Springboard Board Member Featured In People We Love, Progress Magazine
May 01st, 2012
Emad Rizkalla describes it as the most painful chapter in his business career: a renovation project that ran wildly over budget and threatened the financial stability of his successful e-learning company, Bluedrop Performance Learning. The upgrade project involved an abandoned building in the heart of St. John’s, a former meat-packing plant that had been left to rot. Rizkalla had eyed the building for 10 years. By late 2006, the Newfoundland entrepreneur finally had enough cash to buy the aging structure. The realtor, however, said it was too far gone; it had to be torn down. Unconvinced, Rizkalla insisted on a viewing. “It was a complete disaster,” he recalls. “There was graffiti, the ceiling was burned out, and there was rain pouring in. It was everything you can imagine a derelict building would be. But I loved it immediately. For whatever reason, I did not want to destroy it.”
In fact, Rizkalla wanted it to serve as Bluedrop’s corporate headquarters. Ignoring the advice of many, he found two architects, including one from Barcelona, who shared his vision. Designs were finalized and renovations started. Very quickly, though, the project fell behind schedule and “devastatingly” over budget. Initially pegged at $1.2 million, the redevelopment effort eventually soared to $2 million. “It was quite a stressful time,” says Rizkalla. In the end, however, Bluedrop survived.
Five years later, the company is now growing at 100% a year, was recently listed on the TSX Venture Exchange, and has created a social learning platform that Rizkalla says will revolutionize how people learn on the job. And despite the renovation debacle, the head office is now completely transformed. Many of the original wooden beams are still visible, but it’s the new elements that stand out: bamboo flooring, a floating catwalk to the fourth storey, and a rooftop garden. Most noticeable is the open stairwell, which wraps around a 10-metre-high birch tree salvaged from the grounds of a local church. Palm trees, a special variety that can tolerate the cold, stand prominently on a deck overlooking St. John’s harbour. “They remind me of warm beaches and good times,” says Rizkalla.
This is clearly not your typical corporate office. “It really speaks to being innovative and employee oriented, and not being afraid to be different,” says Rizkalla. Those tenets have been at the core of Bluedrop since the company’s founding in 1992. Its roots are planted in Rizkalla’s time as a mechanical engineering student at Memorial University in St. John’s. In his final term, he was part of a group that developed technology for stabilizing radar antennae on rolling fishing vessels. “We had to go out on boats in rough seas and throw up to proved it worked,” he recalls. “It wasn’t a fun experience.”
Rizkalla and his fellow engineering students did register some sales, but ultimately the product failed. Still, the experience introduced him to life in the tech sector and to the raw adrenalin of starting a business. “It’s addictive. You can’t stop,” he says. “So we didn’t.” Working out of Rizkalla’s apartment, the group began pursuing work in the IT field. “I can’t say that everybody thought we would make it,” he says. “In Central Canada, we had the added hindrance of being young, without money or credibility, and from the East Coast, which few people associated with advanced innovation.”
So Rizkalla turned to the U.S., an area he says was more open to ideas generated by young tech entrepreneurs. Shortly after, Rizkalla, then only 24, snagged his first software client, Johns Hopkins Hospital. Fast-forward to the present day, and Bluedrop (formerly ZeddComm) is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Over those two decades, Bluedrop has focused primarily on developing custom e-learning courseware, used by companies and organizations to train their employees. “In seven different industries, we have world leaders as our clients,” says Rizkalla, pointing to companies such as Microsoft, Pfizer, Sony, and Johnson & Johnson. In 2009 Bluedrop pushed its programs into the aerospace and defence sector; the company’s e-courses help train the pilots of Canada’s Chinook helicopters and the maintenance staff for the military’s Hercules transport planes. After just three years, Bluedrop is now a recognized leader in military learning and is about to establish a virtual reality simulation centre in Halifax.
But it’s the company’s newest offering, CoursePark, that most excites Rizkalla. “We fundamentally believe it’s going to change the world,” he says. “It’s going to transform the way learning happens for the workplace.” CoursePark is the learning equivalent of Facebook meets Salesforce.com; users have their own account, through which they can access 5,000 courses from the top e-learning publishers. At a cost of roughly $30 per course, CoursePark’s modules cover hundreds of topics ranging from MS Excel to WHIMS to how to deal with difficult people.
With CoursePark, companies can track all of the courses their employees have completed. Employees can post videos and follow people with similar career paths. And unlike corporate learning systems, a person’s portfolio remains with them even if they switch jobs or companies. Developed with roughly $3 million from the Atlantic Innovation Fund and the National Research Council, CoursePark already has 50,000 users in 100 countries.
“The long-term vision is to have a product that millions of people and thousands of companies all over the world use to access online learning,” says Rizkalla. “We’re already achieving course-completion rates that are three times the industry average.”
That ambition doesn’t surprise Brian Tobin, a former premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. “Emad is a great innovator who understood early on that distance is no barrier to innovation and market access,” says Tobin, now a senior business advisor in Toronto with the law firm Fraser Milner Casgrain. “He was part of the early vanguard of young tech-savvy entrepreneurs who understood the promise of the Internet and its capacity to free everybody from the shackles of distance.”
Born in Egypt in 1968, Rizkalla moved to Canada with his parents when he was seven. Before emigrating, Rizkalla’s father was a meteorologist who ran several side businesses, including a juice stand and a tutoring business. Seeking new opportunities for their children, Rizkalla’s parents started anew in Newfoundland, arriving with scant money and little understanding of English. “The sacrifices they made were really for their children. They wanted more for us,” says Rizkalla. “The struggles I’ve had in business are nothing compared to the struggles that people have in places like Egypt, where you’re struggling for your own voice.”
Bluedrop now boasts more than 110 full-time employees, spread across offices in St. John’s, Halifax, Fredericton, Ottawa, and Vancouver. And there are bullish plans to grow further. In late January, Bluedrop went public on the TSX Venture Exchange (TSX-V: BPL). The move will help fund future expansion. “We need to have access to capital when we decide to start acquiring companies and turn up the heat on our growth,” says Rizkalla. “We think a public listing is a great vehicle for doing that. It’s going to be a fun ride.”
But Rizkalla isn’t simply content with growing Bluedrop. He has also worked to guide other companies along the path from university project to global business. For nearly a decade, Rizkalla served as chair of Genesis Group, a company that helps commercialize the research and technology produced at Memorial University. Genesis also runs an incubator for tech businesses, which Rizkalla modelled partially on his own experience in moving from the classroom to the marketplace. “Emad sees the world from a different view point than many other people,” says David King, Genesis Group’s president and CEO. “He possesses that outside-of-the-box thinking, as well as the real-life knowledge of what it takes to run a business.”
From his St. John’s office, Rizkalla recalls the renovations that almost punctured Bluedrop’s rising fortunes. Despite the stress he endured, he insists that he would travel that same path again. Why? Because Bluedrop’s headquarters help differentiate the company from its competitors. “When you’re young, there’s a temptation to say we don’t want to stick out,” he says. “Whether it’s your culture, your product, or your workspace, it’s important to define who you are and why you’re different. We don’t believe in skimping, because business is all about being unique.”