The economic fallout of COVID-19 poses something of a paradox for a tech company like Thought-exchange, according to CEO and co-founder Dave MacLeod.
The 140-person firm, formally known as Fulcrum Management Solutions Ltd., is headquartered in the B.C. Interior and depends significantly on a remote workforce to support its commercial platform for crowdsourcing.
While throngs of businesses across the province are now adjusting to sending workers home to work remotely, Thought-exchange has been set up to accommodate that since its founding.
Working from one of three small offices making up its headquarters in Rossland has always been optional, as is attendance at its WeWork Cos. Inc. office in Vancouver.
“We’re privileged that we’re built for this,” MacLeod said, referring to government calls for workers to stay home amid the pandemic. “It’s just business as usual for us because it’s how we’ve always operated.”
Although Thoughtexchange is poised to weather the storm in what he describes as a “wild” business atmosphere, many clients are not.
“It’s a bit of a paradox in that clients will be facing revenue challenges,” said MacLeod, whose clients include American Airlines Inc. (Nasdaq:AAL).
“And at the same time … we’re seeing an unprecedented amount of interest in what we do to make leaders’ crowdsourcing proficient.”
Thoughtexchange’s platform can crowdsource ideas from groups ranging from 10 to 100,000 people.
It closed a Series B financing round in December 2019 amounting to $20 million, leaving the B.C. tech company well prepared for difficult economic times.
With that in mind, Thoughtexchange will be giving away its platform for free to any organization that needs crowdsourcing help related to COVID-19.
“It may or may not have an economic benefit but we’re going to do it anyways,” MacLeod said.
“If there’s an organization out there that needs to hear back from people and it could actually help them, and make them more safe, and make their business more successful in a really hard time, then it’s kind of our corporate duty.”
Thoughtexchange typically charges between $2,000 and $10,000 per month for entry-level packages.
While the company is already set up to work remotely through a mix of tools such as Slack Technologies Inc.’s messaging services and Zoom Video Communications’ video conferencing services, other companies are now in the trial-by-fire phase.
“A lot of people have been reluctant to use video conferencing tools in the past; there’s always the thinking that it’s better to do it in person. But many businesses will now realize they can do much more online than they realize – because, right now, they have to,” said Werner Antweiler, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.
“There’s a massive exploration going on right now, seeking out what can be done virtually. So there may be a permanent effect on in-person meetings in the business world, and frankly, it’s a whole lot cheaper.”
Antweiler sits on the board of directors for a Toronto-based company that used to fly its directors to meetings at its headquarters.
“Well, that costs us $30,000 to $40,000 a pop, so why are we spending this money?” he said. “I suggested as treasurer three years ago to switch to a digital platform, and it’s working just fine. People like it, and it’s a whole lot cheaper. Yes, we don’t personally get together for the meeting anymore, but for a small corporation like ours, it makes all kinds of sense.”
Meanwhile, companies that have been sending employees home to work are now facing new concerns about cybersecurity, according to Christy Wyatt.
“Now you have people remote [working], they’ve taken systems [and] in some cases these are systems that have never been out of the office,” said the CEO of Vancouver tech-security firm Absolute Software Corp. (TSX:ABT).
“Even when devices are in the office, there’s a certain amount of vulnerability … so you’re going to see what I think of as ‘cyber looting.’”
Wyatt said her company expects to see an uptick in cases in which bad actors try to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic through phishing attacks or other means as more companies struggle to figure out best practices for employees working from home.
“They’re looking at new ways to compromise both individuals and industries because then they’re catching us while we’re all off guard,” she said.
Wyatt said now is not the time for more companies to deploy massive new initiatives depending on technology.
In the meantime, Absolute Software is offering to help fix applications for clients remotely for free regardless of whether that was part of the package they’ve licensed.
“I don’t think people will take this as an opportunity for companies to take advantage of the situation. I do think that there’s an opportunity for security companies and technology companies to step up,” Wyatt said.