Espial CEO Helping Power the Smart TV Revolution

After 17 years at the helm of Espial Group, Jaison Dolvane has seen his share of ups and downs in the high tech world.

But with shares of the Ottawa-based digital TV and Internet protocol television software and solutions provider trading near a five-year high and the company’s executives predicting positive cash flow for the next few quarters, Mr. Dolvane has a contagious sense of excitement about what’s on the road ahead.

It’s a journey he’s taken with his longtime friend Kumanan Yogaratnam, who is Espial’s chief technology officer. Back in high school in Mississauga, Mr. Dolvane and Mr. Yogaratnam spent their spare time fixing computers. When the pair came to Ottawa to study computer science at Carleton University, their fledgling business morphed into consulting and web design and development.

After graduating, they both went to work for big-name companies, including Nortel, Entrust and Corel. But they still had ideas brewing, and it wasn’t long before they decided to jump full-time into their own business.

“We took the leap with the intent to build software for connected devices,” says Mr. Dolvane. “We were young guys who didn’t have families at the time. The risk profile is different when you’re young. There’s nothing to lose.”

Espial was incorporated in 1997, but didn’t really get going until 1999.

“We weren’t doing anything with TVs at the time. Pervasive computing was going to be the next big thing. We figured we needed to create some software to deal with all these different devices so they could communicate with each other,” Mr. Dolvane says.

“The ideas were flowing, the money was flowing, and then, in 2000, the bubble burst,” he says.

But the dot-com crash didn’t stop him or Espial.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a day in the history of Espial when we’ve thought, ‘Let’s pack our bags and go back to a job.’ The train was on the tracks and that was it,” Mr.  Dolvane recalls. “Part of our way of thinking and the way we approach things is that there are going to be new problems every day and there are going to be peaks and valleys. We’re going to have to get out of those valleys and solve those problems.”

Mr. Dolvane adds the dot-com bust was the perfect time for his team to ask the question: “Where is an application of connected devices right now that’s actually making money?”

That turned out to be connected TV, which was the in-room video-on-demand experience for hotels. Mr. Dolvane decided to direct Espial’s efforts on the hospitality sector and had saturated that IPTV market within three years. Espial’s technology was used by industry leaders OnCommand and LodgeNet, giving the Ottawa company a presence in two million hotel rooms across nearly every major hospitality brand in North America.

From there, the company began looking for other IPTV opportunities. That led to the telecom space, where phone companies were eager to use the technology to break into the TV business, landing Espial several new European and North American customers.

Along the way, the company raised some $25 million in a 2007 initial public offering, but saw its stock price slide from more than $9 a share to 25 cents in 2009.

Since then, the company has acquired U.K. software firm ANT, attracting additional outside investments, and it’s seen its shares move about $2.

Espial’s current focus is moving ahead with software products to support an HTML5 user interface and making TVs act more like mobile devices.

The company announced this week it is expanding its Ottawa headquarters and its office in Cambridge, England, to keep pace with demand. Espial plans to boost its local head count from 50 to about 60 and is holding a recruiting drive next month.

Steering such growth is a big job, but Mr. Dolvane isn’t just about Espial. He has three children under the age of six and says Ottawa has been a great city for him to start a multimillion-dollar business as well as raise a family.

“I love it. I travel all around the world and no other city comes close to what Ottawa is,” says Mr. Dolvane. “My wife and I love to go down to the canal with the kids.”

He attributes his ability to balance huge responsibilities at work and home to great teams in both places.

“We have a great group here at Espial and everyone works really, really hard and I’ve got a great wife at home who takes a lot of the load. We’re a team.

“I’m still working on the work-life balance thing, but I don’t know if I’ve quite found it yet,” he says with a laugh.

Still, he’s come a long way from fixing computers in his parents’ basement.

“We’ve made it through a lot of tough times, but it’s all about perspective. We’re not a Google yet,” he quips.

“There’s a lot of work to do. And even if one day I think I’ve arrived, I’ll find the next thing to strive for.”

SIDEBAR: Entrepreneurial advice

“There are entrepreneurs out there who just have it in their DNA, whether they know it right away or not,” says Espial president and CEO Jaison Dolvane. “You need to go for it and find out.”

So, what are the characteristics of a successful entrepreneur? Here are Mr. Dolvane’s top three:

ATTITUDE: “You have to be optimistic, while also being pragmatic and a good problem-solver, because problems will always be there.”

TENACITY: “You’ve got to take things in stride, because there are a lot of things that can hit you at once. When they do, break it down, problem by problem, and get to the other side.”

INSIGHT: “Recognize the talents you have within yourself and within your team. There’s often a great skill set already there to handle new challenges.”

Sidebar 2:

Espial Q1 financials (three months ending March 31)

Revenues: $4.98 million (up from $2.54 million a year earlier)

Gross margin: 85% (up from 80%)

Net income: $1.03 million (an improvement from a loss of $3.28 million)

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