This is a big year for the Waterloo-based mobile virtual network operator TextNow.

The 100 millionth download of their free wifi mobile phone app.

On the cusp of moving into their new 40,000 square-foot facility.

Set to expand from the current 90-plus staff to more than 200 people.

And a high-speed revenue growth of 382.9 per cent from 2012 to 2016, which earned TextNow a spot on Deloitte’s Technology Fast 50 list for 2017.

The Fast 50 list includes familiar names in the Waterloo Region tech ecosystem: video marketing company Vidyard; gamified learning management company Axonify; online advertising analytics firm Sortable; cyber security experts eSentire; and digital forensics enterprise Magnet Forensics. They and TextNow are among the 29 Ontario tech firms that dominated the list.

The four-year growth curves for the Waterloo tech veterans are impressive: 2,139.9 per cent for Vidyard; 958.2 per cent for Axonify; 801.9 per cent for Sortable; 531.8 per cent for eSentire; and 399.6 per cent for Magnet Forensics.

To qualify for the Deloitte Fast 50, companies must have been in business for at least four years, have revenues of at least $5 million, own proprietary technology, invest a minimum of five per cent of gross revenues in R&D, conduct research and development activities in Canada and be headquartered in Canada.

Also highlighted by Deloitte were clean-tech telemetrics company FleetCarma of Waterloo and interior wayfinding navigator Mappedin of Kitchener, both among the 11 enterprises to win the “Companies-to-Watch Award 2017.” This category is for companies that have existed for four years or less, but are growing fast enough to soon be included in the Technology Fast 50 list.

What sets TextNow apart is that while it is headquartered in David Johnston Research + Technology Park on the University of Waterloo’s north campus, (and is doubling down on its regional presence with a new, larger home in the same park to open in 2018) its main product, a low-cost mobile service that can be used on multiple platforms and devices, isn’t fully available in Canada.

Of those 100 million downloads of the free mobile wifi phone app, 97 million of them are in the United States. Regulatory issues with Canadian wireless carriers mean that TextNow is available in Canada as a free wifi mobile phone app (there have been about three million downloads in this country, and all the TextNow employees have a workaround), but the low-cost subscription wifi-telcom combo packages are not available here, yet.

“We’ll know when we’re ready to push hard to make it happen,” says Lindsay Gibson, COO for TextNow. The former BlackBerry exec says the company is continuing to focus on what has proven to be a lucrative market in the U.S. “The U.S. market, there’s really a lot of opportunity there and we want to focus on our product. And get a little bit more learnings from the market we’re in before we expand.”

TextNow is not a new player: it launched in 2009 as Enflick, and rebranded last year under the name of its main product. Part of the TextNow package is its low-cost refurbished phones, with 30,000 to 40,000 units shipped per year, starting as low as US$4.

Gibson says that TextNow’s mission is “to disrupt the industry.” She says that the company offers a real alternative to consumers who are tired of locked-in contracts.

That mission has gained traction in the U.S.

“What’s exciting for us is that so much of our growth has happened organically,” she says. “It’s really amazing through word of mouth how many users we’ve seen. Hitting that 100 millionth download has been done with very, very little marketing. I think that’s really impressive for us, because people are telling us they are liking what we are doing.”

That growth means some active hiring. The company launched an employee referral program this past summer, and had 61 referrals, from which they hired six staff, as many as had been hired under the program for the previous five years. Gibson says TextNow needs engineering talent, such as team leads and managers: “As we grow and scale, leadership is a critical piece. Good strong leadership to keep the teams motivated and stay on top of things … We’re trying to find those people who are great at what they do and working in other places, but maybe not looking.”

TextNow continues to add new features: last year, it was a SIM-card only option; this month, it’s a family plan, allowing for current subscribers to add up to 10 additional lines.

What’s next?

Gibson says the company is focused on why the rest of America hasn’t chosen TextNow: “We need to focus on quality … How we know we have accomplished our mission is when we have people choosing us because we are on par (with the big wireless carriers), but we have unique features and differentiators that the other carriers don’t.”

About The Author

Bill Bean

Bill Bean is an award-winning journalist with 40 years experience who has been writing about innovation in Waterloo Region for three years, and who has a weakness for grandchildren, bicycles and chocolate.