Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Chris Vandersluis. I’m the president of a Montreal-based software company called HMS Software.
I founded HMS back in 1984, and it’s still strong today. HMS is the publisher of TimeControl, a project-based timesheet designed to fulfill multiple purposes at once.
TimeControl tracks activity-based time for use in updating project management plans. It was also designed to deliver timesheet data for Finance for use in Payroll, Human Resources, Job Costing, Invoicing, Defense Contract Audit Agency Compliance, and R&D tax credit reporting.
HMS is a self-funded firm that grows organically and has been around for 38 years.
Our client list reads like a who’s who of large organizations in the private and public sectors.
HMS is a private business, so we don’t share our financials. I can say that we made between $2 million and $3 million last year and were about 30% profitable.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Like many new companies, creating HMS and what we would do with the company came as an opportunity.
In 1984 we were a two-person programming and consulting team and had some project management experience.
A family friend had a contact at Philips Electronics in Montreal and that helped us get a contract to choose, customize and implement a project management tool and, as part of that work, create a timesheet.
We wrote what we thought was a winning design and the Finance people were delighted. Across the table, the Project Management people were not. Undaunted, we went back to the drawing board and came up with an even better design. This time the Project Management people were all smiles. Across the table, the Finance people were not.
In the end, I think we wrote the timesheet almost 3 times because the essential requirement was that the same timesheet system would work for the project management team to update project progress and, at the same time, work for Finance to provide information for Payroll, HR, and Financial reporting for R&D tax credits. That became a unique and winning product.
That work took over a year. By the time we were done, we had become the exclusive distributor of a project management tool in Canada, leading us to work with some of the largest companies imaginable.
Take us through the process of designing and prototyping your product.
I wish I could describe this as a startup would now, but it’s been almost four decades now, and we were just two people with a mission to make what the client needed, and the client themselves weren’t sure.
The client, a Fortune 500 company, had engaged us because they had tried unsuccessfully 4 times in the early 1980s to find a complete project management tool to do what they imagined they needed. It’s hard to remember now what project management software looked like then. Remember the IBM PC was only released in August of 1981. By the time we got into business in 1983, there were very few project management tools for PCs to choose from. Project Management software before 1982 was all on mainframe or minicomputers. We found a handful of options so flexibility was important to us.
They had numerous thoughts about functionality, most of which weren’t helpful. Ultimately, we learned to work backward from the business requirements to what they needed on a screen and custom-write whatever there was a gap for.
This early work would lay the groundwork for what would ultimately become our timesheet business with TimeControl some ten years later. In 1994, ten years after HMS was founded, we shifted the company from consulting/distribution to being a publisher. We had already created numerous timesheets for different clients and we knew that our internal expertise and experience could quickly create a commercial product for publication. That product would be named TimeControl.
Describe the process of launching the business.
There are two stories to the launch that we remember as the early days were from 1984 to 1994 when we would best be characterized as a consulting / distribution company specializing in project management.
In 1994 we transformed HMS Software into what it looks like today, a publisher of project-oriented software tools. Our first product, TimeControl, was meant to be just the start, but the product took on a life of its own and became the cornerstone of what we would focus on.
There is no outside expert, no money provider, and no external consultant who knows your business as well as you.
Financing HMS in 1994 was all bootstrapped. We had some ongoing revenue from our existing consulting business, and as that business faded, our publishing business, TimeControl, expanded.
In 1994 even the Internet was new to most companies, so our marketing was more in person through trade shows, physical mailers, and phones. As technology evolved, so did we.
The HMS Software website was one of the first on the Internet. Our product TimeControl went from a DOS-based interface in 1994 to Windows-based in 1995. In 1999 we released a browser-based version that was revolutionary to the market. Our SaaS version was launched in 2011, and the free TimeControl mobile app was released later that year. As technology moves on, so does TimeControl.
On the finance side, we have grown organically with one big exception.
In 1999 we arrived late to the technology bubble and accepted a minority investment from two Canadian-based high-tech/low-cap funds. It wasn’t awesome timing. The tech crash of 2000 was right around the corner. It would take us until 2006 to buy the investors out of business, and we have gone back to organic growth.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Our view of marketing is holistic. We believe we need to be everywhere. You’ll find us as early adopters of Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Pinterest, and other social media. Our Twitter account for example has one of the largest followings in our industry but we don’t depend on just that. We sell an enterprise product and decisions to buy a company-wide timesheet aren’t made in minutes. They’re made over a much longer period of time. So, we’ve determined that the most productive way to market is to have our name and our product name visible to a prospective customer multiple times in multiple locations. Aside from social media, we look to numerous other opportunities.
