A little over 12 years ago, three friends took a leap of faith and started their own small mobile apps company after the advertising and marketing agency they worked for lost a contract with Chrysler Canada.
Ali Al-Aasm, Jakub Koter and Andy Kale had been working on mobile apps during their spare time and decided to turn their hobby into a business and launched Red Piston in 2009.
Today, it’s one of the most successful local social media agencies with clients across North America and 10 employees housed in a small brownstone on the western edge of downtown Windsor.
“It was a gamble,” admitted Al-Aasm recently as the company’s anniversary approached. “We figured if we could pay each other about $30,000, we’d be okay and then we could say we were working for ourselves.”
“Whatever success we’ve had, we’ve tried not to take it for granted,” added Al-Aasm.
Employment levels at Red Piston have fluctuated over the years depending upon the amount of work coming through the door.
“We recently had to lay some people off as a result of Lowe’s Canada taking what we had been doing for them and moving it in-house to their Montreal office,” said Koter. “But we’re always looking for new clients and we anticipate our numbers growing again.”
Among Red Piston’s key clients today are Milwaukee Tools, Lakeside Produce, Movati Athletic and many others who are looking for Red Piston’s brand of creative marketing and social media skills.
In early February, the three partners launched their latest product – a web app that will allow businesses access to a touchless, contact-tracing platform which will eliminate the need for customers to submit their names and contact information on paper upon entering a business.
“It simply allows businesses to collect information needed by the health unit so they can check on people infected with the virus and the people they may have come into contact with,” explains Al-Aasm.
Instead of collecting sheets of paper and keeping them on file for the health unit, the web app allows businesses to store the personal data in a computer instead. The data will also be stored on the customer’s phone and will be available for viewing whenever they enter a different business where the information can also be downloaded.
Red Piston will provide information to the health unit via a series of spreadsheets, said Al-Aasm.
The app was developed after Red Piston received $40,000 in funding through a program launched by FedDev Ontario in conjunction with the WEtech Alliance, Digital Main Street and Waterloo’s Communitech.
It’s being offered for free to businesses with fewer than three locations, $9.99 for three or four locations and $19.99 for five locations.
All three partners credit WEtech with providing start-up support and ongoing programs to help their business grow.
“Creative tech guys aren’t always the best when it comes to grant writing and accessing the kinds of government programs needed to help us grow,” said Koter. “They’ve helped us connect with people in the right places and they’ve also been great at promoting technology and making people aware of the talent we have in this region.”
Kale said that changing the perception that Windsor is just an automotive town is essential to keeping tech talent in the area.
“In the past, many people have felt the need to leave the area to pursue a career in tech and that shouldn’t be the case,” said Kale. “Organizations such as WEtech have helped spread the word and that’s invaluable for all of us to have a talent pool to draw people from when you’re looking to hire.”
Kale believes the future of the tech industry in Windsor will be about sustainability and helping existing firms strengthen their customer base.
“We’ve seen a lot come and go during the time we’ve been in business and I believe the industry will find its own level,” he said.
And for the moment, Red Piston seems to be one of the strongest.