Indigo Instruments sells lab supplies to companies including Google, Microsoft, IBM, Disney, Intel, Princeton and Harvard. In a Q&A, its CEO Stephan Logan explains why small businesses like his are so important to the local economy.
Stephan, what prompted your interest in science? My father was an English and history teacher but he must have thought I was better suited to exploring the natural and physical world. He used to take me to Royal Astronomical Society meetings held at McGill University in Montreal. They had a small observatory on its campus – looking at the moon and Jupiter was a great inspiration. In 1963 as a young boy, we took the train to see the solar eclipse in the small Quebec town of Grand Mere, about 200 km north-east of Montreal. Protective glasses were not commonplace but I recall taking furtive glances at the eclipsed sun. That’s where my love of science first flared! Life is a circuitous journey and I ended up getting an M.Sc. in biology at McGill.
Why was Indigo Instruments such an early adopter to the Web? I bought the company in 1990. My early experience with emailing university science professors made me realize they were the most wired people on the planet. When articles about the world wide web started appearing in newspapers in late 1993 I connected the dots and realized it was the “next big thing”. We went online in 1994 with Indigo.com, a valuable domain we’d later sell.
Why does it work for you to operate out of Waterloo, Ontario? It is a city of roughly 140,000 people 125km west of Toronto and 150km northwest of the Niagara Falls, Ontario & New York. The city has a variety of claims to fame. It is named after Waterloo in Belgium, the site of Napoleon’s last stand and is the largest of all the Waterloos in the world!
The University of Waterloo is unique among universities in that its professors and graduate students own the intellectual property of their research. This has given rise to many innovative high-tech start-ups in the area which, in turn, created an important tech hub that includes well known brands such as Blackberry, Open Text and D2L.
Waterloo’s world-renowned school of computer science actually played an important role in our getting a web presence so early. It sprang from a chance encounter at my local health club in early 1994 with a professor who supervised the department’s graduate students.
I mentioned my interest in getting on board this new world wide web and he posted our interest on a bulletin board. Two days later, a graduate student contacted us and by October we had a website up & running.
How has Indigo Instruments been impacted by the pandemic? Our ecommerce proposition has remained incredibly strong and I am gratified we’ve continued to deliver our products, swiftly and efficiently, to our customers. We are very proud to be doing our bit to help out essential workers with our high-quality test strips – which tell you the right parts-per-million (ppm) level of chemical disinfectant to use. They have made a small but valuable contribution to the healthcare, daycare and food production workers soldiering on in the face of Covid-19.
One of your products, however, has played a starring role in one of the biggest sitcoms of the last decade? Yes! Keen watchers of The Big Bang Theory sitcom already ‘know’ us – the DNA model in Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment was designed and built by Indigo Instruments. A company that had bought two of our models was renting them to the production company. When the show was renewed after season 1, it worked out a lot cheaper for them to buy two models directly from us and build the version you see on the show. I’m pleased to say our double helix model was a resident fixture from season two until the season 12 finale. Naturally, our products are known for their quality and longevity.
What’s the ‘secret’ of your relationship with your customers? We answer our phones during regular business hours and we reply to emails promptly, even on weekends. We also hold a large and diverse inventory that we can ship even large orders immediately. We know our stuff and will even discourage customers from buying if we know something won’t work. Having science degrees is essential to our knowing how to ask the right questions.
How do you think your customers perceive Indigo Instruments? I like to think they know we offer good value and integrity. They appreciate that we can customize things or offer alternative solutions to their problems.
You’re a business proud of your local roots. What value do small and medium enterprises offer? We offer genuine competition and expertise. We hire people who are local, who know us and who are part of the community. We go to the same shops and our kids go to the same schools.
With one of the oldest commercial websites on the planet, one key lesson we have learned at Indigo Instruments is that you have to be nimble.
What’s your perception of big tech companies like Amazon? We’ve managed to maintain our market share in spite of them. I don’t take it personally: we are just another small to medium-sized enterprise they are trying to roll over. The difference is I am just not willing to take it lying down.
I see how they use various tactics to dominate search engine result pages. They also take advantage of Google’s pay-per-impression model to push the visibility of our company down on search.
Because we’ve been around so long, we have built up a stable of repeat businesses across a very broad spectrum of customer types and applications. Our customers trust us to deliver.
What should small and medium enterprises be practically doing to safeguard their future? First realize that there’s room underneath the behemoth – you’ll never compete globally with the tech giants but if you can find a niche where your strengths match exactly what your customers need, then you stand a fighting chance.
Second, set up a simple website that allows you to be found online – get listed on Google Local, Bing Places and Apple Maps. Promote that website at every opportunity you can get. If possible, add a blog to your site where you can share your products and opinions with your customers. Many people pick up on blog posts I write – that creates buzz and brings in sales.
Finally, learn the basics of search engine optimization. You don’t have to go too deep in SEO to start appearing higher in Google search results, and that will bring you quality traffic and sales.