When technology meets need, it’s possible to create a brilliant yet simple product through innovation. That’s exactly what Ryan Volberg and Kevin Falk did when they founded a point-of-sale (POS) company called Vivonet Inc., serving a niche market in the restaurant industry.
“This industry was ripe for innovation,” explains Volberg, who grew up steeped in the restaurant business and knows every facet of it —from dishwashing to owning and managing. For a while, he worked for a local restaurant POS company. He met Kevin Falk there in 1997, and in 1999, they took what they learned and decided to find a better solution for managing restaurants—one that could offer customers the same powerful systems that the best retailers in world enjoyed but at a fraction of the cost, by leveraging the Internet.
with Ryan Volberg
1. Is there a technology, trend, or idea that’s driving your company forward?
The mobile and social web. Vivonet’s mobile applications allow consumers to order and pay for products from their mobile devices and integrate their product experiences into their social-media profiles. The idea is that we are extending the POS terminal into the hands of the consumers and that we view all products as social assets. This results in convenience for the consumer and, at the same time, creates more profits for the restaurant.
2. Where do you hope this innovation will lead you in the next 5 years?
Continued growth of the company, and for us and our customers to remain relevant and exciting in an ever-changing industry.
3. How has the notion of innovation changed in the past decade?
I think the pace of innovation is changing so much. Today, innovation is not an option; you have to innovate to survive.
4. How do you cultivate innovation among your workforce?
Innovation is who we are. It’s a part of our corporate values. You have to be courageous explorers, hire the right, innovation-oriented people, and allow them in to work in an environment that is not afraid to fail, because often innovation is the result of many failed attempts.
5. What defines an innovative company in the 21st century?
You have to be courageous. You have to be willing to think like a 12-year-old—by that, I mean being in touch with your inner child. You need to tune into the expectations of a generation that has never used a rotary phone and see the world through their eyes. In my generation, technology was complicated, but that has changed. Now, we are insulated from the complexity; the most successful companies are replacing complexity with elegance.
As Volberg explains, while most restaurant owners typically excel at menu creation, cooking, and food service, they often have trouble with the technology side of running a restaurant.
“We provide the terminals that are like the modern-day cash register, which of course has been around forever,” Volberg says. “But with our systems, we give customers the business power of an expensive infrastructure at a low cost. We help them manage their businesses, such as generating insightful reports that can show them what their best-selling menu items are or who their biggest-selling serving staff is.”
Other benefits for customers include not having to worry about obsolescence, credit-card security, and viruses.
Interestingly, operating in the cloud is far more secure for restaurant owners than having their own terminals on-site. “There’s actually been cases of burglaries where someone breaks into a restaurant and steals the entire terminal with all the credit-card numbers on it,” Volberg says. “You don’t have that worry working in the cloud. Our Tier I data centre, including a third-party certification, is built with a huge amount of security and fidelity. It’s significantly safer.”
Most of Vivonet’s customers are a mix of independent restaurants, small chains, and large foods-service providers such as Sodexo, with 6,000 locations in North America. Vivonet’s clients are located in all 50 states and all provinces of Canada.
For Vivonet, it works to keep the focus narrow for now.
“We tend to focus on the part of the market that has not had cost-effective access to the technology they need to be competitive,” Volberg says. “The bigger chains have made that investment already. So we see it as the democratization of information, something that levels the playing field, giving the small guy the same powerful business tools that the big guys have.”
For instance, having the capability of printing a report showing your best selling items on Mother’s Day each year presents an informational advantage, helping business owners stay in the black.
In fact, it’s something that Volberg believes could have helped his own family.
Volberg’s dad owned a number of food-service and retail enterprises; however, he ended up losing the businesses, forcing him into bankruptcy. That experience had an effect on young Volberg, inspiring him to think of ways to be innovative in a highly competitive business. Volberg studied business administration and psychology at Simon Fraser University and computer-based information systems at the University of Victoria.
“I saw how hard my family worked, and it wasn’t good enough,” Volberg says. “They didn’t understand where they made money and where they lost. Where are the profit leaks? I’m convinced that having access to information such as what we can make available now would have saved their business.”
The lessons of diligence and perseverance had a profound effect on Volberg, and it’s something that he carries with him today. And it has paid off. For instance, after a rough beginning with their company’s product Halo, which Volberg says was years ahead of its time, it finally took off. Volberg’s keen sense of what the product needed to do, combined with Falk’s technology skills proved to be the perfect innovation partnership.
“Our company’s success and popularity demonstrates that good things do happen out of bad,” he says.