Feb 29, 2024

Vision Critical Makeover Continues as Software Company, Now Called Alida, Raises $20-Million from Round 13

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The Globe and Mail

Oct 13, 2021

This article was published more than 1 year ago. Some information may no longer be current.

Vision Critical Communications Inc. was one of Canada’s breakout software stars of the early 2010s, before becoming mired in internal upheavals and slowing growth.

But over the past two years, the company has brought in new leadership, shifted its strategy, moved its headquarters to Toronto from Vancouver and changed its name, to Alida Inc.

Now, with revenue on the rise again, the rejuvenated company, which helps large companies gather feedback from their customers, has raised its first equity capital since 2012. On Wednesday, Alida will announce that Toronto’s Round 13 Capital has invested $20-million in the company through its growth capital fund.

“This is a fundamentally different company, with a world-class team that came over to turn this company around,” Round 13 managing partner Sanjiv Samant, whose firm typically invests in companies it believes could be sold or go public within three years, said in an interview. “We think directionally this is a company and a management team we want to be associated with ... We're early in the transition, but directionally pointed in the right way.”

A key question, however, is whether Alida can catch up in a field dominated by giants Qualtrics International. Inc. and Medallia Inc., which offer a broader array of feedback-collecting offerings to clients than Alida started to introduce last year. “It’s not that [Alida] couldn’t be good at it, they just haven’t gotten there yet, and the clock is ticking,” said Harley Manning, research director with market research firm Forrester in Cambridge, Mass.

Alida, created two decades ago, built the core of its business providing online software corporate customers used to run “insight communities” — continuing surveys of customers to glean insights that could inform the companies’ strategies. It became a leader in the space, counting Toyota, Twitter and Canadian Tire among its 640 clients.

The company added a market research and consulting arm in the 2000s, when founder Andrew Reid ceded leadership to his father, pollster Angus Reid. After a protracted civil war at the board level over Angus Reid’s continued involvement and strategic decisions, several board members left, the company divested its market research business, and W Capital Partners and Georgian Partners bought out Mr. Reid and other shareholders in 2017.

But Vision Critical struggled to regain its footing, cutting employees and suffering from slow to negative revenue growth. Its fortunes began to change under Ross Wainwright, a Canadian software sales executive who replaced Scott Miller as CEO in late 2019, after stints with Japanese telecom giant Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. and software giant SAP SE. Mr. Wainwright brought in a new leadership team, changed the company’s name and spearheaded investment in product development and feature expansion, adding new capabilities to gather feedback from customers through a range of new channels. Alida now offers 20 products, up from one in 2019. The company’s employee base has grown by more than one-third, to 440 people.

The idea was to position Alida in an enterprise software class known variously as voice-of-customer, customer experience management or customer feedback management.

Vendors in the space typically gather insights from an array of channels, including customer relationship management tools, customer contact centres, point-of-sale systems and social media. The giants are NYSE-listed Medallia, which is being taken private by Thoma Bravo for US$6.4-billion, and Qualtrics, a Nasdag-listed company with a market capitalization of US$23-billion. Qualtrics recently agreed to buy analytics provider Clarabridge, which uses artificial intelligence tools to draw insights from text and speech, for US$1.1-billion.

Mr. Wainwright's efforts started to pay off. Recurring revenues rose slightly last year and are now expanding at a double-digit pace, running at about $70-million annually. The growth pace is set to hit 20 per cent next year, he said in an interview. Employee and customer churn — the rate at which both leave the business — have declined sharply, to the low- to mid-teens. Alida generated 40 per cent of its revenue from new software offerings in the third quarter, up from 10 per cent in the first.

“You have to give them credit for coming out of the specialist category and moving into this bigger battleground,” Mr. Manning said. But he added Alida’s new offerings “are not very competitive” yet. “That’s not to say they couldn't be, but it’s going to be tough. It’s essentially a race for who has the best Al and who can parse the unstructured data at scale. It's expensive to do that ... Unless someone drops hundreds of millions of dollars on them to invest in the technology, it's going to be very hard to be competitive.”

Mr. Wainwright dismissed those concerns, saying rivals rely “on the mergers and acquisitions drug to drive growth,” while Alida has built its own products in-house on top of its core insight communities software, and offers better prices in a market that can support many competitors. “If clients are looking for quick time to value and looking to eliminate complexity, that’s something Qualtrics and Medallia cannot provide with [multiple] acquisitions they've got to stitch together.”

“We can compete just fine,” he said.