Starting a staffing company in the IT world is tough. The competition is high (there are literally too many other firms to count), and the industry can change in the blink of an eye. But in 2006, Grant McKeracher and Blake Appleton saw that the market was missing two major things: quality and a customer-first mindset. Seven years later, the Toronto-based boutique firm they founded, Keen Consulting, couples emerging technology with talent while building trusted relationships with clients, and it’s a forerunner in master data management (MDM) solutions, mobile web development in the cloud, and matching skilled professionals to help achieve end-to-end solutions.
with Grant McKeracher
1. How do you innovate on a day-to-day basis?
Start with not implementing ideas and processes from your corporate days. You’re not a giant corporation, so lose that thought immediately. Implement a benchmark for many areas, and consistently look for ways to better them.
2. Where do you hope this innovation will lead you in the next five years?
I [hope] that it leads to strengthening our original goals from day one: to be a brand recognized for quality, high-touch customer service, and delivery.
3. How has the notion of innovation changed in the past decade?
I think it’s overdone, and while it’s important to innovate, you need to build a solid foundation first—and that takes time.
4. Is there a technology, trend, or idea that’s driving your company forward?
Apps and #hashtags.
5. How can a company encourage innovation without breaking the bank?
The internal process is always a great start. Can you do something different from your competition? Something to let your customers remember your brand? [For example], we have massive latte mugs that are on every desk of every client. It’s affordable and subtle enough that everyone accepts them with a smile. Plus, coffee is what keeps the world going ’round.
“We felt we could easily address the missing gaps that were growing year over year, based on our experience, network, and commitment to excellence,” McKeracher says. “Sounds cliché, but we lose sleep if a client is unhappy, and I guarantee that’s a rarity in any market.”
He and Appleton are customer-first sales guys to the core. McKeracher himself started as a Xerox salesman, but he jumped to the tech world and never looked back when he heard about IT and software as up-and-coming trends in his early professional days.
“Our experience working for a large firm allowed us to see how customers were made to bend to the needs of the vendor and not the other way around,” McKeracher says. “The motivation to do what is right and exploit these gaps was a monumental challenge, but I speak often about having conviction, and that’s something we never lacked.”
Examining other tactical errors such as poor consistency, high turnover rates, price gouging, and less than sufficient quality of service, Keen—recently listed on the 25th annual PROFIT 500—helps correct large organizations’ follies.
Within the past year alone, the company has launched several new service offerings, including Consulting Services Group (CSG), which is focused on delivering business intelligence (BI: the ability to allow companies to use their data to make better decisions) and big-data analytics consulting. And according to Appleton, the business has seen a 1,403 percent rise in revenue over the past five years.
Ultimately, Keen’s goal is to become a high-touch, niche player in Canada’s BI sector while continuing to build and solidify its brand.
Collecting data and using data accurately are two separate things, and up until recently, many businesses didn’t have the tools to integrate them. BI helps with this, and though it’s not new, the demand for it has grown.
Staying ahead of this growth is tough, but Keen perseveres through strategic leadership. “We stay on top of technology through the typical channels of media, but the key is to always be immersed in the world you live in,” McKeracher says.
Veering away from transactional sales, Keen launched its BI practice to expand its offerings. The firm looked for a BI cloud provider that would be symbiotic with its beliefs, principles, and values, and it ended up partnering with the enterprise-calibre BI platform Birst, becoming the company’s champion partner in the Canadian market. This gave Keen the leverage to continue successfully taking on competitors double its size.
Keen’s small staff is like a family—one that’s big on supporting each of its members. McKeracher’s team of 13 thrives on collaboration and not being micromanaged, but that doesn’t mean he loses sight of his responsibilities. “As a leader, the buck stops with you,” he says, “and that pressure culminates when you realize you have to make an innovative and strategic decision for the strength of the company’s future.”
So far, McKeracher’s decisions have paid off, and now his company is set for even greater success as a cloud-computing consultant in the tech sector. Keen’s talent and its expanded capabilities have played a huge part in its latest achievements, but so has its focus, time and again, on client needs.