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Brian Nodwell
Brian Nodwell, President at Workhub Software

Get to Know Cohort 5: Workhub Software

Workhub Software (formerly SafetySync) is a Calgary-based developer of compliance software. The Workhub platform provides a solution for online safety training, certificate tracking, policy distribution, competencies, equipment maintenance, and more. Company President, Brian Nodwell, and his management team are participating in Cohort 5 of the ScaleUp Program.

Lazaridis Institute: How did Workhub get started?

Brian Nodwell: I spent years working in the energy sector in Calgary leading IT departments and implementing systems at large oilfield service companies. I eventually worked my way to Chief Information Officer of a fast-growing public company where we were rapidly onboarding countless new workers, experiencing massive turnover, and struggling to maintain the due diligence on everyone’s safety requirements. The best practices at that time included creating reams of paperwork, stuffing file folders, and tracking compliance with expansive spreadsheets. I went looking for a software solution to this problem and had no luck. Realizing there was a real need and a market for an inexpensive workplace compliance tool, and seeing the move towards cloud-based software, I left the drilling contractor I was with and started SafetySync (now called Workhub Software).

LI: As President, what is do you enjoy most about building a company?

BN: I feel a tremendous amount of pride when someone joins our company in a junior role and quickly works their way up to a leadership position. They almost always surprise everyone with how quickly they can educate themselves, implement great ideas, and make our company that little bit closer to world-class. I feel great satisfaction in knowing that the company I built provides young and experienced team members the opportunity to demonstrate their brilliance.

LI: What milestone achieved by Workhub are you most proud of and why?

BN: I remember the day we spent money on furniture for the first time. In the early days, we were trying to keep our costs low, so we picked up some free desks that someone was going to throw out. The furniture was ugly, uncomfortable, and falling apart, but we stuck with it for a few years. When we finally started bringing in some meaningful revenue, we splurged on some Knoll workstations and Aeron chairs. It was a tremendous improvement to the look of the place, and to the ergonomic well-being of our team. I am so fond of those workstations, we’ve packed them along with us through three moves and even resurfaced them with orange fabric to match our company colours!

LI: What motivated you to apply to the Lazaridis ScaleUp Program and what do you hope to get out of the experience?

BN: I saw a presentation by Chris Yeh shortly before he launched a book that he co-wrote with Reid Hoffman. He made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that our business needed to scale or risk losing the market to a company that would. Our team was fully occupied at the time with a software rebuild that would erase a 12-year technology deficit, so we applied to the ScaleUp Program the following year. The technology scale-up community in Alberta is still relatively small, so we’re hoping to learn about the best practices being used by the mentors and cohort network companies across Canada.

LI: Which program weekend are you most looking forward to and why?

BN: We have a lot to learn in every program, but our ignorance is probably most acute in the area of finance. We’ve only ever raised capital from family and friends, and we’ve managed to get by on cash flow for many years. That changed when we decided to scale. This next step might prove difficult without proper direction since our familiarity with capital firms is limited and our past experiences were fraught with missteps. I remember telling a VC introduced to me by a mutual friend about our software business, and he was very impressed. Then I told him that I thought there was a bigger, synergistic opportunity we were also going to pursue in branded merchandise sales, and he promptly told me it was the worst idea he ever heard!

LI: What’s the best part about being located in Calgary?

BN: The close connection to the energy industry has been both the best part and most challenging part of being in Calgary. When we started the company in 2006, oil was $100 a barrel, everyone in the city was employed, and available commercial real estate was non-existent. The only office space we could rent was over a night club, and we could only access it by the fire escape stairs in the alley. Then, when the company didn’t immediately take off, nearly every employee went back to high-paying oil patch jobs. The resulting need for an efficient workforce at understaffed energy service companies did help us sell to our early adopters, while the tightly-networked energy industry provided tremendous word of mouth.
Lately, the lack of pipelines to international markets has led to high unemployment and depressed real estate. We now have less trouble finding qualified team members and we were able to move into a palatial office space that had been beautifully outfitted by an oilfield optimization company. They’d run into financial difficulty and vacated the space, leaving us with glass meeting rooms, a 50-person cafeteria, showers, laundry facilities, and a badminton court!

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