Alim Somani was recognized recently as one of the Caldwell Partners Canada’s Top 40 under 40 honourees, and the road that took the president of Toronto-based IT consultancy Infusion Development to the award began early.
Before graduation from the University of Waterloo, Somani had already started his own IT consulting business. After graduation he joined Infusion as an intern, quickly running the New York-based parent’s fledgling Canadian business. Along his way to the presidency Somani oversaw an offshoring experiment in India, helped sell Canadian nearshoring to the Wall Street banks, and grew the company from 15 people to more than 140 today.
Somani spoke with CDN about the steep learning curve, offshoring vs. nearshoring, and giving back to the community through Infusion’s new angel investing arm, Infusion Angels.
CDN: You weren’t out of university for long before you were running Infusion’s Canadian operation. Were you ready for that challenge?
Alim Somani: We learned a lot of lessons really quickly. We’d all done co-ops with Infusion during our last year of university and we all had dot-com ideas in our heads about what it would take to start a business. Greg Brill, the CEO and founder of Infusion, said why don’t we start something in Canada together and why don’t you guys run it. I think we all, quite honestly, walked into it thinking it would be fairly easy. We managed to secure a first contract before graduation, signing a deal with (a business) to rewrite their Web site. This is right around the time the dot-com bubble burst. A month after graduation, through no fault of our own, the contract fell apart. We realized how hard it was to sell and how hard it was to penetrate a market. We also realized that we were young and we had a lot to learn. Thankfully, we had Infusion behind us. They had a lot of clients; we worked and serviced them and we pounded the pavement. We helped build a near shoring practice and eventually we penetrated the Canadian market. But it took a lot more hard work and a lot more lessons than we’d originally thought.
CDN: Nearshoring became a big part of Infusion’s business. What did the concept offer, and why did it resonate at that particular place and time?
A.S.: Some things offshored very well, like database migrations, but a lot of the harder, more complex work that we were frankly afraid of losing (didn’t work offshore). The time difference, the cultural differences, all these things caused those projects to fail. We were fortunate that while a large client was setting-up their Indian work they wanted to get the project off the ground, so they gave us the opportunity to do a few projects in our Canadian office with the caveat India was the long-term play. But while they were getting India up the projects in Canada succeeded. We were able to get the work done cheaper than in New York, and on-time. And the projects being done in India, while cheaper, just weren’t getting done well. So we made a pitch, and said why don’t you turn us into a branch office, and make a bigger bet (on Canada)? We became this bank’s branch office, doing half a dozen projects at a time. We sold that approach to other banks, and (it has taken off) and become part of the strategy for many banks.
CDN: Since you joined Infusion the staff has expanded greatly. Has it been challenging finding the right people with the right skills?
A.S.: Absolutely. I think the biggest barrier to our growth has always been how fast we can hire great people. It’s always easy to find people, but a big key to our success has been hiring the best people, absolutely brilliant and passionate people. Finding those people is always a challenge. Fundamentally we’re a software development firm, so we look for people with strong computer science fundamentals. We believe the languages are transient and if you’re smart and bright you can pick up new technologies. You have to be a good communicator, you have to be personable, and you have to have a love of client satisfaction. And overall, you have to be passionate, interesting and intelligent.
CDN: With Infusion Angels, are you finding a lot of quality people out there with good ideas looking for help?
A.S.: There really are. We tend to look at very early ideas, almost pre-seed. There are a lot of smart people out there with great ideas. We tend to work with a lot of University of Waterloo students that are very passionate about ideas but need help thinking them out. You coach them, work with them, help them think out the idea, and when they come back a few months later at it will be more thought-out. There’s a lot of mentorship involved. The key for us is finding bright people and helping them think-out their ideas.