Toronto company teaches old market new tricks with open source software

Mark Graham’s promotional products business had hit a ceiling – it couldn’t push enough paper to keep up to speed with the nearly 100 suppliers it relied on for day-to-day business operations.

Just a couple of years into launching with no venture capital assistance, Graham knew he had to find ways to deal with more information, but for a low cost.

The budding entrepreneur recognized the promotional products industry essentially used low-tech tools. It had been around for almost a century and the companies in this space were entrenched in some conventional habits.

That’s where he saw his opportunity to make his Toronto-based firm a success.

“If there’s a way I can immediately differentiate the company in this low-tech space, it’s with some hi-tech innovation,” Graham says. “So we got rid of all the paper. The sales people can input their orders and someone that’s sitting on a production screen across the office can see that and simply connect to the suppliers in a much more efficient way.”

Rightsleeve used Sun Microsystems’ MySQL as the underlying technology for the database needed to organize all its different products offered for branding.

As MySQL is open source software, any company can take the code – for free – and develop it in-house to meet their needs.

The database software has been distributed 100 million times and is described on its Web site as “the world’s most popular open source database software.”

Graham credits MySQL with boosting his company’s growth to a point where it now offers more than 10,000 promotional products.

What’s more, to achieve all this he hasn’t had to hire more staff, and is more profitable as a result. He endorses open source software as an affordable option for other businesses looking to adopt technology that could give their business a much-needed boost.

“It just requires some time and communication across the office to make it happen,” he says. “It can transform your business.”

Free software that has this kind of business impact might sound pretty good to a lot of companies right now.

With a tough global economy causing a credit crunch, more cautious consumer spending, and other businesses tightening their budgets, any advantage gained is a boon.

That was the message Harinder Takhar, Ontario’s minister of small business and consumer services emphasizing at a roundtable discussion Feb. 2.

Technology, he says, can be the low-cost path to global competitiveness for Canada’s small and mid-sized businesses.  

He says at the time when the global – and our own – economy is facing some serious challenges, “we need to look at how IT can provide the tools for business to increase productivity.”  

Some companies’ first instinct in a downturn might be to cut IT budgets, but the minister discourages that. He urges companies to the Internet now more than ever to reach out to customers and expand reach.

“Small and medium-sized businesses are the backbone of our economy,” Takhar says. “We want to make sure they become global in reach.”

Businesses should also look to software as a service (SaaS) options to meet their technology needs, adds Dave Anderson, CEO of Inc., who was also a participant in the roundtable.

Anderson and his Midland, Ont.-based company offer financial analysis services to address a range of business needs.

SaaS, he says, can provide a manager at any level key metrics to adjust business operations to align with his or her goals.

Various SaaS options are also easy to pick up and start using, and can be accessed on various operating systems, Anderson adds.

Companies thinking about adopting open source software should carefully weigh their options.

“The time you spend on this in your office can often be a much higher cost than purchasing something off the shelf,” he says.

Rightsleeve’s Graham acknowledges that the transition to Open Source wasn’t completely smooth at his company but says it was fully worth it, despite the challenges.

He recalls some of those challenges.

The president faced some tough decisions when some long-time staff weren’t quick to embrace the new paperless workflow, he says.

“When we went online, it was an all-or-nothing type transition. That was a challenge for some people who’d been around for some time.”

Then there were bugs that had to be ironed out and testing phases that had to be worked through. Not all of the Rightsleeve staff made it through the transition. But the company may be better for it.

“Back in the old days, we’d fax purchase orders to a wide array of suppliers around the world and one person’s job was to stay on top of that production,” he says. “It was all done by hand – in fact it was done by sticky note.”

Moving to an online database system not only means Graham has removed the ceiling from his business – he’ll never have to look at a mess of sticky notes again.

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