Recent growth rate: 223%
by Jon Tattrie
Head Office: Halifax, NS
President/CEO: Brandon Kolybaba
Creative director: Julia Rivard
In March a group of owners, programmers, and developers huddled around a computer in a business park office outside of Halifax. When the clock struck 11 p.m. they cheered, popped champagne corks, and drank a toast to the Google sandbox.
Norex has tripled in size in two years and looks set to do it again, thanks to gTrax. An integrated tool for recording and reporting employee time usage, the “app” is the fruit of a heavy investment of Norex’s time and money, and the team is betting hard that it will pay dividends.
During its first few years, Norex had been involved in programming and web development, but the organization had no marketing front. That changed in 2004 when Brandon Kolybaba, described as “El Presidente” on the company’s website, joined the Dartmouth shared business space, Queen Street Studio (QSS).
There Kolybaba met QSS owner Julia Rivard, an Olympian-turned-entrepreneur with a freelance design business. “We worked well together, and at some point we decided to take a leap,” says Rivard. “We thought we could do better together than apart.” She merged with Norex, selling the QSS building and closing the business in the process, then became Norex’s creative director. “It really morphed two and a half years ago and turned into a brand-new company,” says Rivard. Growth came fast: Norex went from seven employees to 20 in 18 months.
About a year ago, Norex noticed Google was investing in developing applications, but not many people were providing them. “We knew we had a really strong foundation of fabulous programmers here,” says Rivard, “so we decided to take a bit of a chance and invest in the education of our developers so they could build on the Google platform.”
Google uses the Python and Java programming language. Rivard, 33, calls it the “Mandarin” of the IT world, and it took Norex’s PhD developers a year to figure it out—a long and costly process in which they reinvested company revenues to bet on an app future. “We became one of a handful of developers for Google applications worldwide and are now seen as experts by many,” says Rivard. “Google took notice.”
In 2009 Norex sent staff to the Google I/O developer conference in San Francisco, and this year Google invited them back as one of two Canadian companies to demonstrate their application in the developer sandbox. “Brandon likes to call it an annual gathering of geeks en masse,” says Rivard, laughing. “Being an athlete, and going to the [2000 Sydney] Olympic Games, I got to experience the elite. It was eye-opening. You start to realize, ‘Hey, I can do that too.’ ”
In February 2010, Norex merged with sister company SheepDogInc., which focuses on migrating enterprise clients to Google Apps. With the migrating, consulting, and development of applications all covered, the new entity has positioned itself as a trusted and respected Canadian partner to Google.
Basing the venture in Halifax comes with pros and cons, says Kolybaba, 37. “We’re lucky in that we don’t have a lot of competition; we’re the first to be doing this in Canada,” he says. Taxes “aren’t great,” but the cost of operating is lower. On the downside, venture capital is hard to come by, and while Norex has had some government help, the pace of assistance is not ideal for the fast-paced world of software development. “We had to invest our own money or it wouldn’t have happened,” says Kolybaba.
“It gets to the point where you suffer as a business because you’re investing in the future and you don’t know how everything will work out,” says Rivard. “But when you see these opportunities and you’re ready for them, it’s really exciting.”
If the bet pays off, Rivard can see the company building a Norexplex headquarters in Halifax, predicting they’ll triple in size to more than 100 employees in the next few years. And if they lose the bet? “We’re not going to think about that now,” says Rivard. “We can always go back to our standard business. But it’s up to us to make it work.”