Bonfire really is the Waterloo Region story all wrapped up in one company.
The company’s founders studied at two of our post-secondary institutions, Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo. They had a brilliant idea aimed squarely at solving a big-picture problem. They went to Silicon Valley for Y Combinator, but came home back for the talent, ecosystem and culture.
What makes Bonfire unique at this moment is that their product seems almost purpose-built for one of the biggest challenges that governments and public sector agencies face in a global crisis: procurement. Even before COVID-19 started spreading, this company was helping their clients make faster, better procurement decisions, while opening the door to remote collaboration. Now, we’re all doing our part to stop the spread via physical distancing and these decisions need to be made remotely.
Unfortunately, many governments and public sector agencies just aren’t ready for remote procurement. In fact, only 5% of procurement is done remotely right now. That’s why Bonfire stepped up last week, offering their Strategic Sourcing tool for free until July 31. This is a race against time, procurement needs to get online and Bonfire can help.
We asked Corry Flatt, Bonfire’s founder and CEO, about his company, the challenges facing public procurement during a global pandemic and the decision to make access to their product free.
Q: How did Bonfire start? What problem were you trying to solve?
FLATT: Through various experiences in my career, I witnessed the time, energy and frustration that went into thousands of RFPs (particularly in the Public Sector). Every time I thought, ‘there must be a better way’. But the more I learned, the more I appreciated how complex and difficult public sector procurement is.
These procurement teams have to balance so many factors – with such high project volumes – that it really is a misunderstood and underappreciated profession. It struck me that no one was really building tools for the procurement teams themselves. Most existing platforms were glorified marketplace portals that made money by nickel-and-diming suppliers vs. generating true value for the buyers themselves. Our insight was that the trickiest part of the whole process was the decision-making part – i.e. deciding which suppliers to award the $100k - $10M contracts to – and that we could really help by building power-tools to streamline that.
So thus Bonfire was born. Alex Millar joined as my co-founder and CTO, we raised initial funding from local angel investors, ultimately ending up in the Silicon-Valley tech incubator Y Combinator. From there, we raised Venture Capital from esteemed Silicon-Valley and SaaS VCs like Spider Capital, Crosslink, and Battery Ventures but remained headquartered in Waterloo. Then, in 2019, we merged with 5 other best-of-breed “GovTech” SaaS companies and IPO’d on the NASDAQ, and have been growing quickly ever since.
Q: It sounds like your solution – which enables remote teams to make procurement decisions – is particularly relevant at this moment. That said, I know that only 5% of procurement is done remotely right now. What are the biggest challenges with doing procurement remotely?
FLATT: People coming from the private sector are often surprised how antiquated parts of public sector procurement still are – in other words, how much of the process still takes place offline. Bids and RFPs often need to be submitted by paper, in person, which obviously poses a challenge. But there are many other steps that occur offline for most teams too: evaluations and consensus meetings, conducting a bid opening – typically all or most of the procurement process is done manually. Even with the first generation of bidding platforms that came out before Bonfire, the most important parts of the process happen offline, in Excel or in meetings, with all the perils associated with that.
It’s wrong to blame the procurement teams themselves for this. It’s just really difficult to compliantly take these processes online, and Bonfire is the first one to perfectly “nail it” for them.
So with the right modern tools and processes in place, it doesn’t have to be so difficult. Bonfire digitizes the entire sourcing workflow so that teams are able to come to effective, collaborative decisions in less time and with better outcomes.
Q: So, how does your platform work? What do these teams actually see?
FLATT: Bonfire centralizes the sourcing workflow into one easy, cloud-based platform. Teams are able to access everything at their fingertips, including building strong bids and RFPs, receiving online vendor submissions and data, collaborating with evaluators, right through to managing the awarded contracts.
Q: The Bonfire team is clearly aware of how important procurement is going to be over the next few months, in particular. You’re providing free access to the Strategic Sourcing tool until July 31 – can you tell me how you came to the decision to do this?
FLATT: We started hearing stories from our clients about how they were going above and beyond during this time, ensuring that critical infrastructure is up and running, key supplies were being found, and more. Which was initially a nice thought – hey, we’re helping the helpers! Then we realized ‘what about the folks who aren’t yet online?’
So, it was an instant decision. Public procurement has such a large and important role to play in this crisis, and we felt duty-bound to remove any and all barriers to public agencies that needed to immediately get online and make them remote-work ready. The easiest way to do that was just to remove the money part of it altogether - make it free and just get them up and running as soon as possible. No commitments, no fees, just jump in and we’ll ensure you’re successful.
In terms of our overall mission, Bonfire is committed to changing the public sector procurement landscape to produce better outcomes for citizens. In a weird way, this crisis is a way for us to escalate that mission. Put another way: this crisis proves that we’re on the right path and that it’s never been more urgent for Bonfire to exist. And we’ll rise to the challenges of this time.
Q: Thanks for your time – it’s clear you folks are busy. In fact, we hope you’re busy! Is there anything else you’d like to say before we end?
FLATT: I just want to highlight that public sector procurement teams deserve major praise for what they’re doing during this crisis. It’s not as obvious or intense as front-line healthcare workers, say, but they are keeping the gears of our public institutions moving in very difficult circumstances and deserve recognition and deep thanks from all of us.
Do you want to read more about Waterloo Region businesses that are stepping up to help out during the COVID-19 pandemic? Check out our (growing) list of stories.