Never be a product in ones own land

There are some golden rules about starting a small computer business.

One is that you always study the market to see what else is out there, and another is that you never compete head on with the giants.

Obviously while you do not want to come out with a product less endowed than that already on the market, neither do you want to battle head on with a rich and well entrenched competitor – well not at first anyway. However, a very small, and I mean very small, Canadian company decided to follow the first rule but not the second.

Ignoring the second rule is an invitation to disaster and one can just see the investors moaning and groaning as their dollars evaporate (oops sorry, this is a Canadian story so there will be no investors). But this is not one half of the story. The company, E-Press Corp. of Richmond Hill, Ont., took on possibly the worst competitor to be found. A competitor that soaks millions of dollars into companies that just have a whisper of a chance to become a real competitor (by the bye, what IS happening to Corel these days?).

Yes! I mean the mighty Microsoft, purveyor of flakes and silicon implants for the masses. E-Press a Canadian amoeba-sized company takes on the U.S. Godzilla – not a pretty sight. This is David’s left boot scheduled to fight Goliath and no laces allowed! Now at this juncture it may seem that the product is really only snapping at the heels of this Godzilla thing and is nothing more than a diminutive utility. A puny routine that makes a trivial contribution to the usual confusion of strange icons and ambiguous wording. So it may come as a complete surprise to learn that E-Press Corp’s Easy Office product is a direct challenger to Microsoft’s Office 2000 Premium, as well as to the Corel symphony in blue (sorry, red) and Sun System’s Star Office 5.2.

Now having developed such a challenge without investment money (now that was a real surprise!), it would seem pretty obvious that E-Press must be strapped for money. One can imagine it creaking under the financial load and doomed to be another mention in the Canadian Industries history book available at all Canadian bookstores for $9.99 (I love those peasant blinding nine-ninety-nine-ninety-nines). But its president, an ex-MIT man from Quebec, Howard Schneider, assures me that the company actually makes a profit and sales are booming. This after a mere one year of operation.

Such news filled me with a wonderment I have not experienced since I discovered girls. Here, at last, was a company recognized by the Great Canadian Computer Masses for its product, its audacity and flair, as well as being (dare I say it) Canadian. Bubbling at the mouth I asked Howard to fill me in on his sales. Had the Government bought gobs of copies? Was Magna standardizing on his product? Had Future Shop willingly put his program on their shelves? Had the schools started teaching Easy Office instead of a product from our Canadian technology-stifling US company Microsoft? Perhaps those monolithic supporters of Canadian enterprises, the banks, had bought truckloads. Well, it turns out that, just like girls, the outer appearance is far different to the mysteries of the interior.

Getting behind the outer skin of their sales figures I find that 20 per cent of their sales go to Hong Kong, Brazil and Europe and all the rest, and I mean all the rest, go to the States. CompUSA and Ingram-Micro distribute for them in the USA but no Canadian distributor, retailer, corporation, jimmy-on-the-pot, or such will take their product. Howard could not name a single Canadian customer. Well, there is one thing you can say about our Canadian purchasers they are consistent. As I have said before, I am not a product reviewer so I have not tried Easy Office, thus I cannot comment on it. But what is interesting is that the land so revered for its technical genius by our bumbling tech-buyers is, in fact, buying gobs of this product.

Am I missing something? But is there not something wrong when an American distribution house can make a go of a Canadian product, while a Canadian distribution house will not even touch it? There was a Canadian content rule applied to TV and radio and look what that did to the Canadian music industry. So why do we not have a Canadian content rule for software distribution houses? It could be simple, just an obligation to list 10 per cent Canadian companies in their catalogues – no, make it 20 per cent, and without wallet bending fees. There must be something wrong when a Canadian company with no Canadian investment capital makes a profit by sales totally outside Canada but yet has no interest from a single Canadian distributor. In one of my earlier articles I suggested to our Michael that he go to the States. Howard?

Robinson has been involved with high-tech Canadian star-up companies – including Cisco, Sytek and Comten – for more than 30 years. He can be reached at