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Calgary apps maker scores No. 1 sales slot

A customer tries an iPhone in an Apple store, in this June, 29, 2007 file photo, in Seattle. Apple Inc. is expected to release quarterly earnings on Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Andrei Pungovschi/(AP Photo


In the spring of 2007, Michael Sikorsky was standing in line with other fanatics at an Apple Inc. store in New York, waiting for the sale of the company's original iPhone.

After spending time with that device, he was convinced that Apple was onto something big – and he wanted to be part of it.

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"The first time I played with it, I was mesmerized. I knew I wanted to make apps. I've spent my whole life building software, and I had never seen anything quite like it, especially on something that fit in my pocket,"Mr. Sikorsky recalls.

That led the serial entrepreneur and his wife, Camille, to create Calgary-based Robots and Pencils Inc., in 2008, as an apps developer for Apple's mobile platform (iOS).

The company began by making games for the iPhone. Then, in the spring of 2010, Apple launched the iPad.

"Now, enterprises had a mobile business tool that could be used by employees, customers and partners to deliver immediate and measureable results to a business's bottom line," Mr. Sikorsky says.

"It became immediately obvious to me that companies could use iPad applications to better engage employees, customers and business partners, and now was the perfect time to reach out and help enterprises [companies with 100-plus employees] leverage the power of iPads."

Robots and Pencils faced two significant problems, however: How to attract big national and international customers, without having a strong brand or incurring the expense of building a large and expensive sales team; and how to differentiate itself from the thousands of other iOS developers getting into the game.


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Mr. Sikorsky is a serial software entrepreneur who started companies such as Servidium Inc. (acquired by ThoughtWorks Inc.) and Cambrian House (now called Chaordix).

His wife, Camille, is an award-winning graphic designer who had worked as a senior designer for Taipale Design Inc. and an instructor at Mount Royal University.

The husband-and-wife team decided to put their talents together in creating Robots and Pencils. The company began building iPhone apps in Mr. Sikorsky's basement by combining dedicated programmers (the robots) with award-winning designers (the pencils).

The company scored success with its origins as an iPhone game maker, with hits such as Catch the Princess.

When the iPad came out, Mr. Sikorsky decided it was time to move into the enterprise market, aiming to sell iPad applications development to companies seeking to leverage mobile computing for field workers and employees working directly with customers, including sales, support and service.

The challenge quickly became how an early-stage company in a relatively new market – iOS development – could attract big companies as customers when it did not have a recognized brand or, at the time, the funds needed to hire an experienced sales team.

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The solution came in two parts. First, Robots and Pencils had to find a national partner that already had the customers Mr. Sikorsky coveted. Second, the firm had to find a way to differentiate itself from the numerous other software development companies that were jumping on the iOS bandwagon.

Part one was accomplished when the company was able to sign a strategic partnership with Rogers Communications Inc.. That partnership came about after Mr. Sikorsky gave a presentation at a mobile event held by Rogers and Telus Corp., at which he laid out his vision for how enterprises could adopt the iPad; it matched with Rogers' own vision. After several meetings, a partnership was formed to build applications for Rogers customers.

The second part was developed by applying game dynamics to enterprise applications.

Since Robots and Pencils had expertise and a reputation for iPhone game development, Mr. Sikorsky decided this uniquely positioned the company to integrate game dynamics into enterprise applications.

"By injecting game-based mechanisms, such as simulations, micro-missions, achievements, and reward systems, into iOS applications, we are able to turn ordinary tasks into transformative opportunities, and we show our customers how they can capitalize on that," says Mr. Sikorsky.


The Rogers partnership was a win not only in itself but also in in bringing on other significant customers, such as  Enmax Corp. and WestJet Airlines Ltd..

Robots and Pencils teamed up with Warner Bros. to develop the iconic comic strip Spy vs Spy into a game for Apple's iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad.

The game debuted this past August. The weekend it launched, it became the No. 1 paid app globally, stayed there for nearly three weeks. and has continued to be a large revenue generator.

From a team of two spouses operating out of the basement, Robots and Pencils has quickly grown into a 70-employee company, without any outside funding.

Its customers, in a range of industries from oil and gas to health care, television, film and airlines, include more than 10 Fortune 500 companies, and its apps have been used by nearly five million people.

"We believe we got here by being a Goldilocks' company – big enough to handle multimillion-dollar projects and small enough to care about customers and deliver on the promises we make." Mr. Sikorsky says.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Craig Elias is the founder of Shift Selling Inc. and an entrepreneurship instructor at the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary.

This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Small Business website.

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