How to build a 130-person company from nothing

The CEO of Traction on Demand, Greg Malpass, discusses failure, working in the cloud and building a 130-plus-employee operation with no outside investment

Growing up in Nelson, B.C., as the son of a small-town doctor, Greg Malpass always thought he’d follow in his father’s footsteps. Indeed, the 38-year-old former competitive swimmer and rower dreamt of building his own sports medicine clinic when he first started his education at SFU. But those dreams came to a halt in his first semester, when a GPA of just 1.54 got him placed on academic probation. The realization that the sciences might not be for him drove Malpass into the business faculty and, eventually, on to start a company with a simple yet highly customized solution for sales and marketing teams: Traction on Demand. Within nine years, Traction has grown from a one-person operation to 130-plus employees and now counts megabrands such as Telus, Aritzia, Aldo and BlackBerry as clients.

Traction is now one of the largest cloud-based marketing firms in Canada—but arguably a lot of people wouldn’t even know what that means. Can you explain what you do?
We work with Salesforce, which provides a customer relationship management (CRM) platform that allows you to keep track of your customers and all their supporting information. These days Salesforce has become what we call PaaS (Platform as a Service)—meaning they’ve created an environment for you to move any business process and any interaction with anybody into a common platform. If somebody has a business problem or a process problem and they want to capture it in technology, that’s where Traction comes in: we use Salesforce as a foundation to help them better serve their customers, team members or employees.

Top 25 Salesforce system implementer in North America
53rd largest tech company in B.C.
Largest dedicated Salesforce partner in Canada

Why did you start Traction on Demand?
I started it because sales and marketing teams had a very poor interface. There was a fundamental problem: sales would say, “Marketing isn’t producing any quality leads,” and marketing would say, “Sales isn’t producing any quality leads for us to follow up on.” Initially, I wanted to build a professional services company—just purely consulting—that would help with that business process. But what I kept coming up against was that the breakdown wasn’t just in the process; it was that there was no technology in place that could help people stay organized. I then found a few technologies in the market that could do it and taught myself one of those platforms.

Cloud computing is changing the way we think about data. Where are things going with respect to cloud-based marketing and what should we be wary of?
The biggest fear around cloud computing is where the data is being stored—and is it compliant with all the local legislation? Salesforce is a global platform and a publicly traded company. Its share value and entire existence is based on its ability to securely store management information. It doesn’t mean that you have to store all your data in Salesforce; you can store the stuff that you need operationally and keep the stuff that you need to keep secure in a separate database. The beauty of the cloud is that you don’t have worry about things working—they just work.

Your team has grown quite quickly at a time when most Vancouver tech companies are struggling to find talent. What’s the draw of Traction?
Superficial stuff like ping pong tables, foosball and video games are a really good reason to join a company—and yes, we do have some of those things—but the real test of culture is whether it’s a place where people feel free to be themselves. Our goal at Traction is to create empathy among team members so that they have an understanding of the functions and roles within the company. We give them a portfolio of live-active projects with customers, as opposed to theory, and there is also a pairing with an existing Tractionite who has been around the block a few times.

What’s the most important quality you look for in a prospective employee?
Failure is the number one thing that leads to success. It’s not the fact that you failed; it’s actually what happens in the moments right after. Do you correct or do you give up? I would say half the population gives up. You need to do an assessment and realize, OK, it’s not like everything I did led me to this failure. Something specific led me to failure. What was it? I’m going to try one thing differently.

Before your entrepreneurial turn, you worked for nearly a decade at Crystal Decisions and Cossette. What kind of an employee were you?
I was loyal to the people I worked for—but not the companies. I worked incredibly hard but had a tough time getting focused and prioritizing. When I worked as a service clerk at the Safeway in Nelson, I would clean all the coolers and polish the chrome—scrub my till until the cows came home. But when I was told to stop doing these things or focus on the job I was hired for, I found it tough because the other tasks were harder. People who I reported to loved me—but people one level above thought I was a threat.