After starting and selling six technology companies by the time he was 28 years-old, University of Calgary graduate Michael Sikorsky had another brainstorm. This was in 2009, just two years after Apple released the iPhone and year after the launch of the App Store in 2008.
Sikorsky realized that mobile devices and the apps that they would use would transform the world, and he wanted to get in on the transformation by building them.
So, he founded Robots & Pencils, his seventh technology company. But even before the company was open for business, he realized that in order to create transformative apps for the public and any clients that would ask him to do so, they couldn’t do things the old way.
He would need the people he called "robots," the engineers, coders, etc., who would work on the technical details and programming of the apps. But he also knew he would need the "pencils" to deliver on the humanities side of the equation. These would be the artists, designers and social scientists who created not just the look and feel of an app, but determined the reasoning behind why it should look, feel and be programmed a certain way.
“The interesting part was at the onset, we knew that you needed to solve both of those problems. We knew you needed to marry the humanities with the technical side of things. You can't have a purely technical company, and you can't have a company that focuses purely on the humanities,” explains Jason Tate, Managing Director of Canadian Client Services for Robots & Pencils. “If you come to our office, we don't have these little silos of people. The Robots sit next to the Pencils, which sit next to people like me. It's an open office and an open culture. We have an interesting mix of those really creative, brilliant people: people that have PhDs in behavioral economics, and people that have PhDs in mathematics, PhDs in computer science.”
Within a few short months of its founding in 2009, the Robots & Pencils concept really took off. They had some highly successful projects, including the Spy Vs Spy game and other commercial apps, which showed that great design and development could work smoothly with functionality. Clients, large and small, quickly came to Robots & Pencils once they realized that apps were becoming a necessary part of their business.
Within 10 years, the company has developed 175 custom apps, and moved into frontier technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence. It employs more than 200 employees, has opened offices in seven more locations outside of Calgary, and boasts a client list that includes Westjet and Enmax. It’s known as a company that fosters innovation, creativity and openness.
“When you move behind and beyond the app and you start to talk about technology and exponential growth in technology, the word is innovation. We like to think of our self, when we engage with somebody, as being the innovator of record,” Tate says. “And when we can engage in that level, when we’re talking about being the innovator of record, we're having cultural conversations with our partners. When we're talking about what the impact of this technology is going to mean on your business, what the impact of this technology is going to mean on your people, it's really cool.”
One way the company develops innovation is not just through its philosophy of merging technology with the humanities, but through its FunLabs. In this program, employees in the company, usually as a team, can put forward an idea for a project - any project that fits into the Robots & Pencils milieu. An in-house committee whittles the suggestions down to a manageable number of 10-20, and then the final three projects are chosen through a voting process that includes all employees. The final three teams develop and present a pitch, and the winner of each FunLabs round gets to work on their project during their regular hours, not as an additional job or after their regular work is done. It becomes their full-time project until it's finished.
One of the key element of FunLabs, one that really fosters innovation for the company, says Tate, is that none of the projects have to be marketable. Whether the final product is saleable or profitable is not a deciding factor in FunLabs.
“It's a win-win-win-win-win, though. The first win is the group of guys and girls that get to work on this, get to really go for something that they're jazzed about. The second win is there's a bunch of technical learning that comes out of it,” says Tate “And the next win is that people that get to work on it get to level their experience up in developing a product, even if it never goes to market. You gain the experience and the knowledge of seeing something through from ideation to finished product. The next win is that we get to go to our customers and say ‘hey, we've got this crazy bunch of geniuses that did this. It has really no market value, but let me tell you, this is how we can take what they've learned and apply it to your specific business.’”
While Robots & Pencils hopes to continue to merge technology development with humanities, another key goal is longevity, that the company will outlive the people who founded it and work there now. And the way to do that is not to think of money and profit as a reason for the company, but the people.
“We’re a business, so profitability is one of the things that we have to be, it is one of our tenets. We need to be around for a long time,” says Tate. “But my only job is to make sure my people are happy. And we don't call them employees, we call them talent, because that's what they are. They aren't resources, they're talent. If the talent is are happy, the money and all that other stuff lines up.”