Outlook: Astute small companies can remain afloat in a big tech ocean

Many entrepreneurs, at the turn of each new year, like to take stock of where their business is at.

For me, COVID-19 and 2020’s economic fallout brings even more opportunities to question the way things are done – and contemplate radical change.

Ten years ago, that radical change was potentially selling the business I had started in 2000 with business partners, including John Demco (founder of the .CA domain in Canada). Webnames had become a successful enterprise in the domain registration sector growing to 30 people in four months and reaching millions in revenue in our first year, but the reality was that we were one fish in an increasingly red ocean. The red ocean vs. blue ocean analogy was popularized by Insead business professors W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne in their 2004 book, The Blue Ocean Strategy. A red ocean, in their telling, is one in which cutthroat competition bloodies the water for all involved. They argued that to seize new profit and growth potential, companies needed to go beyond competing and find profitable niches – to develop, in other words, a blue ocean strategy.

At that point in our trajectory, I hadn’t really thought about the colour of the ocean. I just knew that we had a lot of competition at Webnames, and some of those competitors had an incentive to get rid of us. While there were offers to acquire us over the first 10 years, suddenly, in the spring of 2010, we had three serious competing offers on the table to sell our company.

So why didn’t we sell?

Part of my reluctance to sell was that I wanted to keep our company Canadian – and that wouldn’t have happened with any of the takeovers. I also wanted to ensure that the Webnames brand survived.

As I look at the landscape in 2021, I’ll be the first to admit that we’re still swimming in an ocean full of competitors.

But there are enough opportunities in new products, new domain extensions and related services that allow us to find our corner of the sea – not totally blue, but maybe purple. And I take comfort in the fact that some of our biggest competitors have attracted billions of dollars of private equity over the past decade. That’s always a fallback position we can explore. We’ve ramped up expansion into the U.S. market this year –and while we have every intention of succeeding, if we don’t, so be it. We can pivot again.

For now, there’s lots of runway left to continue to build a successful company and to build it on my own, in a way that reflects my personal values and priorities. For any business owner, that’s all you can really ask for. •

Cybele Negris (cybele@webnames.ca) is president, CEO and co-founder of Webnames.ca, Canada’s original .CA registrar.