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Branham300 Executive Interview - Tommy Petrogiannis, President, Silanis

Monday, April 23, 2012

Tommy Petrogiannis, SilanisFor the past 20 years, Branham has tracked the Canadian ICT Industry and the leading companies that comprise it. As part of Branham’s ongoing efforts, we speak with leading executives from across Canada to gather first-hand insight on current trends and recent developments within the Canadian Technology space. Recently, Branham sat down with Tommy Petrogiannis, President at Silanis to talk about his career, his company and what the future has in store. The following statements summarize some of the key points that Mr. Petrogiannis would like to pass along to the Branham300 community. Alternatively, listen in on the conversation between Branham and Mr. Petrogiannis in its entirety here.

A Life-Long Interest in Technology Leads to Entrepreneurship…

Technology has always fascinated me. I have always been the type who enjoys the application of technology and how it impacts the way people live and work. Early on in my career, I was lucky enough to work at some large organizations like Compaq and Matrox Electronics. This was a very interesting time, in terms of the lifecycle of technology, when people were shifting from mainframes to local area networks and the power of PCs was really being unleashed in the business world. Technological breakthroughs were happening continuously, and people and companies were reshaping the world we lived in. This was very appealing to me, as I have always been someone who has wanted to make a difference and impact the people around me. It was this appeal that really drove me to take the entrepreneurial leap and start a business.

The Idea that Spurred Silanis…

Before I co-founded Silanis, I spent a lot of time thinking about the next big break that was going to change how people worked. Back in the late-1980’s, early-1990’s, I saw the potential of pen-based computing – the technology that was the pre-cursor to today’s web tablet. I really thought that this innovation would change the paradigm of how people interact with computers and the role that paper was going to play in the business world of the future. While I didn’t have a clear vision of how everything was going to shake out, I knew I was on to something, so I co-founded Silanis in 1992 and got to work on the initial business plan for an e-signature solutions provider.

Why People and Businesses Fall to Paper…

If you think about it, there are only two reasons you fall to paper: either to read something or to sign it. Everything else stays electronic. Web-tablets and improved digital displays have solved the reading issue, and we are striving to solve the second issue with our electronic signature solutions.

Silanis’ Original Vision Remains the Same 20 Years Later…

Our original vision has remained fairly static over the past 20 years: be the largest e-signature provider in the world. While it’s been a long and challenging road to achieve this vision, I am happy to say that currently Silanis is recognized as just that. This is something that I am very proud of, and I share this achievement with each member of the Silanis team. However, even though we have reached this goal, we remain focused on staying at the top of our market and innovating the solution-set that is in-demand with our customers.

The E-Signature Solution that Leads the Industry…

I’m pretty proud of the fact that we were first to market with the concept of embedding a signature in the document. The traditional approach before this was to secure a document by putting it in the equivalent of a fed-ex box with password protection, and then the intended recipient would open it and move forward with the approval process. Unlike the traditional approach, our technology actually allows the user to sign the document electronically and have the e-signature embedded so that it becomes part of the native document, independent of the mode of transportation that is used to deliver it.

What’s also unique about our solution is that consumers can electronically sign documents over the Internet without needing any special software, besides a web browser. This was actually very complicated for the Silanis team to achieve, because we’re not just dealing with simple forms. We are dealing with sophisticated documents and contracts that sometimes require the highest levels of security and confidentiality. This was a real fundamental breakthrough, and as a result we have changed the way paper is used in organizations today and how the approval process should be done.

The Main Drivers that Led to the Growth of the Company…

There have been a couple of things that have driven things for us, in terms of growth.

The first is an increase in the regulatory scrutiny that companies face in today’s world. The magnifying glass, if you will, that companies are under today is pretty significant, and as a result companies need to implement technologies that not only allow them to adhere to the regulatory scrutiny of their business, but in a lot of cases also exceed it. As more and more markets face these kinds of pressures, they often come to us to fill a very unique and specific need.

Another big driver for us is a fairly straightforward one – the application of Silanis’ e-signature technology results in significant cost reductions. Companies are really beginning to see that not only will they be more productive because the e-signature and approval process will take less time, but they will also reduce a lot of the costs that go along with tracking and processing a document. If you think about it, when you fall to paper, all of the automation benefits of remaining digital disappear. Our technology enables you to stay electronic from the start of the process to the end, and to track the process entirely.

The Tipping Point of the E-Signature Market…

Adoption rates of e-signature solutions have increased significantly recently, and I think we will see this trend continue into the foreseeable future, as more and more companies see the value of this technology. As a result of this, I think we have already reached a tipping point in this market. The reality for a lot of organizations over the past few years was that they were pretty hamstrung in terms of investing and adopting new technologies, because they were dealing with significant downturns in their own business. They saw the value of Silanis’ technology, but they didn’t have the resources to buy at the time. This kind of created pent-up demand, and over the past year we have seen a big uptake in the demand for our solutions and services. As markets continue to improve, we expect that this level of demand will continue, which is a big plus for Silanis and its stakeholders.

Key Markets on the Horizon…

One of the earliest adopters of e-signature and approval solutions market was actually the government. They really liked the internal process improvements that came along with our electronic signature offerings. If you think about it, within the government it isn’t that rare that upwards of 20 or 30 people have to sign-off on something to get it approved. It’s pretty obvious when you think about it – if you can complete this process at the speed of email, you are moving way faster than through inter-office mail. While this segment was the first adopters of our technologies, they remain critical to our business as we move into other verticals.

The secondary wave was the financial services space, meaning insurance and banking organizations. These organizations also liked the speed-element that Silanis’ technologies bring to the table, but there were other drivers like document tracking, green initiatives and an overall reduction in the level of complexity that caused them to come on board with us.

I think wave three for us is going to be around pharmaceutical and healthcare companies, where privacy controls and civic elements are quite substantial in terms of what you can and can’t share between different agencies and groups. In parallel to that, I think we will also see increased demand in the manufacturing and quality control space, as more and more companies want the added benefit of making sure that you can document and recreate how something gets done. That’s a huge plus that our technology brings to the table for clients in this area.

Key Lessons Learned through the Years…

As a company, we’ve lived through some very challenging times. We’ve survived 9/11, when 50% of our customer-base was government and we literally watched this side of our business disappear overnight. We lived through the crash and all the challenges that came along with that period. More recently, we have lived through one of the most turbulent times in terms of an economic recession, period. Even through all of this, Silanis has persevered and I think that really validates the solutions that we have brought to market. If the demand wasn’t there, neither would this business.

At the end of the day, I’ve learned that running a business is actually relatively straightforward: revenues minus expenses, equals profit. It’s not more complicated than that. If you try to make it more complicated, it leads to unnecessary challenges. Even though running a business can get complex, I always find that the best approach is trying to simplify things and focus on the major business issues and the little issues will likely take care of themselves.

Another key to my success throughout my career has been surrounding myself with smart and talented people. It may sound a little bit funny but one of the rules I have tried to follow throughout my career is to always be the dumbest guy at the table. Things change very rapidly, especially in the technology space, and if you consistently surround yourself with smart people that complement any areas that aren’t your strengths, it will help to set your company on the right path. Not only will these people bolster any deficient skill-sets, they also think differently leading to new opportunities and ideas that could have a huge impact on the business.

Parting Advice…

I’ll pass on something that was passed on to me:

The windshield is twenty times bigger than the rear-view mirror.

A lot of stuff happens behind you, but you have to be focused on looking forward and addressing the problems of tomorrow based on the information you have today.


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