Our TimeControl.com website is the primary path for people to find HMS, and we spend a great deal of time working on Search Engine Optimization and backlinks to have the site figure prominently when people are looking for an activity-based timesheet.
HMS spends time emailing our existing contacts and maintains a blog with a tremendous amount of information. Our view is that our website should be educational rather than a leads funnel. Our email list has grown to several thousand people over the years and with every possible marketing opportunity, we try to add to it. We send emails to our existing contacts 12 to 18 times per year talking about what is happening with TimeControl and other newsworthy events. Some of our recent subjects include: how TimeControl helps manage vacation, sick leave, and other time off, our 25th year of having a direct integration link with Oracle Primavera, and, how our free TimeControl Mobile App includes its reporting engine.
Our view of direct email is to have people read about the industry, TimeControl, client deployment experiences, and more and keep us in mind if they are considering using or expanding their use of TimeControl
One area that has been reminiscent of past marketing is public speaking. As HMS Software’s president, I’ve visited with many in the project management and technical industries and current topics of interest.
We have spent money on Google Ads, Bing Ads, and other advertising, and all produce some value, but nothing is as essential as our Search Engine Optimization and the happiness of our clients. For Search Engine Optimization, we focus not just on the word “timesheet”. That is so heavily overused we’d never be found. We look for qualifiers such as “R&D Timesheet”, “Primavera Timesheet” and “Project Timesheet”.
Then we align our website content and any external content such as blog posts, email blasts, newsletters, and more to highlight those keyword combinations. Our goal is to get people to learn more about TimeControl and that has been very successful. One client told us that by the time they contacted us directly they had read every white paper we ever published and had already answered all the questions they had. They were ready to move immediately into negotiations.
Our number one source of new business is referrals. That comes from a couple of sources. First, clients who have individuals who leave one organization and join another can explain the satisfaction of working with us on TimeControl. Secondly, clients who network with each other. Our client satisfaction rate is high and our clients are generous in explaining to others what they like about TimeControl and HMS. Stopping by the TimeControl.com website, you’ll see numerous testimonial letters and client case studies by immediately recognizable organizations.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
A company that has been around for 38 years isn’t exactly a start-up but we try to maintain that attitude in many things. We didn’t get into the business to get out. We got into the business to stay in so our logic about finances can be slightly different from some.
HMS is profitable. We have been for 7 of the last 8 years. We do between $2m and $3m of revenue a year and our net profit margins are in the 20% - 30% range. It’s a healthy business.
At one time, years ago, we often worked through on-location dealers and distributors, but with the world being such a smaller place, that has mostly gone away.
We still work with partners who receive a finders fee commission on sales that we work on, but our sales and, in particular, our subscriptions to the SaaS version of TimeControl are direct. Our product is a business-to-business model.
We see the future as very positive for HMS and for TimeControl. New sales continue to grow, and new clients continue to join us.
We recently introduced a new premium version of TimeControl called TimeControl Project, which carries some great functionality for future planning and analysis of projects.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Business lessons never cease. HMS has lived through three separate recessions so far. There may be another in 2023. If there is, HMS will no doubt survive it just as well. So lessons are easy to come by.
If I had to give any advice about life lessons I’ve learned, I’d include “Trust yourself” There is no outside expert, no provider of money, and no external consultant who knows your own business as well as you.
“Be ready to change.” Nothing lasts forever, so expect that sooner or later, whatever path your own will have to change. Being stuck for too long on one trail can be a big challenge.
And finally, “When you find great teammates, keep them around” I have 3 people who have worked with me for over 30 years. I very much like finding the right people and sticking with them.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use various tools but tools and platforms change over the long term, so we’re not particularly married to any of them.
We use Salesforcefor our customer relationship management, which has served us very well.
LinkedInhas been a key marketing tool, particularly when someone leaves one organization and joins another.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I read quite a bit, so this is a tricky question. Sun Tzu and the Art of War have been influential more as a philosophy to follow. I was significantly impacted by Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm when it came out. My most recent read is The Riddle of the Pyramids by Kurt Mendelssohn.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Never give up. If you have an idea, be bold and give it a try. When others may come to trail along on your idea, make sure that you understand what they are getting from the exercise and what you are giving up to let them play.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always looking for excellent programming talent but are currently fully staffed.
Our staff is working in a hybrid mode right now from our Montreal offices so anyone we would consider would have to live near enough to the office to be able to be there in person.
We’re not looking for anyone fully remote in the near future.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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