Sramana Mitra: Who was your first large website design for?
Shaul Kuper: Our first large client was a children’s performer named Sharon, Lois & Bram, very well known performers in Toronto – children entertainers. I approached them and said that we could make a great deal for them – download music, they could sell their CDs online, children could play online with coloring and other features, etc. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any money, but we made a deal with Apple. Instead of paying us we had a swap deal, where we got Apple´s first web server in Canada and a color monitor in exchange for doing the website.
But our first major client was the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. That really set us off in the direction we have today. At the time we did all sorts of things for insurance companies, insurance brokers, towns, logistics companies, etc. One of the things that set us off in the beginning was that we didn’t do textual websites. We did sites that had a real purpose and ROI. Insurance brokers could actually get quotes and follow up, make sales, etc.
The key to our success was tying into a database early on. So in 1995/96 we were tied into databases and were able to do all sorts of interesting things. In 1997 we received an RFP from the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. I can quote the RFP word for word to this day: “The University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies requires a website.” That was the entire RFP. I remember thinking at that time that it was a great place to be in higher education. If we could take everything we learned in e-commerce and put it into education, it would be a great space doing something of value. I was a terrible golfer. Most of the business deals I did, people were expecting to do them on the golf course. I figured you wouldn’t have to do them on a golf course if you were an education supplier. So we won the RFP, and in 1997 the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies became the first university in the world to do online enrollments. You could transfer, you could drop, you could pay for your courses and get your grades online.
But it wasn’t integrated into their system. Somebody would enroll, it would print out in the registrar’s office and they would re-key it in. We said that we would be happy to integrate it with them – we do this with a lot of our customers. They had a really old-school Unix system and every time they would fix one thing, something else broke. It was held together with tape and rubber bands. They needed a new system. We were a provider for them for about three to four years. They then put out an RFP to get a new system built. We had been hanging around with them for about three to four years, learning everything about what they did, what was different about it, learning from different angles, the student’s perspective, the instructor’s perspective, the registrar’s perspective, etc.
When they put out the RFP, I asked the dean if I should respond to it. The answer was, “Shaul, you are a nice guy and you have a great company. You do great websites, but you don’t really know anything about software. While it is an open RFP and anybody can respond, I highly recommend you don’t waste your time or your money. We have professionals coming in to do this.” She really didn’t think we had the capability or the know-how to be able to compete. Being an entrepreneur, I listen to my gut more than to good advice sometimes. Since it was an open RFP, we could do it. I remember going home that night and being the visual person I am, I figured out the use case the RFP mentioned and what I thought was going to be required. Then I came up with the concept of what we call Destiny One CE. The idea was that there is one system that all users would use, which was unheard of at that time. This way, they would only have to key things in once. Much to their frustration, they were keying in things five to six different times into different systems. They keyed things into their financial systems, their registrar systems, student information systems, etc. I created page after page of how I thought the system would look and all use cases.
I came in on Monday, gave it to my designer and asked if he could please put this together, make it look good, and show how this would all be held together. We responded to the RFP. Weeks later I got a call and was told that my time for presenting the system to the committee was Tuesday at 1 p.m. I then gave all those designs to my developer and asked him to tie all this together. We put together a demo based on those designs. Then I went down to the presentation, and there were about 50 people sitting around. A few days later I got called into the dean’s office, and to my surprise she asked me if I really thought I could build this, to which I replied that I really thought I could. She told me that after I presented the system she asked the team two questions: “Independent of who we hire, who do you think could do the best job, and who understands their business the best?” She also said that it was unanimous that it would be us. Then she asked if they should hire us and everybody said “no,” and that you couldn’t be fired for hiring IBM. They all felt it would be too risky – we were a six-person shop at that time. We had never built software, we had built websites. Sitting in their position, I may have felt the same thing.
Ultimately the decision was up to her, and she had known me long enough to believe that I live up to my word. We shook hands on it, and the next thing I knew was that I was in contract negotiations and had gotten the deal. It was never my intention to build it. It was my intention to project manage and design it. So I was going to hire a software company to build it and we would just manage the project. As it turned out, I couldn’t find a software project that had the same work ethic and beliefs that I did – that it had to be perfect and it had to meet the client’s needs. I gave my word that it was going to be like that, and I couldn’t find another company that would do this. So I ended up building a team. I ended up hiring an architect, developers, and everyone else we needed. We built a software company. That is how we got started.
SM: That was your first major education project?
SK: Yes, that is correct.