Renaissance men in a wireless world

Great ideas are often born from simple moments. When Leonardo DaVinci conceptualized his inventions and worked out his ideas, he often started out with a rough sketch. When Steven Rodin and Alan Lysne, co-founders of Toronto-based Davinci Technologies Inc. first conceptualized their ideas for a business opportunity, they too started out with a rough sketch – albeit theirs took shape on a cocktail napkin while sitting on a bar’s patio.

“Some of the stuff that we drew on that napkin wasn’t too different from what our product is like now,” Lysne said, noting that the pair still has that first sketch.

That idea – which was illustrated during that patio meeting – was the precursor to Davinci’s m-Care, its flagship product. The company has made huge strides since that initial meeting and now provides automated customer management services to global wireless carriers such as Bell Mobility and Sprint Canada.

Born in Switzerland 31 years ago, Lysne moved to Canada at an early age and eventually attended Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., where he received a degree in electrical engineering. Rodin, the elder of the two – by two weeks – grew up in Winnipeg and got his degree at Western’s Business School in London, Ont. Both of them ended up working for Andersen Consulting upon graduation, and it was there that they first met.

“We both joined the newly formed telco group, and worked together in the office for one month, but kept in touch to share war stories,” Lysne said.

“We saw the Internet emerge around 1995, but realized that it was mostly being used as a tool for marketing material. We thought that it could be used as a much broader mechanism for customer service,” Rodin remembered.

Since their familiarity was with the telecommunications sector, Rodin and Lysne decided to pool their expertise on problem areas for communications providers – including call centres, access to accounts, the Internet and security – and develop a solution.

“We saw that the market had tremendous opportunity, and we spent time understanding and listening to the carrier environment, and figuring out what would help them achieve their goals,” Lysne said. “Our biggest risk would have been not going after the opportunity.”

Along with their ideas for a product, the pair needed to come up with a name that reflected their company’s ideals.

“Our vision was to enable customers with great software,” Rodin said. “Davinci was an inventor and an artist who took a creative approach to technology, and we wanted to apply our technology to real world problems in a creative way.”

“We’ve managed to stick to this vision for five and a half years,” Lysne added.

New challenges

Since Lysne and Rodin left their positions at Anderson to found Davinci and become its CTO and president respectively, the two have faced a number of challenges and have achieved many successes.

“Every year is a new challenge,” Rodin said. He explained that the first year of business involved challenges around R&D and landing their first big customer – Bell Mobility. The second year, the duo focused on expanding the business and broadening the company’s focus, while the third year’s challenges included raising venture capital. In 2001, Davinci faced the strained telecom economy, and struggled to keep motivated. It’s now focusing on the year ahead and the possibility of growing the company from its current team of 40.

According to Lysne, the biggest challenge has been knowing when to be patient and when it’s okay to be impatient.

“We’ve really tried to avoid the hype. We believe in the traditional values of business, and that’s paid off,” he said.

Both partners admit that Davinci has never ramped up to be as big as it might have, but by the same token, have not had to put the company through major layoffs, although they have had to “rightsize.”

Moving beyond borders

The next challenge for Davinci has to do with geographic expansion. The company has been invited to participate in a trade mission to Germany, Finland and Sweden to evangelize the Davinci message.

“The mobile market is global, and it’s critical to the long-term success of the company that we’re a part of it,” Rodin said.

While this might seem out of reach for a 40-seat company from Toronto, the co-founders are not fazed about denting the global mobile market.

“When we were making that napkin drawing, we decided that we wanted to be the must-have software for telecommunications, and that one day everyone globally will have a phone. We’ve always thought big and we’ve always gone after the biggest blue chip clients,” Lysne said.

Rodin admitted that landing their first big client was a fundamental point for the company, but that every customer is as exciting as that first one. “We’re never satisfied with where we are.”

Lysne agreed. “We’re both very driven to succeed, and haven’t even come close to being satisfied with our success. Ask us again later.”