Global Report

How Yardstick Software used a Trojan Horse approach to global awareness

Using the web is not enough to get on foreign buyers' radars

In an era in which organizations of all sizes have become preoccupied with training and certification standards, Yardstick Software, an Edmonton firm, has figured out how to profit from our fascination with measurement.

Founded in 2004, the $13-million-a-year company (ranked 214th on the 2013 PROFIT 500 ranking of Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies) specializes in creating tests and exams, mostly delivered online, for organizations that need to accredit or certify a broad range of professionals. Yardstick’s customers are associations such as the College of Nurses of Ontario, the Alberta Real Estate Board and the Financial Planning Standards Council—all groups that confer designations.

According to Yardstick founder and CEO Greg Kureluk, the 35-employee firm has a small team of psychometric experts who design what he calls “defensible” exams for these organizations, thereby helping them invest substance in their credentials. In the past two years, Yardstick has branched into another vertical: selling software that allows clients to administer certification tests online rather than on paper.

“We often use that service as the thin edge of the wedge,” says Kureluk, pointing out that this software gives Yardstick the opportunity to upsell other products and services to its customers, such as the “e-learning” software tools developed by a firm that Yardstick bought earlier this year and sold online.

In Canada, Kureluk continues, Yardstick discovered that there was no one else doing this kind of work. “We’re in a pretty great spot,” he says. “We’re the only company providing this service.” Not surprising, the firm has expanded within Canada’s borders, adding a five-person Toronto office about a year and a half ago.

But because of Yardstick’s e-commerce offerings and the company’s investment in its website, the firm’s brand has begun to gain recognition in the U.S. and Europe. While 55% to 60% of revenue comes from the Canadian market, Kureluk says, the U.S. now accounts for almost a third and the balance comes from outside North America.

The export strategy, he concedes, involves a fair amount of serendipity: “We spend a lot of time and effort to execute communications and web marketing. A lot of our clients find us on the Internet.”

Yet, the Yardstick website’s lead-generation capabilities represent only the launching pad for the export foray—a sort of sales Trojan Horse. Kureluk believes that Yardstick has to get itself in front of potential customers in order to close a deal, and that means working the phones in the traditional way.

That approach has produced some significant offshore customers, including the massive International Air Transportation Association, the Geneva-based entity that establishes global standards for airline activities, as well as the Hills Pet Food Company. Yardstick also has won deals in the education and real estate industries.

The Hills relationship hints at the breadth of the market that Yardstick has discovered. Hills produces highly specialized pet foods and nutrition products that must be recommended by a veterinarian. Vets need to be trained in prescribing the product line, and Yardstick delivers that service online. The numbers are staggering: Kureluk says Hills’ training module goes out to about 50,000 to 70,000 vets each year.

In the U.S., not surprisingly, Yardstick doesn’t have such complete command of its market niches. While the company has won some contracts for its testing products, Yardstick goes head to head against several other large and established players. Consequently, Yardstick has decided to invest in the U.K., where the market for online testing is much less developed. Last year, Kureluk hired a sales rep there, but the relationship didn’t pan out. He says the firm is working to find a replacement.

Yardstick’s longer-term objective—what Kureluk calls the company’s “big hairy audacious goal” —is to become the most recognized testing brand in the Commonwealth by 2030.

Why so far out? “It is a long time,” he concedes. But as someone who knows a thing or two about measuring progress, Kureluk believes such targets are crucial for a growth-minded exporter: “They should be almost unreachable, but also enough to inspire people.”