Halifax app companies are staying put as they find their stride

Halifax app companies are staying put as they find their stride

When Julia Dexter checked her most recent analytics for an app she helped develop out of Halifax, she at first thought there was a glitch in the system.

The co-founder of Squiggle Park, an interactive app marketed to schools and which helps children learn to read, saw it had been downloaded roughly 1,000 times after it appeared on a page in Apple's app store called Made In Halifax.

"It really opened my eyes," she said. "I was thinking, 'Holy smokes.'"

That achievement is just one of several app-development success stories emerging in the Halifax area. 

Last year, two entrepreneurs in the city created an app to make it easier for people to find spots to refill their water bottles, instead of buying a plastic bottle. There are now more than 2,000 users.

The co-founder of Tap, Stephen Flynn, said he and business partner Mike Postma had such great feedback from the community and local businesses that this spring they started their own marketing and app development firm, Wunder.

"It actually sparked in us that people need a lot of help locally," Flynn said.

"We kind of do have a big idea and we want this thing to be potentially worldwide to help people divert plastic bottles from landfills. But if you only focus on that big aspect and you don't start small, you'll never get anything going."

Flynn said they saw an interest in the app across the globe, with people wanting to find refill stations in Hong Kong and London.

Client base outside of the province

There are several potential factors behind Halifax's growing app industry. Not only does the city churn out large numbers of university graduates, some of whom will have the entrepreneurial touch, it also offers an affordable and easy lifestyle that encourages some developers to set down roots.

But while their roots may be here, the clients of many Halifax-based app companies are outside of Nova Scotia.

Ashwin Kutty, president and CEO of We Us Them, which is currently working on app development in health care, education and hospitality, said 80 to 85 per cent of the Halifax company's clients are outside of Nova Scotia.

But there are no plans to relocate We Us Them to a bigger city like Vancouver or Toronto.

"[Halifax] provides a low-cost profile for individuals to work here so they take home a lot more than they would out West," Kutty said.

"We have universities and schools that are right here that we can actually attract talent from, and we can have an environment that's not stressed with travelling 40 minutes to an hour from the suburbs to the main city."

'It's not like, build it and they will come'

So far, being tucked away on the East Coast hasn't been an issue for Kutty and the team at We Us Them. 

Froogie, an app developed in partnership with Dalhousie University that encourages kids to have better eating habits, had thousands of downloads in just the first week — a difficult feat in a flooded market.

"It gets buried and hidden in the sea of app world these days," Kutty said. "Once it's in the store, it's not like, build it and they will come."

Working remotely not an issue

When Halifax-based app developer MindSea first started a decade ago, it was typically working with local companies, according to Sarah Riley, a senior products strategist at the firm. Today, its clients come from around the globe.

Thanks to the internet, working remotely isn't an issue.

"We don't really have a problem working with anyone, wherever they are," Riely said, adding MindSea is currently working with Dallas Morning News on a new app.

"In fact, those clients love that we're based here. They love it because it's a new area to work with for them," she said. "They've found a great and very well-versed company in a place they least expected to find it."

Quality of living, especially for young innovators

Riley said she wants to see more app-focused companies in the Maritimes and believes the area is a draw for young innovators.

"Quality of living here is something you can't get everywhere," she said. "Vancouver and Toronto, where there are tough housing crises when it comes to early grads trying to get a start in the industry, and it's really hard for them to find affordable places to live, to be able to commute, to be able to have a life," she said.

"We do have a lot of powerhouse educators in the province, and I think that gives us an edge and gives us a lot of young talent coming up.

"I'm excited that there's a sense that Halifax could be a next place for innovation, but I really hope we take a lot of steps to retain young people."

'The hard part is keeping up'

Dexter said while she's been told by American investors in Squiggle Park that they should be in the U.S., some of the strongest business connections they've made came from being in Halifax.

"The power of connections in Atlantic Canada … it definitely helps justify being here," she said.

She also said she's happy to see Halifax is doing an "exceptional job" fostering the development of technology startups and hopes to see that continue.

"Technology moves so quickly. The hard part is keeping up."