Once on the cusp of unicorn status, Vision Critical recalibrates—and rebrands

Alida CEO Ross Wainwright. Alida

Market-research-software pioneer Vision Critical was nearly one of Canada’s first tech unicorns before internal governance issues and years of slow growth tarnished its image. Now, in a bid to recalibrate, the Toronto-based firm is changing its name—but its CEO says it’s still years away from a public offering.

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Talking Point

Vision Critical, once expected to be among Canada’s first tech unicorns, is changing its name to Alida. The rebranding strategy comes after years of slow growth and a tense boardroom war between former CEO Angus Reid and board members backed by Georgian Partners and OMERS Ventures, which culminated in Reid’s departure. New CEO Ross Wainwright told The Logic that the company, previously on the cusp of an IPO, is now at least three years away from going public, as it belatedly tries to carve out a niche in the crowded customer experience management space.

On Wednesday Vision Critical unveiled its new name, Alida—part of a rebranding strategy CEO Ross Wainwright said was based on market research that found the name “Vision Critical” was too generic. 

After securing US$20-million in investment this summer via growth-debt financing, Wainwright said the company is unlikely to seek additional funding until 2022, before looking to go public or put the company up for sale. “We think we have a great runway now, but we are probably three years away from any kind of IPO, or activity like that,” he told The Logic ahead of Wednesday’s announcement. 

The rebranding sees the company abandoning the name under which it first emerged as a tech darling. It was founded in 2000 by Andrew Reid, son of pollster Angus Reid, at a time when software that produced advanced analytics on consumer preferences was scarce. The older Reid helmed the company between 2004 and 2014, but a protracted proxy war between Reid and board members backed by OMERS Ventures and Georgian Partners left investors wary about the timing and value of a potential IPO, and the prospect of going public was delayed indefinitely. 

In 2017, the elder Reid sold his stake in the company for $44 million, a transaction that involved New York private equity firm W Capital Partners and Georgian Partners—the latter taking an even bigger share of equity in the company, including a board seat. 

But the business continued to sputter, partly due to its inability to produce the more technologically sophisticated forms of customer-experience-management software sought by just about every big service-oriented company. The board brought Wainwright and a number of other senior executives into Alida just nine months ago in an attempt to broaden the scope of its business. The firm’s current clients include media companies like BuzzFeed and Condé Nast, as well as retailer Canadian Tire. 

Wainwright said the name change had “nothing to do” with distancing the company from Vision Critical’s tempestuous past. “I think we have moved on from the board proxy fight years ago. The name sounded stale, and we really wanted to stand out and have the right brand to take us to a billion-dollar valuation.” 

Founder Andrew Reid told The Logic there are “two sides” to a name change of this nature. “There’s definitely a certain amount of brand equity you erase, but you also have the benefit of writing a new chapter.” (Reid is still a shareholder in the company; he would not disclose how large a stake he still had in Alida, but said his share was “not insignificant.”)

Finally achieving unicorn status might not be any easier for the company now, when the customer-experience-software space has become crowded, said Brett Knoblauch, a senior tech analyst with investment firm Berenberg Capital Markets. 

Knoblauch has covered the customer-experience and market-research-software space for years, watching companies like San Francisco-based Medallia grow exponentially, bagging multinational giants like Walmart and Apple as clients. 

“Having huge customers like Apple, Exxon … the largest companies in every vertical, that in itself is a competitive advantage. They pay up to US$10 million in a year on Medallia software, and that’s a drop in the bucket for them,” he said. 

Indeed, Wainwright cites Medallia and the Provo, Utah- and Seattle-based Qualtrics as Alida’s two main competitors, valued at roughly US$4 billion and US$8 billion, respectively. 

The other segment of the customer-experience-software space is occupied by companies like SurveyMonkey, which offer cheaper, less detailed data packages based on more narrow and traditional market research. “It’s for companies that just want to spend maybe US$10,000 to US$15,000 on understanding consumer preferences better,” said Knoblauch. 

With six different software products, Alida is departing from its old business model under the Vision Critical banner, and attempting to capture both those market segments. The company’s president of products, Riaz Raihan, who was brought in along with Wainwright last December, said Alida charges its customers between US$200,000 and US$400,000 on average for software on an annualized basis. The company primarily offers three-year subscriptions on their various products, which Raihan said give them a cash-flow advantage. 

“Medallia’s pricing is much higher than us, but that’s good for us. We get a lot of customers thinking that they have been ripped off by other companies, and they find our pricing very value-based,” Raihan told The Logic

In July, Alida secured US$20 million in financing from Vistara Capital Partners, a Vancouver-based venture capital firm that specializes in growth-debt funding, a form of raising capital that is less dilutive for existing shareholders but that comes at a significantly higher interest rate. It was the first substantial outside funding the company had received since OMERS Ventures’ $20-million investment in 2012. 

Asked whether Alida had pursued this more obscure form of funding because of a lack of investor interest, Wainwright said that Vistara approached the company about the US$20-million raise. “We did not pursue a debt raise through a more conventional equity round because we felt our shareholders would end up giving away too much in exchange for the investment,” he said.

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Knoblauch said the pandemic has been a boon for customer-experience software companies like Qualtrics, SurveyMonkey and Medallia, given the heightened level of digital engagement. “With COVID, traditional forms of surveying don’t work, because people are not out and about and it is tougher to get in-person feedback.” 

Wainwright, for his part, claims Alida is now profitable, and said Vistara’s US$20 million would be more than enough to serve the company for the next year and a half as it decides on next steps. “We’re actually ahead of our original targets that we set for ourselves. We are performing better than our original plan pre-COVID.”