Talkin' Tech With Techalliance


David Billson invites Digital Echidna president and CEO Andrew McClenaghan to the table in Talkin' Tech with TechAlliance. This series explores how companies have succeeded in London, and how the community can continue to support new businesses.

Video and transcript posted with permission. Original air date: London Tech Week April 2019.

Interview with Andrew McClenaghan

Talkin’ Tech with Techalliance

My name is Andrew McClenaghan, I am president of Digital Echidna. We’re about 80 people strong now. Professional services firm focusing on large-scale ambitious digital experiences in the open source community. Specifically technology such as Drupal.

Billson: If London could do one thing to improve the business climate for you, what would it be?

I don’t know if it is necessarily about me per say, but let's say a younger Andrew McClenaghan. For me, it was all about the tech industry and London being able to create more chances for collisions. Running into others, learning about what others are doing, more collaboration. I mean it's natural that will happen in the business community and but there are initiatives the City can take to induce those or increase those chances of those collisions happening.

Billson: Can you give me an example of what that might look like?

Long before I had gray hair and I started this company, there was the promise of the incubation centre. Some sort of place where technology organizations could come and collaborate and have a hot desk, or a shared space, whatever it's called, largely modelled after Communitech.  

At times there's been money set aside for that, but I think progress has been made in the private industry, such as what you've done here [with RH Accelerator], but that [incubation centre] was always the promise of London-made solution from the council and the city at large.

The things we are doing well include networking events, mixers, that type of stuff. But even where they are located and how frequently are they happening and the nature of the people that seem to start the tech companies -- I think I speak for you and me, we're naturally introverted. It's not something that we really think, ‘Oh, I totally want to go out and meet people’, so creating those types of events that are not grip-and-grin, stand there with your one drink in the corner. Those types of events need to be facilitated and people need to be dragged out of their basement to some degree, and put into these environments.

Billson: In the tech world specifically, you hear stories of the engineer or tech producer that starts the company, sees a need, and develops technology to do that, but they don’t have the other skills to get out and build teams, and that kind of stuff.

That’s me exactly. Even the ability to meet those individuals that can help that technician or engineer on that journey, that's what a lot of us need. So when I talk about what I need now, it's very different from what I needed ten years ago. I always think I could have been further along faster if I had had those types of connections.

Billson: What is one advantage London has over other communities for tech, specifically?

I'll try to tech-specific answer but I guess the general answer as I see it is, it's cheaper to fail here, it's cheaper to start here, to try things out.

That's from just simply cost of living perspective, availability of real estate, etc. That is why I started up here. I had a connection here originally, but in retrospect, it makes a lot of sense. It took me almost eight or nine years of freelancing, doing other people's projects, before I figured out what we [Digital Echidna] should actually do, which created the kind of accelerated growth that we’re on now, in the last decade.

Obviously, London is a great city to live in, with some sort of transit initiative underway, we’ll determine what that is, in the future. We’re evolving. I can't imagine doing a start-up in downtown Toronto and it’s just like, 'Alright, our runway is seven days - let’s see if it works or not. Oh, it didn’t work, we’re done.' That seems even more stressful than what we're doing here.

Billson: Something I pulled out from that, you spent six, seven, eight years maybe, just experimenting with your business model. Is that a fair way to describe it?

Yes. Absolutely for us. So I came back from Waterloo and I had one project to start the company. But if you had $500 to start, I just figured it out with Google. I was pulling wires and selling printers, rebooting routers, all that type of stuff. It was just trying to figure out what I should get into. Essentially we [my small staff] left London to do a conference off-site and discovered this technology called Drupal. There I was exposed to what other digital companies across North America were doing in that [Drupal] space. The clients they had, and just the size and scale of them. I was like, wow they did this by doing one thing really really really well!

So I came back from that conference and said, ok that is our way to grow. We need to narrow our service offering but expand our market size. And that enabled us to get clients further and further away. So, kind of luck, as all good business stories are, but it took me a while - a decade - to learn that lesson. Maybe people were telling me in the London business community and I wasn’t listening, I’m not really sure. Maybe I was just at the right time and space to have the ‘a-ha’ moment.

Billson: I have heard numerous times to focus in on what you're really good at, and I appreciate you not totally stealing steam whistle tagline (laugh).

I do like that beer. (laugh)

Billson: Are you coming to any tech week activities? If so, are there any events in particular that you are looking forward to?

