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Why We Invested in Canvas

Nate Lentz
June 7, 2013

In conjunction with the recent announcement of their funding round, Canvas asked me to write a guest post on their blog that summarized our reasons for making the investment.  In case you missed it on their blog, I have reposted our response here:

My kids – ages fourteen, twelve, and ten – are often my greatest critics when it comes to Osage investment decisions.  Some websites do not meet their standards.  Sometimes they think concepts I like are actually pretty lame.  We once had an investment in a company called Landslide to which my eldest son wanted to know, “Dad – why would you name a company Landslide?  Landslides are bad things.”   While Landslide eventually had a decent exit, it never fully realized the potential we saw when we first invested given difficult competitive dynamics, something perhaps naïve analysis of the company name might have presaged.  Maybe my son should have my job and I can go back to 8th grade Algebra.

So, after Osage led Canvas’s recently completed round of fundraising, my kids asked me why Osage Venture Partners had invested in Canvas.  Naturally they threw in a reasonable jab to start:

“Dad – don’t you think you should learn how to use your iPhone first before making a mobile investment.”

Admittedly, a fair assessment of my mobile expertise.  The fact that Canvas presents a dead simple user experience that allowed even me to build my own mobile application in minutes factored heavily into our investment decision.  It is so easy that I started with a basic expense report that I found in the application store and was able to add picture insertion, GPS stamping and logic loops in the forms – and I didn’t even have to call customer support.  Canvas enables businesses of all sizes to quickly transform their business by digitizing paper-based workflows, driving significant cost savings and productivity improvements.

“Dad – was it because they are so easy to find on Google”

With thousands of paper-form-replacing applications in the application store, Canvas appeals to a broad cross-section of businesses from doctor’s offices to electricians and plumbers to oil field services to service repair workers.   This makes Canvas a multi-vertical solution at a time when nearly all business owners are thinking “there must be an app for that” to digitize repeatable and inefficient processes.  The application store drives high volumes of long-tail search traffic, yielding double-digit monthly growth on little to no marketing spend that has resulted in an internationally diverse customer base.  From tracking rhino poachers in Kenya to managing charitable donations in Australia – companies just seem to find Canvas.  The depth and breadth of the content in the Canvas application store also presents tremendous value for channel partners and creates a meaningful barrier to entry for potential competitors.

“Dad – was it because they eliminate paper and are saving the earth?”

Saving the earth – maybe (Canvas saves more than 2 tons of paper each month).  Saving companies money – absolutely.  ROI was a major investment factor.  Canvas can reduce expenses – the cost of the paper itself (which is surprisingly high), the cost of handling, storing, and filing that paper, the cost of inputting the data that is put on paper – and also drive new business opportunities given the things you can do with a mobile solution that you can’t do on a form (attach a picture; GPS tag an input; read a bar code; take a credit card; send a PDF receipt electronically; manage routing and dispatch; comply with HIPPA, etc.).  Customer interviews during our diligence process highlighted the tremendous value users extracted from Canvas relative to its cost.  In fact,  the value was  so evident that customers did not even feel compelled to justify an explicit ROI.

“Dad – was it because of the cool cactus store ad?”

I would love to say that the Verizon ad featuring the Canvas solution put us over-the-top in terms of our investment decision, but we had made the investment before the ad hit the airwaves.  We recognized that Canvas is the perfect partner for carriers seeking to penetrate the small business markets with stickier offerings in a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) world.  Think about it from a carrier perspective:  Is it better to partner with fifty companies with fifty different vertically and functionally targeted solutions or one company, Canvas, with the breadth of offerings to be applicable to many key verticals?  Our early-stage companies rarely – OK, never – get top billing in national TV spots (paid for by Verizon) or full-page ads in the Washington Post (paid for by Blackberry), demonstrating the tremendous value that channel partners recognize in a partnership with Canvas.  As further validation, Motorola made a strategic investment in the company both ahead of us and with us through their VC fund, Motorola Solutions.

“Dad – you just liked getting invited to the British Embassy.”

It is not often that a small company we are considering investing in has a party thrown in its honor at the British Embassy.  Canvas was thrown such a party as a tribute to how its technology was being applied in 50 different applications at the London Olympics last summer.  And Canvas didn’t try to sell to the Olympics – the Olympics found them.  We spoke to 20 customers ranging from tiny (2 employees) to large enterprises (you may be drinking their product right now) and they all raved about the product, the customer support and the company overall.  People who invest in consumer products are used to hearing user passion, but enterprise solutions rarely raise the pulse.  Canvas drives excitement.

“Dad – what about the guy who made the bloody video about eliminating paper?”

Canvas has a unique and dynamic culture that is really what makes the company run.  The “Stupid Paper” video(which you need to check out if you haven’t seen it) is just one of many initiatives that foster that culture.  Canvas is a different place to work or to visit or to be involved with.   Let’s run through a few of the reasons:

  • Enterprise mobility DNA:   This isn’t a team that woke up one morning in 2010, realized that smart phones were cool, and started a company (and we see a lot of those, by the way).  This is a team that woke up one morning in 1990 and started working on enterprise mobility through the evolution of both the hardware and software.  In our first meeting they pulled out the box of devices they had been associated with over the years and believe me – these things belong in a museum.
  • Extreme entrepreneurial culture:   Canvas leases out half its space to other start-ups and operates in a shared workspace type of environment.  They rotate seating and mix up functional people so that developers are next to sales people are next to marketing people are next to someone from another start-up.
  • Customer, Product, and People Centric: Every new potential hire has to interact with customers in a sales or sales support role, and every new hire has to build a very complex Canvas application on their own to prove that they know enough about the product to engage in real conversation about product evolution.  Every new hire is interviewed by at least one customer as well as people from the most senior to the most junior – and any one person can stop a hire.
  • Giving back: Canvas has a highly regarded annual event where they award the best non-profit use of their applications and all employees are allowed to sponsor one non-profit to use the Canvas solution at no charge – as long as the employee takes responsibility to seeing that the non-profit has success in rolling out Canvas and using it effectively.
  • Fun: The place is fun yet everyone works hard.   The video is one example of that and Jim Quigley – the star of the video and one of Canvas’ founders – infuses the workplace with avid enthusiasm.  The art logo contests, the weird light art displays, the great music videos playing during board meetings, the arcade games in the hallway, the willingness to try new things and to recognize that great ideas come from many places are all manifestations of the culture.
  • Canvas is creating a buzz and is drawing in talent: This is a rock star team that gets stronger with every hire, and has established a reputation as a great place to work for A+ players.

”Dad – is it because even our plumber now has an iPad?”

We had been looking for the right enterprise mobility investment for 18 months and had been stymied by so many solutions that just seemed to be extensions of the desktop.   Canvas addresses the projected doubling of connected workers globally from one billion to two billion over the next five years by extending enterprise solutions to mobile workers – and does so in a highly accessible way that ensures even the smallest of companies can capitalize on the mobile revolution.

“Dad – is Osage going to make money on Canvas?

I sure hope that making great returns for our investors and fantastic outcomes for this team is the ultimate destination of this journey, but I hope we all enjoy the ride as well.   Especially if that ride includes a trip to see customers and partners where Canvas recently opened its second offices – in Australia.