In theory, technology is supposed to solve more problems than it creates. But in practice, the reverse is often the case, and that’s particularly true when it comes to computer software. With a variety of competing ecosystems and platforms, it often turns out that installing one piece of programming kicks off a chain reaction that requires several more to be added, modified or manipulated in order for the system as a whole to work properly. But for Calgary’s RefineCo, which grew out of the independent consulting businesses run by Eric Veenendaal and Greg Fleury and into a fully-fledged business in 2012, those kinks in our ever-expanding digital networks are problems just waiting to be solved.
In fact, that’s how the company develops its products – not by trying to come up with a solution to a problem that may not really exist but by waiting for customers to bring real problems to its doorstep. “What we don’t do is we don’t sit in a room with dimly lit lighting and come up with ideas,” Veenendaal says. “Our product development process starts with our customer saying, ‘We’re doing this today, and we want to do something else tomorrow.’ They’re very much driven by an immediate demand.”
And while it’s tempting to want to come up with the next great innovation, Veenendaal says it’s more productive – and, potentially, more profitable – to focus instead on improving what’s already out there. “There are lots of nice glossy websites out there with tools that do amazing things – that can transform your phone into something you didn’t know it could do,” he says. “But we’re not out there to discover the new Google Glass or the iWatch. We’re asking, “How can we contribute and be a part in solving these problems that we know exist every day?’ I wouldn’t call it the most sexy or glamorous story, but by simply focusing on the basics, we’ve seen a lot of growth over the last 18 to 24 months.”
He cites Dropbox, a company that’s been valued at $10 billion based on its most recent round of venture capital funding, as an example of how simple solutions to common problems can yield tremendous results. “Back when they came out, they were up against all kinds of competitors. But they came in with a simple model – it’s a one-click download and it’s installed on your computer, and to use it you take a file and drag and drop it. That’s it. You don’t have to worry about device compatibility. Everything’s done for you.” RefineCo may not come up with the next Dropbox but its approach is the same: create a good product, solve a common problem and let the rest take care of itself. “The focus is the user experience, and the most value we can provide to a customer for what we believe is a palatable price. That’s where we go to work.”
It doesn’t hurt that RefineCo is operating primarily in an ecosystem, Microsoft’s SharePoint system, that is both widely used (because it’s been included free with the shipping and installation of Windows servers for years now) and almost as widely known for its lack of user-friendly features. “Now, to Microsoft’s credit, it’s taken significant strides on this path,” Veenendaal says, “but they leave open a lot of opportunity for companies such as ours to fill in those gaps.”
In the tech space, it’s tempting to want to come up with the next billion-dollar idea. But for every Dropbox that finds the end zone, there’s a hundred Hail Mary passes that never come close. That’s why, as RefineCo has shown, it’s usually better to take what the defence gives you. “A lot of people believe innovation means you have to take the newest and most cutting-edge thing and sell it to a customer,” Veenendaal says. “But innovation can often be taking a decades-old problem and solving it with tools that are in front of you.”
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