communitech @20 box

In 2000, when John Baker received a surprise visit from Communitech’s then-CEO Greg Barratt, he was finishing his fourth year at the University of Waterloo and already running the two-person startup Desire2Learn.

Barratt introduced himself and suggested the young entrepreneur, only 23 at the time, become a member of the tech industry hub that had been founded a few years earlier. Baker turned him down – he didn’t have any spare cash – but Barratt insisted, offering the systems design engineering student a free temporary membership and an invitation to give a five-minute talk about his fledgling software company.

“I had very low expectations,” Baker says now of his lunchtime presentation to an audience of about 300. “My hope was that I would get a lead to talk to somebody about a potential client.”

Instead, immediately afterwards, he scored what amounts to a business hat trick: He received investment offers, recruited a future employee and was introduced to one of his first major customers. That experience, and the mutually rewarding relationship with Communitech that followed, is the main reason Baker still calls Waterloo Region home.

Today, Baker’s company – rebranded as D2L in 2014 – is one of the region’s most prominent success stories and a global powerhouse in the education sector. D2L’s flagship product, Brightspace, is a cloud-based learning management system that allows classrooms of all kinds to have an interactive, online existence.

In addition to providing a home for materials, conversations and assignment feedback, D2L also harnesses its almost two decades of data to help instructors and students predict, and thus alter, learning outcomes. Currently, Brightspace serves 15 million users around the world from a wide range of environments – K-12, higher education, health care, government and corporate – and D2L employs more than 750 people living on five continents.

In the company’s early days, before Baker became a Communitech member, his client outreach proceeded just a tad more slowly.

“You’re gonna laugh, but my approach to sales back in those days was to go to a door and knock on it.” – John Baker

“You’re gonna laugh, but my approach to sales back in those days was to go to a door and knock on it,” he says, explaining that many of the professors he met that way asked him to explain the Internet to them.

After his five minutes of fame, however, things did speed up significantly. “Even though we were just two people, folks rushed up and gave us their business cards, tried to get me networked in, introduced me to their companies’ HR team and did everything they could to help us be successful,” he says.

Within a few months, one of those Communitech members – Ray Simonson, who headed up an online financial services provider that was later bought by the CheckFree Corporation – hired D2L to build a course to help the firm’s clients understand how to best use its software.

d2l office life

D2L’s headquarters in the Tannery, next to the Communitech Hub, is filled with open, creative work space. (Photo: Clay Stang)

After that, Baker’s involvement in other early Communitech events led to meetings with decision makers from a number of schools, including Wilfrid Laurier University, Conestoga College, the University of Guelph and his own alma mater, the University of Waterloo.

While landing these and other landmark clients early on helped catapult D2L into a growth phase, Baker says his own personal growth as a leader required something else: mentorship. Shortly after he officially joined Communitech, Baker was invited into its peer-to-peer group for CEOs, where he gleaned insights on everything from staff issues to the challenges of taking on investors from a long list of industry veterans, including Sandvine’s Dave Caputo, Research In Motion’s Jim Balsillie and OpenText’s Tom Jenkins.

“Jeffrey Immelt once told me that he refers to the CEO club as the lonely hearts club,” says Baker of the General Electric exec he met at an EY Entrepreneur of Year event. “You can’t really talk to anyone else except this group that you trust and who share a similar level of responsibility.”

Of course, the learning didn’t go in only one direction. In 2006, D2L was involved in a patent fight with competitor Blackboard Inc. Three and a half years later, when Baker won, Communitech’s group of CEOs celebrated him as an inspiration to them all. “That was the first moment that I realized, even as a small company, you can surprise folks and you can do things to change the norm,” he says. 

D2L continues to be a dominant player in its market, bolstered by raising a total of US$165 million from investors over the last five years. (Current Communitech CEO Iain Klugman acted as a personal reference during the initial fundraising in 2012.) Baker says D2L’s recent growth is due, in part, to an increase in international business, and within the corporate sector – Walmart, PNC Bank and Accenture all use Brightspace.

“That was all part of the plan back in 2000 when I gave that talk,” Baker says of his icebreaker at Communitech. In fact, he still occasionally looks at the pitch deck he presented then and is surprised to find it continues to be relevant.

“We’re just now launching gaming engines and virtual reality, but we were talking about that back then as part of the future,” he says. “Seventeen years later, we’ve actually kept to that plan very, very well.”