For serial entrepreneurs such as Alex Barrotti, casual conversations often generate the best business ideas.
In 2010, he was dining at a sushi restaurant in the Caribbean when his friend, who owned the establishment, mentioned a problem he was trying to solve.
"He was looking for something that would allow him to take orders tableside, and send them to the kitchen," says Mr. Barrotti, who has 20 years experience in the tech industry. "I started looking for a solution, and discovered there wasn't one."
Hungry for a new project – he had sold his last company, Inex Corp., in 1999 for $45-million – Mr. Barotti returned to Canada, assembled a development team, and began work on an iPad-based point-of-sale system that would provide a variety of functions, including bill splitting, customizable restaurant layouts, and sales reports.
In June of 2011, TouchBistro was launched on Apple's app store.
Today, the Toronto-based tech startup is growing 10 per cent month over month, according to chief executive officer Mr. Barotti, and now boasts more than 1,500 restaurants as clients globally. Last February, the company opened an office in New York, and plans to open another in San Francisco in the near future.
"A great deal of our sales are through referrals," says Mr. Barotti. "If we weren't doing a good job we wouldn't be getting so many."
Looking ahead, the major challenge for TouchBistro lies in preserving the company's market leadership.
The key, says Mr. Barotti, is a focus on constant innovation. "One of the ways you stay ahead is by constantly releasing a fresh product," he says. "We release a new version every eight weeks. If you're constantly innovating, people will see you as a natural leader."
Speed to market has been another advantage. Mr. Barotti was quick to move on his idea, and didn't allow TouchBistro's early development process to be bogged down by minute details.
"In general, markets are moving very, very fast," says Daniel Baer, chartered accountant and Canadian retail leader at Ernst & Young. "First to market and speed to market are important ways of getting ahead."
For that reason, Mr. Baer urges getting a viable product or service out the door as quickly as possible. "If you're waiting for perfection," he says, "you run the risk of bigger players getting into the market before you, and then it's much harder to differentiate yourself."
TouchBistro relies heavily on customer feedback to update its product. "As long as you listen to your customers, it doesn't matter where you are," says Mr. Barotti. "That methodology works anywhere."
Mark Vandenbosch, a professor of marketing at the Ivey Business School at University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., says that establishing a strong, continuing relationship with customers is critical to creating and preserving momentum. "In many situations the product is replicable," he says. "If you can find customers that are sticky to you as a company or your product, then you've got a better chance. The customer interface is way more important, in most cases, than the product.
"Do they trust you more? Do they have a relationship with you? Do they like the service? Are you easy to work with or easy to find? All of these activities take someone from actually wanting to buy something to actually going out and buying it."
Loyalty is important to TouchBistro, because customers pay a subscription fee for use of the software, making renewal a top priority.
Marty Algire, co-founder at Montreal-based FixMeStick, says his company also relies on recurring revenue.
FixMeStick provides virus removal software on a USB stick, and has gained major traction in the past year. A recent deal on CBC's Dragons' Den has helped the company secure financing, and has built its network considerably.
Because they offer a hardware-based product there are challenges, particularly distribution related, that companies such as TouchBistro don't face.
"I think an awesome product can be a great advantage to have," he says, "but distribution is at least up there in the equation, and in many cases I would put more of my emphasis on distribution."
For FixMeStick, success means maintaining focus on key geographic markets, and not spreading itself too thin. "We are right next door to the world's most incredible consumer market," says Mr. Algire. "We've got to nail that. Let's not nail Singapore, let's nail the USA."
Geographic considerations also play a role for TouchBistro, which has targeted several key areas to help it hit its target of 10,000 restaurants.
Translation to other languages is critical, although Mr. Barotti says sales have been strong internationally, despite language barriers. He says TouchBistro is the No. 1 grossing food and beverage app in 28 countries on Apple's app store.
Food trucks are a major market, as the size and mobility of the iPads for which the app was developed suit the small, mobile spaces these businesses operate in.
The company also plans on capitalizing on emerging technology. "We're doing some really cool integrations with digital wallets, and new payment methods," Mr. Barotti says.
"We're very excited. I remember when we launched the product, it took us six months to get 35 restaurants. Now we do that in two days."
FULL SPEED AHEAD
Creating and conserving momentum is critical to the continued growth of any new product or service. Here are three ways to do so, according to experts:
Successful companies constantly work to improve their offerings, regardless of current product quality.
Speed to market
New ideas shouldn't be bogged down by minute details. Get a viable product out the door, find some early adopters, and make incremental improvements.
Strong customer relations
Consistent feedback, both positive and negative, is critical to product improvement, as well as customer retention. When distribution is a factor, strong relationships with partners may be critical, as well.