Yes.  The Techcellence Awards ceremony is always exciting. Learning about businesses similar to the [London Chamber of Commerce] Business Achievement Awards. I’m often standing in the room, watching the videos on the finalist presentations having never heard of them. This is a problem, we all need to know what everybody else is doing. We have Business London [magazine], LondonInc [magazine] and they're doing a good job as they cross the entire city, but telling these stories, making sure people understand - and not just on the marketing side, but on the technology side, and creating those collisions, that’s where it’s all at.

So the Techcellence Awards are great for that. It's nice to see companies recognized for the work that they’re doing especially when a lot of them fly under the radar as perhaps their market for where they sell is actually [outside London] in southwestern Ontario.

Billson: Congratulations on winning large business of the year award from London Chamber of Commerce. I can’t remember who won it last year, if it was Northern, or...?

Northern Commerce. And then before that. We’re on a technology company run.

Billson: We [rTraction] were medium size business of the year in 2014 and there does seem to be a lot of tech companies winning the larger awards. What does that tell you as a representation of the business community, or why do you think the tech companies are winning these types of awards?

I'm not in another sector so I will preface my answer with that, but winning a business achievement award is not just about economic topline revenue. It’s about CSR, growing the local economy, engaging with the city as a whole, which seems to be a trait that our tech community is developing. I don’t know if that is because we need to be scrappers, and we need to be there doing all the things? I'm not really clear why that would be unique to our sector but it seems to be a trend and that's really the types of organizations the business achievement awards focuses on.

Billson: From my experience and recollection, that award focuses in on the well-being of people too, like how you treat your people, how you treat your community. Is there something in there, that because it's such a competitive landscape, first for talent, that tech companies to be successful must have that in their core, or have to develop that in their core, to treat people and the community well, so their reputation can grow?

Good point. I wonder if it is chicken or the egg, but yeah absolutely. Getting students right out of Fanshawe and Western, bringing them in and making sure you can retain them. You have to make sure you have an enjoyable workspace obviously, such as a beautiful space like yours {gestures to RH Accelerator RoundHouse}, and you have to have the type of work that they want. There is a lot of work around retention and recruitment. I would say that is unique to the tech sector so we all have to be super super nice, and that bodes well for being recognized for being great employers.

Billson: One of the interesting {muffled / cannot hear} and back to the chicken and the egg theory: Are you a great employer and that is what makes you successful? Or, do you have to be a great employer in order to succeed in tech? You kind of answered this already, but do you think it is important for the tech community to connect? Why or why not?

I really think it is, simply because we can all be so heads down in our technology. We look to the U.S. a lot. The U.S. for us, is obviously a large market that we’re expanding into. They are often the canary in the coal mine. Not sure what the positive opposite of canary in the coal mine is, but what I mean, is that what is happening there is going to happen in Canada, in two or three years time.

So connecting and understanding what others are doing throughout North America and abroad, how else do I learn this first hand? Because when you don't have the personal connections that you get one-on-one with other business owners, you're often looking at the polished marketing version of how a company is doing. Everyone and everything looks great, everything is doing well. I find the connections that I’ve grown here in this community, but also in southwestern Ontario, and in North America large, have really helped me shape my business.

Those connections are almost exclusively other business owners that are dealing with the same challenges that I'm dealing with, in non-competitive spaces. Sometimes that's luck, the right-time, right-place that you get into those organizations and meet mentors, but I believe that is something that the city can help foster, the province, and the country at large, can help foster. The tech community here in London is creating those connections for those of us that just aren’t as extroverted to go get them themselves.

Billson: Last question is around the support systems that exist. In the ecosystem, there is a small business centre, LEDC, Innovation Works, Pillar, TechAlliance, and other supports. As a person who has grown a business, have you used any of those types of services and if so how have they helped?

I think a lot of those organizations have come into maturity over the last decade. For the first decade that I ran my company, I did different things, got out there and they definitely helped. It is very hard for me to quantify to what degree it helped, but that's where I created many of these first connections.

And then we pulled back from participating as much, just through busyness or I'm not really clear why we pulled back. I still want those organizations to continue to develop because it is not really about me. Our focus on outside organizations seems to be Export Development Canada and BDC, and this next level of growth. We are still at the end of a growth phase basically vs the start-up. Those organizations [LEDC, Small Business Centre, TechAlliance] do help grow the next generation of companies like mine, so yes, we definitely want to support them.

Billson: Anything else you want to add?

Thanks for having me.

Billson: Congratulations again on your BAA award. I heard that you are maybe on the Mayoral candidate slate.


Billson: Apparently your acceptance speech - people are already, “Andrew 2021.”

Oh goodness.



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Questions Answered

What are some London Canada local tech business success stories?

What services does TechAlliance offer to tech businesses?



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