Mississippi

For the tech entrepreneurs who have clustered in downtown Toronto’s office district in recent years, Jackson, Mississippi—a smallish southern city of 180,000 people—may not be high on a wish list of potentially lucrative export markets.

Think again. As it happens, Jackson is home base to C Spire, a 26-year-old telecommunications powerhouse that has grown into the largest privately held mobile service provider in the U.S. Jackson is also the place where bnotions, a growth-oriented Toronto software developer, scored its first really crucial export client, with a customer loyalty mobile app that quickly delivered the goods.

How does a mobile carrier in the U.S. deep-south hook up with a Toronto software outfit? Paul Crowe, bnotions’ managing partner, offers up an instructive parable about savvy self-promotion—“thought leadership,” in his words—and the importance of not ignoring sub-regional markets in the U.S.

Take the latter first. From a distance, a Canadian SME may avoid places like Jackson because they’re small communities with the sort of insular business networks that tend to characterize such cities.

Crowe, however, points out that C Spire had no reservations about retaining a Canadian firm, and the reason, once articulated, seems obvious. The company’s senior executives were well accustomed to going beyond Jackson to source a range of corporate services that simply didn’t exist in their home city. Its ad agency is in New York, and the company has media partners in Minnesota. “They’re used to working with partners that weren’t local,” observes Crowe. “Canada wasn’t a problem.”

So in the crowded and hyper-competitive app development market, how did bnotions’ name come to the attention of C Spire’s marketing managers?

Word of mouth, says Crowe. “Someone in C Spire knew someone who knew us.” Yet this story isn’t just about six degrees of separation.

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bnotions was founded seven years ago as a small software firm specializing in building Flash applications for consumer brands looking for interesting ways to market themselves online. But the 2008 launch of the iphone, and Steve Jobs’ public flogging of the Flash technology, killed that market, and forced bnotion to look for new markets. “That was a turning point for the company,” says Crowe.

The firm began to build mobile iOS and Android apps, and developed the technical capacity to compete in that space. But bnotions officials also realized they needed to seed the clouds by telling the world that the firm’s software engineers knew what they were doing. Five years ago, says Crowe, the company organized an Android developers’ conference, which has grown into a well-attended annual event that allows bnotions to showcase its expertise in the field by putting its own software developers up on stage to talk about techniques like rapid prototyping.

Instead of allocating resources to public relations and marketing, the company spends money developing case study presentations and sending its engineers to international conferences and submitting its apps to industry awards events. “We make it a habit to constantly submit people to conferences around the world,” says Crowe.

He also tells his presenters to be bold in the way they speak to audiences, and that occasionally means taking controversial positions intended to spark discussion and generate attention. At a recent developers event, a bnotions speaker took direct aim at Tim Horton’s newly released app, dismissing it as “an example of what not to do.” Heightening the impact of that provocative statement was the fact that the developer who had built the Tim’s app was in the audience.

“It allows us to position our belief in what makes a great app,” Crowe says. The firm’s shot across the bow did liven up the discussion, as intended. It also generated interest in bnotions solutions. Afterwards, several people came up to Crowe, who was there, and told him they agreed with the critique. “People appreciate honesty,” he says. “It led to some leads and opportunities.”

The company’s sustained effort to be participate visibly in app industry events has produced other leads, including an approach by Facebook’s Canadian arm in 2011 to become a preferred marketing developer, which means the social network giant refers on customers who want to build Facebook applications for their products or services. Though geared at the Canadian market, the Facebook connection, now in its fourth year, lead to international work, including a gig doing mobile strategy consulting and prototypes for American Express.

These days, the 50-employee firm, still located in downtown Toronto, says about 30 to 40% of its revenues come from exports, up sharply from two years ago, when that figure was just 10%. For 2014, the company, whose revenues are in the $5 to $10 million range, ranked 16th on the Profit 500. As Crowe says, the referrals that flow from the company’s thought leadership strategy account for “100% of the [international] work.”

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