is a Psychologist and all around amazing person.  At the time we met; she worked at the University Health Network as a psychologist working with children who had congenital heart disease.  She invented a program called iHeartChange.org which is designed to help children with CHD transition from pediatric care to adult care.  That site and program are still going strong today and it’s grown from only UHN and SickKids to include other hospitals including Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, Alberta Health Services, and Stanford Medicine to name a few.   This is one of my pet projects and makes me feel like I’m contributing to the betterment of some child’s life.

David Chapman’s Ice Cream is another amazing longtime client. For those not in the know they are Canada’s largest independent Ice Cream manufacturer and sell it all over the country.  We built their corporate website at www.chapmans.ca as well as their Kids Club loyalty program at www.kidsclub.ca

We’ve also worked with the Canadian Opera Company for a long time and as of the time of this writing are just putting the final touches on their new website which is slated to launch Fall 2017. 

We landed Cossette in 2014 and helped them build out The Cheerios Effect website which is still going and pretty awesome if I do say so myself.  See it at www.cheerioseffect.com or read our case study on it on this site.   The work with Cossette branched off into work for other General Mills brands such as Pillsbury, Multi-Grain Cheerios and the Cheerios Master brand. 

Later Years

As the years went on Brushfire North started focusing on developing our partnership with Microsoft.  You may or may not know but Microsoft has a very active partner eco-system and competency paths partners can go down.  At the same time, we started looking inward at our team, how they work, what they use, etc. and tried to improve internal processes to make people more accountable, have easier access to work, etc.  So, we started sending our developers into training and testing with Microsoft to up our game and get more benefits.  It’s taken a while but now we have achieved the Gold Competency with Application Development and the Azure Cloud Platform.  This allows us to use MS products and services either free of charge or at deeply discounted rates, and gives us some clout and accreditation to share with our customers.  We also won an IMPACT Award for Digital Marketing Innovation in 2015 based on the work we did for the Cheerios Effect website and I got to shake the hands of some MS bigwigs at a fancy golf club in Orlando. 

2015 Impact Award Winner

The relationship with Microsoft is funnily enough like it is with Scotiabank, and like it will be when any of you reading this have to dance with an elephant.  They have their own tune and they don’t change it for you.  Keep on top of them (vendor or client), have a clear understanding of what your rights are (as a partner or vendor), keep on top of the requirements (training, tests, etc.) and basically manage the entire relationship for BOTH parties.  If you consider every angle as exhausting as it may be, you will not be surprised by anything.  And if you partner with Microsoft NEVER, EVER, EVER enter into an Enterprise Agreement with them.  Unless of course you run an enterprise company (5k employees or more). Even then though please call me first to hear about my experience… 😊

I tried a whole slew of other product offerings trying to diversify our income streams during this time.  I joined that EA agreement with the hopes I could sell a ton of Azure hosting services.  I have done that for many years but the EA program was the completely wrong choice for my company.  They have since created the Cloud Solution Provider (CSP) program and we are in that and it’s a much better fit.   So that worked out, but many others didn’t. 

For example, I tried to sell Office / Microsoft licenses to existing customers.  As a CSP I can get a bit of a discount on things like Office 365 or Dynamics, and I can re-sell that to my customers.  I tried to do that to build recurring revenue through licensing.  I thought it would be low effort and really the management of it is, but it’s a cutthroat business trying to sell office licenses and any customer who has a large enough need (like 100+) already works with a company focused on that.  So, while we’ve sold some of that we were never set up for it, my sales staff never really got trained or measured goals set for that, and it just kind of died off.  Lesson here kids: Do not start another revenue stream until you’ve fully researched it, and set measurable KPI’s to determine success.  And if you hire someone for that stream or work ensure they have a path to success, including measures and structures they can follow.  Mistakes I’ve made…

I also tried reselling a e-learning platform out of the US.  It was innovative and a neat product but again, we just were not set up for it.  We didn’t have the background or abilities to support a sales staff which was really needed and after a few months of trying it ended up just being a huge distraction.   Another lesson: FOCUS ON WHAT YOU ARE GOOD AT! I am good at building relationships and software.  I am somewhere in the middle with selling myself, and I am fucking terrible at selling other people’s ideas.  I would have been better off just building out more websites and asking for references and contacts from existing clients.

Year 7

Fiscal 2016-2017 we got beat up lots, as did a lot of other small Canadian businesses.  Business just was down on a whole, we had a couple of fails, one of which you can read about here.  And we tried to staff up when the market just wasn’t having any of it.  The result was a series of lay-offs and a general terrible feeling all around.  I am sure there are a couple ex-employees who do not think very highly of me but what can you do? It’s lonely at the top and you can’t keep everyone happy all the time.  It was a tough time and it required some tough choices to be made.  It was not our first tough time but just the collapse of so many things at once really took a toll on both Grant and myself.  We were basically skipping every 2nd pay cheque to ensure staff was being paid.  We were cutting people loose on an almost daily basis, and I was a bear to work with.  Not good at all.

Current

So we’re in year eight and a ton has changed.  We are still small, have not staffed up much from the issues in Year 7.  A bit gun shy on that front to be honest.  Grant has left as a partner in Brushfire North.  I can’t blame him.  He’s fucking exhausted, want’s a change and doesn’t want to skip pay cheques! So, I bought him out.  We’re still working together though – just in a different capacity and I truly hope he is happy and doing what he wants to now.   Brushfire North is moving into some new directions.  We’re touching upon Artificial Intelligence services using both Azure Cognitive Services and IBM Watson.  This is very exciting for me personally as I know this area with be one we either grow with or it will replace us.  (I’m serious).  We’re always focused on Azure because in my opinion Microsoft has the best cloud platform out there.  And we are starting to test and build little apps on the Ethereum Blockchain.  I am being very careful about how I approach this, because the space is so new, so complex, and there are so many risks in throwing your hat into something so nascent.  But that’s the exciting part and really what keeps me getting up and heading into work today.  I love technology because it’s always changing, always challenging us, and always opening up new opportunities.  It’s my passion and I am glad I have found it and have the ability to share it with all of you.

Thanks for reading this.  Please email me or reach out to us through our Contact page if you have any questions or ideas for myself or my company.  I am grateful to you all for reading this.