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Many former BlackBerry staffers are getting some support from Communitech, an organization that helps startups get off the ground in Waterloo, Ont. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Many former BlackBerry staffers are getting some support from Communitech, an organization that helps startups get off the ground in Waterloo, Ont. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Second Acts

Former BlackBerry employees start their own companies Add to ...

When former BlackBerry Ltd. employee Peter Mankowski became the latest casualty of the struggling technology company’s corporate restructuring, he didn’t spend a lot of time mourning his old job.

The 50-year-old scientist took his severance package and dipped into his RRSPs to help fund his own startup, CLEO Collar, a wearable pet technology firm inspired by his love of animals.

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Since Mr. Mankowski’s job ended in the first week of June, the CLEO Collar CEO has put together a team of 20 employees, including three other ex-BlackBerry engineers, to work with him to develop and sell the electronic hardware device. It allows pet owners to remotely track the location and vital signs of their cat or dog.

“I always had this voice in my heart. I didn’t just want to build phones,” says Mr. Mankowski, who spent four years working at Waterloo, Ont.-based BlackBerry. His last title there was technical team lead for advanced connectivity, until his research division was shut down.

BlackBerry, Canada’s best-known technology company, has laid off more than half of its employees in the past few years – shedding roughly 10,000 workers since 2011 – as it dukes it out with Apple Inc. and other providers in the highly competitive smartphone space.

Mr. Mankowski is one of several ex-BlackBerry employees who have decided to stick it out in the Waterloo region and start their own companies, instead of being lured away by other technology firms in Canada, the United States and other parts of the world.

Many former BlackBerry staffers are getting some support from Communitech, an organization that helps startups get off the ground. Communitech has been offering mentorship programs to groups of ex-BlackBerry engineers and scientists, teaching them how to run their own businesses.

“When you’re a contributor in a large organization you may never actually bump into a customer,” says Cameron Hay, a former health-care industry executive and entrepreneur, who was the Communitech executive-in-residence until last fall. He continues to mentor a number of ex-BlackBerry employees.

“A big part of it is understanding that people are emotional and that most decisions people make, even if they’re business decisions, are based on emotion.”

That can be difficult for engineers to get their heads around at first, Mr. Hay says. “Engineers are trained to think logically. Emotion isn’t relative in your job, but when you’re trying to be an entrepreneur it’s all about emotion. How do I get people excited and want to buy my product? That is a big part of making the journey to being an entrepreneur.”

Ryan Hickey, who worked at BlackBerry for 15 years before losing his job earlier this year, has been absorbing advice from Mr. Hay and other mentors as he develops his startup Eleven-x, which helps clients integrate wireless technology into their products.

He started the company with four other former BlackBerry colleagues who were among 120 people laid off from the wireless group in March.

At first, Mr. Hickey, 41, thought about looking for another job, and he went to a few interviews. After a few brainstorming sessions with his former BlackBerry wireless group colleagues, they chose to go the entrepreneurial route instead.

“I always had an inner desire to be an entrepreneur, but I didn’t have any ideas, and I had a stable job, so there wasn’t an opportunity ” Mr. Hickey says. “BlackBerry pushing me out, forced me into a situation where I am re-evaluating what I want to do with my life and I saw this as the perfect opportunity.”

Eleven-x was incorporated at the end of May and Mr. Hickey says the company has three contracts so far. “We have revenue coming in,” he adds. “The first signs are looking good.”

The company is being run out of Mr. Hickey’s basement for now, which he calls “a cliché, but financially savvy.”

His team is also looking at potential collaborations with other former BlackBerry employees who have launched startups, including SimSim Labs, which provides test development and automation services for wireless devices.

Noushad Naqvi, CEO of SimSim Labs, says running a company is a lot different from working for a tech giant such as BlackBerry. “I am using different parts of my brain,” says Mr. Naqvi, 46. “We have to do a lot of business development work, talk to customers, be a salesperson sometimes and look at the finances – all of these things to ensure the business will be viable.”

While BlackBerry is having its share of financial troubles, Mr. Naqvi and others say having experience working at the once-iconic company adds credibility to their businesses.

“Having BlackBerry on your resume opens all kinds of doors,” Mr. Mankowski says. “People love BlackBerry and understand that not everyone could be hired there – that you had to be a superstar and above average. This is the biggest advantage that I have today.”

BlackBerry’s losses are gains for Canada’s entrepreneurial community. Communitech, and the former BlackBerry employees, are working to try to keep the talent in Waterloo region. Communitech mentor Mr. Hay says it takes just a few startups to be successful to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs.

“People are not as scared of the future as they were,” he says. “They’re pretty pumped … Waterloo is still a very legitimate place to build a career.”

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