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Seal of Approval

Building credibility is crucial to new companies, but many have a hard time overcoming the fly-by-night stereotype that tends to dog startups. Not so for HR Downloads Inc. By winning endorsements from influential players in its industry and leveraging those kudos to get more business, the London, Ont.-based firm has generated both street cred and blistering growth in three short years.

HR Downloads offers its clients general or custom processes and documents on everything human resources, from hiring and firing to benefits and safety training, all with a distinct Canadian focus. The firm was founded in 2008 by Anthony Boyle, who had struggled to find trustworthy HR information when handling the personnel file on the sales team he managed at the time. "I saw a gap in the market," Boyle says.

To test the waters, he built a website himself and contracted a writer to prepare and vet 30 Ontario-specific HR process documents. Boyle uploaded these to the site and started making sales calls. He knew he had a hit on his hands when he scored 10 sales in his first week.

Within eight months, HR Downloads had expanded to serve other provinces, and developed a consulting arm. Today, the firm counts almost 6,000 customers among its clientele, ranging from mega-corporations to small non-profits. In 2010, its revenue topped $2.3 million, up 1,012% from 2008, putting HR Downloads at No. 10 on this year's PROFIT HOT 50 ranking.

Despite the early rash of sales, the journey from startup to growth star wasn't easy. While Boyle's sales efforts got small companies on board quickly, bigger fish wouldn't give the firm a chance in the beginning. The reason? In the eyes of these potential clients, HR Downloads lacked credibility.

There are many ways to gain credibility; some firms do it by earning certifications or securing client testimonials. It didn't take long for Boyle to learn which method would be best to win over target clients. These firms tended to choose vendors that have earned "preferred" status from provincial HR associations. What HR Downloads really needed was such an endorsement.

The firm started by approaching Ontario's Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA). But not the HRPA's Toronto head office, which is inundated with endorsement requests. Instead, Boyle hired a senior HR consultant and HRPA member as an adviser. The adviser arranged for Boyle to demonstrate his work to the executive of the HRPA's London chapter, which was quick to tell local members to check it out. Within a year, that recommendation had accounted for a significant percentage of HR Downloads' 1,000 customers. "Starting local was key," Boyle says.

This critical mass caught the attention of the HRPA's head office, which agreed to test HR Downloads' offerings in 2009. In addition to being a necessary step in the quest for credibility, Boyle saw this as a prime market-research opportunity. During the evaluation process, he asked HRPA staff for feedback; several of their suggestions made their way into the firm's offering, making it more user-friendly for members and more marketable, too.

The tests went well, and HR Downloads won its prized preferred vendor status. In accepting, the firm agreed to give HRPA members across Ontario a 10% discount, which has revved up sales significantly.

The thing about credibility is that it tends to multiply: the HRPA endorsement in Ontario has helped secure similar approvals from HR associations in Alberta and Nova Scotia. Still, HRPA counterparts in some provinces have yet to offer similar support. In the case of the B.C. Human Resources Management Association, a competitor had gotten there first. "But that's not stopping us," Boyle says. In B.C. and other jurisdictions in which HR Downloads has yet to get the official OK, he's planting the seeds for future support by purchasing ads in association publications and playing up the company's successes elsewhere.

Given how crucial endorsements have been to the firm so far, it's hard to think of a more worthwhile effort.

PROFITguide: Seal of approval

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