If there is one similarity between the founders of Elate Cosmetics, First Light Technologies and Certn, it’s their fervour. In less than a decade, all three companies, who share a history as previous Douglas 10 to Watch winners, have flourished.
When Melodie Reynolds won the award in 2015, she was working out of her spider-filled basement for a few hours each day while her daughter napped. But she had a vision for Elate Cosmetics, and for herself.
“I’m a global businesswoman running a global business. It just happened to be from my basement [in the beginning],” says the company’s founder and CEO. “Recognizing I always had the vision that I could create something that was bigger — I just didn’t know how I was going to get there.”
Honouring early stage entrepreneurs can offer them a huge boost in confidence, with endorsements igniting their speed of growth. Early, big wins come in many forms, from a mentor’s introduction to winning an award. The benefits stack up, fuelling the flame.
A Bigger Piece of the Pie
Since winning the 10 to Watch Award in 2012, First Light Technologies’ revenue is up 2,000 per cent but the potential is even bigger. Notes scribbled on the large whiteboard in founder and CEO Sean Bourquin’s office include stats and predictions like: $14.6 billion revenue generated by solar street lights and 2.42 million lights per year being installed in new applications in the U.S. (U.S. Department of Energy).
“From when we started to now, what success looks like, has changed quite a lot. I don’t think we had the imagination in 2012,” says Bourquin. “It’s got to be 100 times bigger than it is now.”
The company saw a decrease in revenue when the cofounders shifted away from consulting to fully commit to their product line.
It was worth the loss that year. The lighting company, whose specialization is in reliable, durable and cost-effective solar products, has built a client list that includes the Kennedy Space Center, the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbour and projects in the Mojave Desert.
“If we capitalize on the opportunity we have, then there is a billion dollar annual opportunity here,” says Bourquin. “The further we go, the further emboldened we get and the further we believe we can make a dent in the lighting industry and make a positive impact in the discussion around climate and energy conservation.”
From its launch in 2014, Elate’s mission has been to create high performing vegan and cruelty-free cosmetics with an emphasis on sustainability.
“There weren’t any other companies out there doing that,” says Reynolds. “Now, my vision is the same but elevated; we want to be the world’s most sustainable cosmetic brand.”
In 2016, Elate had 10,000 customers in its database; today that number has quadrupled, and Elate has 180 retail partners in Canada, the United States, Australia and Hong Kong.
After a pandemic-induced wobble to sales, with some wholesalers closing, the tide turned for Elate, who moved from a 2,000-square-foot space in Bastion Square to an 8,000-square-foot unit with a top floor in Rock Bay earlier this year. The much larger space has enabled Reynolds to consolidate operations and give her team, which has grown from eight to 24, space to work safely distanced.
It’s been hard not to notice Certn’s exponential growth. The company raised $43 million in 2020. They won the 10 to Watch awards in 2018 with approximately 12 employees and around $250,000 in revenue. Today, the company has around 150 employees, including contractors, across eight countries and are expanding at 400 per cent annual growth.
“It’s a different world,” says Certn’s cofounder and CEO Andrew McLeod. “We were a soccer team; now we’re a league.”
“I don’t think our long term definition of success has changed,” says McLeod. “We all want to change the world. We all want to help build trust in people, and we all want to build a huge company that started here in Victoria.”
Certn’s focus is building trust in people — something that hasn’t changed — although how they do it now and in the future will look different, says McLeod. The company’s focus is on smart, respectful, comprehensive and efficient background checks — streamlining a process that has previously caused employers to lose out on candidates.
Taking Care of Your People
“Number one rule is only work with people you love,” says McLeod, who meets groups of new employees every two weeks as part of their onboarding process. It’s an opportunity for him to get to know everyone and “what makes them special,” which means the personal — hobbies and side projects that vary from mountain climbing to collecting rare snakes — as well as the professional.
People power is a big motivator for McLeod, whose ambition for Certn was initially to be the best company to work for in Victoria but is now to become “the best employer anywhere.”
