UCIT Online Founder Sidney Sommer: From the Basement to the Boardroom
In 2002, Sidney Sommer lost his job, which turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to him. It became the motivation he needed to create a multi-million-dollar business known as UCIT Online. Here’s how it all unfolded:
Sidney was born in Basel, Switzerland speaking German, one of the country’s four national languages. His family eventually moved to Toronto. After college, he landed a job at Vidair AG, a startup aerospace company in Germany that specializes in onboard video surveillance systems. After eight months, the CEO of the company approached him about launching a sales and marketing office in Toronto. Naturally, he jumped at the chance to move back home and gladly accepted the position. The company later opened a sales and technical support center in San Antonio, headquarters to an airplane manufacturing company, so Sidney packed his bags and moved to Texas.
Sidney and his team were working on a project to install video cameras in the belly of airplanes that would allow passengers to watch their flight in progress. On September 11, 2001, the U.S. was struck by terrorists, forever changing the aviation industry. New FAA regulations were enacted that would cost the airlines millions, depleting any funds that had been allocated for the camera equipment. As a result, Vidair was forced to shut down their North American offices, which meant Sidney was out of a job.
He moved back to Toronto and applied for positions at several aerospace companies, but understandably, none were hiring. He submitted an application to attend an international MBA program but wasn’t accepted. That became a turning point in his life.
One day in early 2003, while flipping through a security magazine, Sidney came across an ad for a camera that could be controlled and viewed via the Internet. It got him thinking about ways to turn this into a business. He borrowed money from his parents, bought the camera and installed it in downtown Toronto. He then made a flyer inviting people to demo the camera and handed it out in affluent areas of the city. His ploy paid off because orders started coming in.
At first, business owners were using the IP cameras to monitor events at their office. This, unfortunately, wasn’t generating much income for Sidney, so to make ends meet, he washed windows and mowed lawns. He felt the cameras could be used for other purposes and again, his mind went to work. What if they could be used for seeing crimes in progress? He researched the idea and saw an opportunity at construction sites, an industry that was plagued with thefts. Due to insurance regulations that required site managers to employ security guards, Sidney had to lobby for approval to use cameras in their place. Aviva, one of the leading insurance groups in Canada, agreed to use them on a few of their sites. The results were such a success, that business soon took off.
There was, however, still a software issue to tackle. In the early days of IP video, the cameras themselves worked well but the software wasn’t performing on the same level. Sidney contacted Axis, the market leader in network video and the inventor of the world’s first network camera, about the issue. They directed him to a software development company in Toronto. Not only did Sidney purchase their product, the owner gave him free office space, plus paid him $200 a day to come in, which, in the beginning, was only once a week. However, twelve months later, he found himself with a full-time job. He eventually outgrew the space and purchased his own office, bringing the software company with him.
The business quickly grew to 55 employees spread out over two offices. Sidney was working long hours, performing all accounting and sales duties. With two small kids at home, he had no adequate work/life balance and realized he needed help. In 2011, he partnered with Rob Cherun and Erik Mikkelsen of Auxo Management, a privately-held, Canadian-based investment firm. Today, Sidney runs the company’s core operations in Toronto while Rob and Erik grow the business and deal with investors.
Sidney credits his key to success to having an innovative idea and an entrance into a niche market at exactly the right time. It was never his goal to run a huge business, he simply wanted the ability to eat sushi whenever the desire struck. Mission accomplished.
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