A conversation 20 years ago between two friends about the deregulated phone industry led to the setting up for Fibernetics, a forerunner on Canadian telecommunications.
By Tenille Bonogoure – October 2014
It began, as so many plans do, over a few pints of beer. It was 1994, and Jody Schnarr was working as a telemarketer selling cheap phone deals in a newly deregulated market. The work was far from riveting.
Schnarr was with his best friend, John Stix, for their regular Thursday drinks. As the beer flowed, the twentysomethings pondered the puzzle of the phone market. the telecom monopoly had been dismantled, enabling small competitors to take on the giants. Seeing an opportunity, the two friends decided to wade into the waters of the deregulated industry themselves.
As can happen with plans made over brews, things quickly went bust. But Schnarr and Stix had developed a taste for entrepreneurship, gaining some hard-won lessons, and went at it again, pounding the pavement to sign up customers to their second start-up.
This time, it worked, They built the business up, sold it off and enjoyed a brief period of well-funded idleness before the entrepreneurial itch returned. Diving back into the game, they launched Fibernetics from a basement office. Now, 10 years later – and 20 years after those Thursday night pints – Fibernetics employs more than 200 people in three countries and supports more than 300,000 customers daily.
“We’ve kind of grown under the radar,” Stix says “In the telco world, everyone knows who we are, but outside that, especially in our own community, a lot of people don’t.”
Business has grown so well, in fact, that Fibernetics and its brands, NEWT and Worldline, are facing challenge that stems from success. How do you retain that fiery start-up energy while maturing into a respected mid-sized entity.
“The biggest challenge is establishing enough process, so people can do their jobs but not too much that you stifle their entrepreneurial spirit,” explains Stix (between meetings on a busy Friday). “You know you have the right balance when ideas flourish [when] one component is not making the other component suffer.”
It’s a juggling trick, he admits, but one that feels familiar. From the start, the co-founders have brought their own style to the operation. Schnarr, the CEO is the strategic visionary, a razor-sharp mind cloaked in a casual-cool wardrobe of funky designer T-shirts and jeans. Stix, the company’s president, is more L.A. style – he will wear a suit if the situation demands it but prefers a more relaxed daily look. “We’re very different, and we complement each other,” says Stix.
So how does that partnership look in practice? Judging from the video clip the staff made of the Pharell Williams song, “Happy”, it seems pretty well, happy. Costumes are donned. Stix does the “worm.” Schnarr dances somewhat precariously on a desk.
“We have a culture we’re trying to create here. You don’t see us in an office upstairs,” Stix says. “We have an open door policy. It’s very collaborative in here. It’s very entrepreneurial.” That policy is not a metaphor. In an effort to keep innovation at the heart of what Fibernetics does, Schnarr and Stix have literally opened their doors to other entrepreneurs wanting to build their dream businesses.
Fibernetics ventures brings seedling start-ups in-house where the new entrepreneurs can gain financial, human-resources and business support. If they need experienced advice, Schnarr and Stix are on hand. If the issue is marketing, the Fibernetics team gets cracking.
So far, there are six start-ups involved, most launched by Fibernetics staff themselves. “It’s a win-win,” Stix says. “We want to keep our employees. If they’re feeling intrapreneurial, we want to encourage that. We want to help them develop their ideas.” It’s also a win for the dynamic duo. Schnarr and Stix get a dose of that start-up buzz, without having to quit their day job.
That’s a good thing because they have no plans to slow down any time soon. Despite the laid-back office style, casual jeans and a plan to build a deck behind the company’s lakeside headquarters, Stix and Schnarr have lofty corporate goals.
“If you ask people in the street to name the leading telcom companies, Stix says, “one day Fibernetics will be in there.”
This article was re-published by permission of Channer’s Waterloo.