Despite the varied skill sets and backgrounds at First Light, the team shares values, and Bourquin lets the recruitment process reflect the time it takes to really get to know people and to make sure they are the right fit.
After a decade developing his business acumen, Bourquin realized he needed to transform his leadership. Bourquin has “navigated an arc of leadership toward becoming a mentor.” The motivation comes from a desire to launch others on their own successful trajectories by transferring the confidence he has built in himself onto others and respecting their individual pursuits, he hopes many of them will start their own companies one day.
“I think that’s the next frontier for leaders,” he says.
The bookshelves in both Reynolds’s and Bourquin’s offices are stacked with titles on leadership and growth. Both are aware that, with their businesses in good hands, they have a significant role to play for their teams, and, subsequently, they spend significant time thinking about how they want to do that.
Reynolds’s calendar has “clarity days” carved out every month. Those days can be anything from a facial to a day combing through a backlog of emails with a sign posted on her door so as not to be interrupted.
“Modeling this idea of taking time for clarity allows me to have a team that believes in that too,” says Reynolds.
Her “best self” policy encourages the team to check in with themselves, make decisions about their needs and take similar time for themselves.
From early on, Reynolds knew she would have a team. Her life’s purpose, she says, is “to make everything, including the people that I see and talk to every day, a little bit better than I found them.
“Leadership isn’t a benefit to you. It’s being in service to others.”
The Local Global Dilemma
All three companies have a majority of employees based in Victoria but are expanding nationally and globally, capitalizing on the broadened scope of talent made possible by remote work.
McLeod admits he initially took some convincing to move from Vancouver to Victoria to set up Certn, but he hasn’t looked back and now heralds the city as the best place to live in Canada.
“The connection with the community is important to me personally, but as a company, it’s crucial to our foundation,” says McLeod, with Certn well-positioned to take advantage of the future of remote work. “But our future is everywhere else, wherever the best people are. If we can convince them to come to Victoria, that’s great. We convinced a lot of people to move here. They don’t ever come to the office; they just enjoy what our community has to offer, which is incredible.”
The majority of business for all three companies is beyond Victoria, and that can pose its own set of challenges in terms of recognition and connection to the community.
“In Victoria, I think most people don’t know about us,” says Bourquin. “We don’t win a lot of business locally; we don’t tend to pursue it.”
The same is true of Certn. But the proof is in the profits for both, boasting extensive international client lists. Something, says Bourquin, they tend to show on their website to quell any doubts about their “legitimacy.”
Despite the remote work — installing lights across the U.S., in the Caribbean and in Europe — Bourquin values being a local business. First Light is a Victoria company, and the community means a lot to him. He has always tried to source locally, creating opportunities for companies to expand by offering manufacturing support for First Light, for example. It’s a value that has panned out practically, creating a close-knit and reliable supply chain, whose in-built resilience has been crucial to the company’s success over the last year and a half.
Reynolds is a “fast-paced person” and came to beekeeping later in life, to counterbalance her natural state.
“I see a lot of similarities and parallels between a beehive and a business. As the caretaker of the bees, I don’t do anything. I don’t affect how they work. They know what they’re supposed to be doing — they have millions of years of evolution. That has not changed.”
She trusts the team in order to do her job, protecting the vision.
“I can be clear on where we’re going, because that’s really my only job — to see into the future with my crystal ball. To do that I need to be calm, clear and confident.”
It’s impossible to get everything right. But those bumps in the road serve as learning opportunities and are what sharpens entrepreneurial instincts.
No stranger to failure, McLeod says that the difference now is “we’re doing less failing. We’ve figured out our product market fit, we’ve figured out how to accelerate growth and revenue and we figured out how to hire great people.”
Those great people secure the space for these founders to think big and bigger.
“I’m a big fan of a poet named David Wright,” says Bourquin. “He talks about how we want this conversational nature of reality — we want to be on the frontier of ourselves, right? I don’t want to be in some comfort zone.”
Nominations for the 2022 Douglas 10 to Watch awards are being accepted until November 7, 2021. Businesses on Vancouver Island less than three years old are invited to apply.