Growth 2020 CEO Summit

How these fast-growing startups charted through 2020's economic turbulence

When the going gets tough, the tough entrepreneurs in the Startup List get creative

Growth 500: Canada’s Fastest-Growing Companies
(Courtesy of Ultima Home Care)

(Courtesy of Ultima Home Care)

It’s hard enough to finance a company when you’re an entrepreneur. What happens when disaster strikes—any disaster? Time for some whitewater rafting.

Take Steven Brown. When he launched Ultima Home Care in 2018, he wanted to create something completely different in the home care field. True to its name, Ultima is a bespoke service for seniors looking to stay at home, offering everything from healthcare support (such as wound care and medication management) to meal planning, pet care and even simple companionship.

He had a winning formula, with the Windsor, Ont.-based company supporting more than 10,000 patients in its first two years through subcontracts across southern Ontario. And, by swapping a top-heavy management model (typical to the sector) for a leaner, virtual one, he could also pay front-line workers at least $1/hour more than the competition, attracting high-calibre staff.

Then COVID-19 happened. “We were doing so well, and probably had our best two weeks ever just before the pandemic hit—and things started to plummet,” says Brown. “Truthfully, I was very nervous in the beginning.” Elective surgeries were being postponed, fewer people needing services were discharged into the community, and patients were cancelling care due to fears of contracting the virus. For Ultima Home Care, COVID prompted a 20% dip in volume.

The company lost a quarter of its part-time personal support workers (PSWs) because they opted to sign up for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Finding new staff became a problem as nurses and PSWs who work multiple jobs were mandated to choose just one employer—and many chose long-term care homes to get more hours. “While we understood the reason for this, we lost some really good staff,” says Brown.

Yet Ultima (No. 32 on the Startup List) has not only managed to persevere, it is among the fast-growing companies in our ranking. And Ultima is not alone.

Open communication

When COVID hit, Calgary-based Levvel, whose services include management consulting, staffing and software testing, saw a slew of new projects cancelled or deferred.

Most small businesses were taking advantage of government support to stay afloat with interest-free loans, wage subsidies and tax deferrals. But Levvel (No. 66 on the Startup List) wasn’t eligible for many government subsidies for months, due to its previous growth. So the entire staff took a 20% pay cut for 2020 to help avoid layoffs.

“We’ve been sharing our financials with the entire team since COVID started,” says Levvel co-founder and president Brian Milloy, “so there are no secrets and they trust us—and they’re going to help keep us going.”

“Everybody rolled up their sleeves, and there wasn’t even a question about it,” he adds, noting that the employees at Levvel are paid well to begin with.

Milloy says he also went back to the financial institutions he works with to secure additional cash flow and found them receptive.

Find new customers

When COVID put the brakes on sporting-event contracts for Surrey, B.C.-based Yare Media Group, founder and CEO Hugh Dobbie adapted his streaming service to meet the needs of a new range of customers. Steering from sports to arts, culture, entertainment and corporate events, Yare (No. 43 on the Startup List) went from zero prospects for 2020 to notable revenue gains.

“We ended up getting inquiries for [online] galas, festivals and concerts, and we could modify our platform fairly easily to do all of that,” says Dobbie. “Even when sports come back, hopefully we’ll come out of this with a whole new vertical to service too.”

Finding creative ways to grow and innovate is important, says Toronto-based venture capitalist Matthew Leibowitz, the managing general partner at Plaza Ventures. “Now is a great time for companies to think about building new product sets to help lock in new customers and drive engagement with existing ones.”

And Ultima?

Brown started hearing about the lack of workers available for Ontario long-term care homes during COVID. So he tried an old-school sales tactic: He recruited full-time employees to replace the part-time workers he usually hired, while cold-calling local health integration networks to offer staffing support—until one said ‘Okay!’ “It was a bit of a gamble, but thankfully, it worked out,” says Brown.

Now Ultima has its first ever direct government-funded contract, providing overflow home care services in southwestern Ontario. “I don’t think we could have gotten our foot in the door without these [COVID] circumstances,” says Brown. “It’s early days but I expect, volume-wise, this will be bigger than all our other contracts put together.”