Michael J. Sikorsky has been in love with software since he began writing it as a curious 12-year-old boy growing up in Alberta, Canada.
“You don’t really understand all the disciplines when you’re young,” says Sikorsky, co-founder and CEO at the mobile app development firm Robots and Pencils. “You just realize there is this amazing thing called the computer and no one is stopping you from making whatever you want on it. It’s very liberating.”
Fast forward more than 30 years and Sikorsky has built one of the fastest-growing technology companies in North America.
The Calgary, Alberta-based company merged with Cleveland-based Kinetiq Digital in January and works with more than 175 clients to create over 250 mobile solutions used by 77 million people worldwide. From 2009 to 2013, it had a five-year growth rate of nearly 5,000 percent. The company now employs nearly 200 people and is working to continue to strengthen its Cleveland presence.
“Everything that Robots and Pencils does starts by blending the sciences with the humanities — the robots with the pencils,” says Sikorsky, who earned his computer engineering degree at the University of Alberta.
“I want to take this talent that already has a fire within them and teach them how to make it into infernos. In most organizations, it’s more natural that water gets poured on peoples’ fires than say, gasoline. My theory was I’m going to have a new design here that is going to be about the talent. It’s going to be about more gasoline hitting their fires versus water.”
‘That could be us’
Prior to launching Robots and Pencils, Sikorsky was a software entrepreneur who created and sold a couple companies before connecting with a venture capital firm.
“For me, it was the worst period of my life,” he says. “I’m an operator and a maker. The closer you get to the finance side, you’re not really hands on anymore. So I’m in New York City, I’m connected with a VC firm and I waited in line to get an iPhone.”
He had a theory in mind for the business that would become Robots and Pencils.
“My theory is that there is this fourth industrial revolution is happening,” Sikorsky says. “Who is going to become the General Electric of the next industrial revolution? Whoever it is, it’s not going to look like GE did in the third industrial revolution. Who is going to be that 100-year-old company that is masquerading as a country? I was like, ‘That could be us.’”
Sikorsky has set a goal for Robots and Pencils to be in business for 100 years and have at least 100 employees who work for the company for at least 25 years. He shares that passion with his leaders, his employees and anybody who wants to be connected with the business. It’s the foundation on which Robots and Pencils has been built.
“It’s different than, ‘Here is the technology wave. Let’s attack mobile, raise a bunch of money and sell the company,’’ he says.
“That’s a known playbook. I didn’t want to do that. How could we be a legacy brand that is methodically created over decades? We started being very compelling to people who like that vision. There are a bunch of people who wanted what we were offering. But it didn’t line up with what people expected us to be.”
Don’t be late
Robots and Pencils has become a leader in helping large companies leverage machine learning, bots and conversational user interfaces to increase productivity. It has also created a platform called Beep Boop to support developers in creating bots of their own.
“Today, our growth is inside of machine learning,” Sikorsky says. “Companies you would never expect signed up to add machine learning and artificial intelligence to their business practices.”
When it comes to finding the talent he needs to continue to strengthen his business, Sikorsky looks deep inside his potential hires.
“You see lots of companies fall into money as the main incentive mechanism,” he says. “That should be the last one. As soon as money is the first incentive, it’s the wrong fit. We want to design a space that is focused on meaning and morale while also giving them the money they need.”
He is keenly aware that he can’t let up when it comes to hiring, innovating and growing.
“The coolest part of the world right now is you have rapid acceleration of technology and then you have barriers to enter the technology space literally dropping,” he says. “Give me an internet connection, a laptop and a phone and I’m golden. What are the barriers of entry? Basically nonexistent. Everyone has to have a version of this playbook, but we have to be early. By the time it’s so obvious what to do, you’re too late.” ●
How to reach: Robots and Pencils, (866) 515-9897 or www.robotsandpencils.com