Zenergy finds its groove after leaving incubator

Zenergy finds its groove after leaving incubator
By Matt Evans
The Business Journal (print and online), 7/5/2013

They say it’s tough out there on your own, and earlier this year Chris Laney, president of software quality assurance and testing firm Zenergy Technologies, was starting to believe it.

“Around the first of the year things were pretty slow. I talked to some other people and they verified that for me, that business was just slow in (information technology),” Laney said. “But it really started to take off a month or two ago.”

And with a bang. As The Business Journal first reported online this week, Zenergy has just signed two new testing contracts that will cause it to expand by about 30 jobs, from 20 employees to about 50. About a dozen of those employees have already come on board, Laney said, and the rest will be added in the next few months.

Laney, a recent Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship business incubator graduate, declined to identify the companies Zenergy will be working with. But he said both are “multi-billion-dollar” firms and in both cases, his team will be doing testing of e-commerce websites. That’s become something of a specialty for Zenergy, he said.

“It’s primarily for functionality, making sure that if you put something in the shopping cart, the right item is there when you go to checkout” and many other details, Laney said. “But it’s also for usability. Even if the software is working as it should, if the user experience isn’t great, we can note that and help them find ways to improve it.”

Many of the new positions are entry-level analyst jobs, and the company does a lot of recruiting from UNC-Greensboro, N.C. A&T State University, Elon University and other colleges, Laney said. After a level of screening, promising applicants go through a day-long training session the company calls “Zen Pro” with Shaun Bradshaw, a UNCG graduate himself who is now Zenergy’s vice president of consulting solutions.

“This is the kind of training that clients will often pay us to come and deliver to their people, but Shaun gets to observe how (job applicants) interact and solve problems,” he said. “We’re looking for people with what we call a ‘tester mindset’ — who are analytical, don’t make assumptions and who can figure out different ways to test something to make sure it works well.”

Don Heath, an instructor in systems analysis at UNCG, said Zenergy’s technical and business experts are regular speakers to his students, some of whom have gone to work for the firm. Heath said several students during this past semester were able to go through Zenergy’s training program as part of their undergraduate capstone project.

“They got to go firsthand and develop some test strips and get other practical experience around the kinds of things that Zenergy does,” Heath said. “A couple of them have taken jobs with Zenergy, but the skills will translate to work at almost any such firm. They’ve been real champions of our programs and students.”

Zenergy was founded in 2010 and started at the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship until the incubator relocated last year. Laney said the company took that opportunity to move to its current space on Pomona Drive near West Market Street and Spring Garden. It has since expanded within the complex, he said.

Laney, a winner of TBJ’s 40 Leaders Under Forty award in 2006, said Zenergy still draws on its time in the Nussbaum Center in an effort to retain the startup energy, even as the company grows. He said he has especially fond memories of the incubator’s shared kitchen and break-room space, so he wanted something similar for Zenergy’s new office.

“It’s not as big, but we have a space that we think has an atmosphere where a lot of ideas can be exchanged,” he said. “People may be working on two different projects, but one person will talk to another and say ‘hey, we can use that idea.’ That cross-pollination is something we learned at Nussbaum that we’re trying to maintain.”

Laney said beyond the two big new contracts, inquiries have been up lately and there are other prospects for growth. For example, Zenergy is developing a service based on Selenium, an open-source Web browser automation tool that is much less expensive than available commercial tools, but that many users need help to make work.

Laney said a lot of the credit for Zenergy’s current growth spurt belongs to his business partners, Bradshaw and David Dang, who is vice president of automation solutions. Both are called on frequently as guest and keynote speakers at industry events.

“That kind of thing gives us great visibility,” Laney said. “We’re a smaller company going up against some very large companies, so the credibility these two guys bring us is invaluable.”

Matt Evans covers biotech, entrepreneurship, higher education, financial services and furniture. Contact him at (336) 370-2916 or mlevans@bizjournals.com.