After more than a dozen years as an IT consultant, much of it helping big businesses keep their software up to date, Alex Topitsch decided to build a better mousetrap.
In 2010 he started Futurestate IT, which helps corporate customers keep desktop applications current and curb the proliferation of software versions.
Today, Mr. Topitsch is managing the growth of his Toronto start-up through an economic downturn, international expansion and all the challenges facing an emerging technology company.
He thinks his firm's timing is right because many Microsoft Windows users are facing a deadline. In April of 2014, Microsoft will end support for Windows XP, which was introduced in 2001. Windows Vista, XP's official successor, was never popular among businesses, meaning many companies waited for the next release, Windows 7. But operating system upgrades in large organizations take time. Mr. Topitsch says about 250 million corporate desktop computers are still running XP worldwide.
Futurestate's focus is not on helping customers replace the operating system itself but on the applications that depend on Windows. Some older software won't work on the new operating system. Many products will work only if the current version is installed, yet many businesses are still running old releases.
Using a software-as-a-service approach, Futurestate starts by helping customers inventory their software using its AppRx platform. "Why do I have six versions of antivirus (software) running?" he asks. He likens this approach to housecleaning before a move.
Then AppRx checks the client's software against its database to determine whether each package will work with the new operating system. Mr. Topitsch says this is what sets Futurestate apart.
When a particular package is checked, and it contains information on that product that is less than 14 days old, FutureState delivers that information to the customer. If not, an automated "crawler" process searches the Web for information about the application. It feeds what it finds to a scoring engine that assesses how credible the information is and adds its conclusions to the database.
"What's unique about our system is it's always current," he says. Because of that, customers can use it not just to prepare for a one-time upgrade but to maintain their software portfolios. Make a rule that you don't want to be using any software more than six versions old, and Futurestate will alert you when something you are running falls into that category.
There is a real need for the sort of service Futurestate provides, says Darin Stahl, lead analyst for Info-Tech Research Group of London, Ont. Still, he warns, "they have a lot of competition that they'll have to compare against."
FutureState has made some headway toward luring big firms away from competitors. Montreal-based IT outsourcing and services firm CGI Group Inc. is a customer. So is Gibraltar Solutions Inc., a Mississauga, Ont.-based IT services firm.
Trent Dilkie, Gibraltar's chief solutions officer, says the database of up-to-date application information was a big attraction. Another, says Robert Cherniak, director of enterprise clients at Gibraltar, was that the software-as-a-service approach makes it quick and easy to apply the software to a new client.
The company is also focusing on building a presence in the U.S. market. American businesses are more concerned about converting to Windows 7 (or the upcoming Windows 8) before XP support ends than Canadian businesses are, according to Mr. Topitsch, who says Canada seems about six months behind in this respect.
While Futurestate has signed a few customers south of the border, "the biggest challenge of getting into the U.S. market is not being in the U.S.," Mr. Topitsch says. To remedy that, Futurestate recently opened an office in Chicago and hired as its vice-president of worldwide sales Chuck Brady, former vice-president of sales and business development at App-DNA, a rival acquired by Citrix Systems Inc. last fall.
While sales haven't quite met his goals, Mr. Topitsch says the company has doubled its revenue in the last six months. "Since April, the tide has really turned," he says.
Now the challenge is building credibility.
"What sells sales is sales," Mr. Topitsch says, and while he says Futurestate has signed customers at a good rate this year, many are in the financial and insurance sectors and not keen to publicize their purchases.
One customer that did go public is the national law firm Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP. Futurestate is no doubt hoping for more such visible successes.