Forging a legacy of success: Brian Hurley has become a force to be reckoned with in the Ottawa tech community

Business has been in Brian Hurley’s blood for as long as he can remember.

“One of my goals was always to be as entrepreneurial as possible,” he says. 

A former Nortel Networks manager during the ’90s telecom boom, the 54-year-old has become one of Ottawa’s more recognized entrepreneurial leaders after launching two successful tech startups.

A graduate from Carleton University’s electrical engineering program in 1985, Mr. Hurley attributes much of the success he’s had with both ventures to a return to his alma mater almost 20 years later. It was there, as a member of the inaugural Lead to Win program launched by Tony Bailetti in 2002, that Mr. Hurley says he learned the skills he needed to make the transition from leading a company’s business team to launching and running one of his own.

“Even though I took that course many years ago, the value I got out of it has continued to help me as I launched Liquid Computing, launched Purple Forge, and run both those businesses along the way,” he says.

Mr. Bailetti’s program has since helped to establish 65 startups in Ottawa and attracted $7 million in investments since 2009. After 15 years with Nortel, Mr. Hurley became one of the first to springboard from Lead to Win by launching Liquid Computing. As its CEO, he raised more than $45 million in venture financing, delivered an award-winning product and won international sales.

At a pivotal strategic moment, Mr. Hurley left the company in 2008 and almost immediately started the self-funded Purple Forge, with the intention of scaling quickly. It’s a strategy that sharply contrasts with his previous company, in whichhe could use significant chunks of venture financing to build product and sales teams.

“We’re always chasing growth and revenue at the same time,” he says. “It’s a hard balancing act, but when you’re bootstrapped that’s really the only option you have.”

Purple Forge’s mobile technology works on a revenue-sharing model with the IBM Watson cognitive computing system to let people “ask questions the same way you and I might ask each other questions” while using a website, rather than having to use a keyword troubleshooter or, even more inconveniently, to call up the IT department, explains Mr. Hurley. The work between Purple Forge and IBM has been making companies and organizations “rethink how they approach service delivery in the context of making information available and accessible,” he says.

“You get your answer faster and easier. You can ask your question the natural way.”

The 10-person Ottawa-based enterprise has enjoyed steady annual revenue growth – about 32 per cent per year – and Mr. Hurley hopes that continuing to leverage Watson’s capabilities and adding another promising partnership to be announced soon will further accelerate the company’s growth.

“They complement each other,” Mr. Bailetti said of Purple Forge and IBM in an August interview with OBJ. “You’re dealing with a real need. The whole presentation was about real problems that people have … information they need now.”

Meanwhile, the success of Mr. Hurley’s companies helped propel him into a leadership role within Ottawa’s business community. He served as a director forthe Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation from 2007 to 2009, The Ottawa Network from 2009 to 2012 and the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce from 2012 to 2014. He’s also been an adviser for other local tech startups, including Weyes Eyes, What Wins and, currently, Epiphan Systems.

Mr. Hurley says one of the biggest lessons that he now shares in presentations and in his adviser roles is, against his initial instinct, to start selling a product before it’s even built.

“The real value is in getting people to pay you for what you’re going to build, then sell it based on that,” he says, channelling Mr. Bailetti. “I didn’t think it was possible. But that’s what we did with Purple Forge.” 

His company developed the product incrementally and tested it early on so that customers would pay for it in advance, allowing his team members to develop it as they went along, he says.

The other lesson he’s taken to heart is to make sure he knows everyone in a room, because it opens the door to collaborations with those people either now or in the future. Mr. Hurley says a number of his Lead to Win peers also went on to launch successful businesses.

“When you’re in a startup, everyone needs to be collaborative and help each other. You never know when you’ll be able to help them or they’ll be able to help you in the future,” he says. “Everyone in the Ottawa entrepreneur community is always happy to help.”