Carl Rodrigues, the CEO of Canadian company SOTI, tends to answer questions with a short pause and then slightly hesitant, softly spoken sentences, but that cadence and tone mask a strong point of view. In the space of our recent 45-minute phone conversation recently, Rodrigues compares his company to Microsoft and SAP, takes a swipe at the Internet of Things frenzy and even questions that great shibboleth of the modern digital enterprise, the venture capital group. And all with that same mild manner.
Who is Rodrigues and what is SOTI? The answer is that this is a sizeable Ontario-headquartered concern that is largely hidden from the public view because its strength is in securing critical mobile assets. It is sometimes included in roundups of the enterprise mobility management space, bracketed alongside firms that manage laptops, smartphones and so on for corporate knowledge workers (“white-collar EMM” as Rodrigues describes it) but it comes into its own in protecting the likes of American Airlines and other companies dealing with complex challenges unique to their sectors.
“I agree the term is a bit broad and there are various definitions of what it is,” he says. “There’s white-collar EMM, managing the devices that are used for making calls, sending corporate emails and connecting to the corporate WiFi, BYOD… The other space is where the device is used for business-critical services and this is more interesting for us as companies typically pay a bit more money… because if it doesn’t work the business comes to a stop.”
It’s a serious space, protecting everything from pilot flight manuals, the schematics for ‘under the wings’ service, product service books, ruggedized devices and courier handhelds and the sensitive information within, backed up by helpdesk support and remote-control services.
“We’re not just solving the EMM problem but all the other problems,” Rodrigues says, including mobile app development. When I suggest that the company manages a broad portfolio, Rodrigues has a bold answer.
“It’s like asking what does Microsoft do, right? Or SAP.”
Well, SOTI might not quite have the reach of those giants but Rodrigues says it does have about 17,000 customers, helping companies like DHL’s Blue Dart division, Canadian Automobile Association and ThyssenKrupp Elevator maintain safe and efficient operations. (That number must be growing quickly: a June 2016 press release says 15,000 customers and the ‘Our Company’ section of the company website at time of writing this in early November refers to 16,000.) Rodrigues says it has 350,000 devices under management for one customer and the company covers the gamut of sectors from field services to healthcare, manufacturing, retail and logistics.
Nearly every company makes some claim to the Internet of Things but SOTI has more claim than most. As Rodrigues says, securing, managing and maintaining these vast fleets of objects and devices will be the “glue that makes IoT work” but in my experience he’s almost uniquely sceptical of the hype over the area. “It’s really not new to us,” he says, adding that he feels SOTI is “several steps ahead” of giants like GE that are staking out territory in the area.
It is a sector that’s growing “leaps and bounds”, he concedes, but then he adds that SOTI grew revenues by 46 per cent year on year and was “a little disappointed” not to have grown at the 50 per cent annual clip that preceded it.
Here’s another unusual thing. SOTI is very rare in that it has not raised venture capital and, Rodrigues says, is profitable.
“It’s not because we can’t get any,” he says. “There are probably something like 500 VC companies trying to get a piece of us. VC companies don’t help companies; I really believe they destroy companies.”
There’s also a “Who’s Who” of big brand names who would like to buy SOTI, he adds.
But in order to get to scale and be better positioned to win large deals wouldn’t he take VC? After all, companies like Tableau didn’t want to give venture capitalists chunks of the organisation early on, but took the cash when they were in a better position to set terms.
“I’m going to resist it as long as I can,” he says. “As long as you can generate profits you can resist it. I can sleep at night without knowing I owe people money or I can spend my day fighting with people that have a different vision.”
So what sort of revenue figure does SOTI have? Some CEOs of private companies will tell you, others will provide a ballpark figure but Rodrigues prefers to disclose nothing except to suggest that the metrics for calculating company value are out there. He may be referring to the view that companies with little venture backing might see as much as $200,000 average revenue per employee in which case SOTI revenue could be on the way to as high as $140m based on almost 700 employees.
The company is 21 years old technically but only because Rodrigues set it up under that name when working as a Nortel programmer. It shipped its first consumer product in 2001 and moved into EMM a few years later. If not quite a startup then it’s still a growth story and one where its founder has taken the path less trodden.
As he says:
“Our DNA and way of looking at the world is very different. We live in a world where everyone wants to do something very quick but you have to invest in the future and be very patient. We don’t have to answer to anyone else.”
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