Entrepreneur Tips From the Top

Hardt exemplifies what these entrepreneurs have lots of: self-reliance and intuition. For Shane Lunny, confidence in creativity is key. After that, it’s all in the gut. Here's some tips from the top of B.C.'s entrepreneur community.

Hardt exemplifies what these entrepreneurs have lots of: self-reliance and intuition. For Shane Lunny, confidence in creativity is key. After that, it’s all in the gut. Here’s some tips from the top of B.C.’s entrepreneur community.

They’re stubborn as hell. They savour their mistakes. Most have enormous egos and don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks. They’re also quick to praise, crazy-passionate about their work and almost oblivious to risk. B.C.’s most successful entrepreneurs share some unmistakable traits – and it turns out they’re not very secret at all. When we pried, they spilled. No one balked at our probing questions because, among other shared attributes, these CEOs are big on solving matters in a definitive way by picking up the phone and learning from those who know – and then applying that knowledge in aggressive ways. Naysayers be damned. The most common trait we uncovered? A very healthy ego. Case in point: Terry McBride, CEO and founder of Nettwerk Records: “Everything is intuitive,” says McBride, 46. “The only time there’s ever doubt is when everybody around me at the record company is questioning me. Then I might doubt it, but I still drive it ahead and 99 per cent of the time it works out.” It’s a world view that could be categorized as egomaniacal, but McBride’s attitude is a common thread that runs through many of B.C.’s highest achievers – and is linked to their success. Take Dick Hardt, local tech genius and founder of software firms ActiveState and Sxip Networks. “Entrepreneurs are not all that sensitive to what other people think,” says Hardt. “I’ll think about how what I do may impact somebody else but in general, if they don’t like it, they don’t like it.” Hardt exemplifies what these entrepreneurs have lots of: self-reliance and intuition. For Shane Lunny, confidence in creativity is key. After that, it’s all in the gut. A large part of his success in building a company that produces high-tech exhibits and theme parks around the world – including exhibits for the B.C. pavilion at the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Turin – is “winging it.” He knows his creative instincts are solid, even if the clients are caught wondering. The gregarious 52-year-old has been known to stand up during a presentation and exclaim, “You know what? We’ve never done a project like yours before.” He’s often the antithesis of what clients expect. “I kind of wave my arms and make something up and say what I think, what I’m imagining,” says Lunny. “You’ve got to challenge them. That’s part of staying fresh and staying alive and staying engaged.” And when it doesn’t work out? Move on. These leaders take their mistakes in stride but never obsess over them. They’ve all made some doozies – they just don’t see them as failures. QLT co-founder Julia Levy, who helped build B.C.’s first multi-million-dollar biotech company from a promising drug discovery, says she counts on mistakes to point her toward her goals. The scientific method depends on it. “I’ve always tried to get the information from something that doesn’t work, because it’s often telling you way more than something that does work. Because when something does work, it’s simply confirming what you already thought,” she explains. “Something that doesn’t work is telling you that your thinking is wrong and you have to change it.” Levy, 72, retired in 2002 but still sits on the QLT board of directors and its scientific advisory board. She warns those eyeing a career in the sciences, “you’ve got to be stubborn and you’re got to love it because if you don’t, it’s going to break your heart. Your failures in the lab are probably tenfold higher than your successes, if you’re doing original work.” Levy isn’t the only one who credits gaffes for her successes. You won’t hear Geordie Rose fret about failure either. He and his team at DWave Systems are focused on building the world’s first computer that operates on the principles of quantum physics. There’s nothing wrong with screwing up, says Rose, 34. “The thing that concerns me is not giving it the right try, not putting in the right amount of effort and that being the source of the failure. If we fail, it’s because we tried to do something very hard. I would be very proud to fail under that circumstance.” Still, blunders deal a harsh blow to the ego. How do CEOs maintain confidence after falling flat? Levy has an answer: focus on the big picture. “I always dream about changing the world – somehow. You have these odd moments when you think, ‘Wow, this is so amazing.’” Rose can relate to that level of passion. Last year he held in his hand what could be the first working chip of the quantum computer. “I got the feeling that very few people get and that scientists really crave,” he confesses. “It’s this feeling that you have touched upon something unique and you’ve had a part in bringing it into the world. It makes all the difficulties – the feeling that you’re running a marathon – it makes all that worthwhile to have just a few of those instances in your life.” But passion, for all its advantages, can make you oblivious to risk. Many joke that this also makes them unemployable, forcing them to launch their own companies. Dick Hardt readily confesses that he doesn’t think he’s employable at all. Admits Allan MacDougall, founder of Raincoast Books: “I don’t like being told what do.” Ken Spencer, who co-founded Creo, the high-tech printing company picked up by Kodak for US$980 million last year, specifically founded his corporation because he felt couldn’t work for anybody else. “I’d always had these ideas about how to run a company,” Spencer explains. “They were quite different for the time, but not so different now. I believed in empowerment. I believed every employee should own shares.” [pagebreak] Management in the companies Spencer has worked for didn’t always share his views, however, and with characteristic humour he describes himself as being consistently fired from prestigious positions. He was GM and then VP of MacDonald Dettwiler & Associates for nine years before being let go in what he describes as a “power shuffle,” and then joined Glenayre Electronics as GM. He was fired after 18 months (that exit was blamed on a “revolving door” of senior management). Fed up with watching companies being run ineffectively, he teamed up with Dan Gelbart to launch Creo in 1983 and put his own ideas to work. Spencer retired from Creo in 1995. Strong vision, loads of confidence and a desire to make a difference drive these people forward. But as important as a maverick’s spirit may be, true leaders must be able to bring together a team and lead it. This requires firm ideas on what needs to be done – but an open mind on how to do it. Geordie Rose sums it up this way: “If you believe you can do it and you’re energetic about compelling others to enter into your circle of belief, then you have a chance. You might not succeed, but you have a chance.” Visionary leaders attract high-calibre talent and view themselves simply as the front line. You’ve heard it a million times: successful leaders place strong emphasis on teamwork, relationships and networking. Many CEOs say the key to a strong team is recognizing they are human, too. Rick Mischel, CEO of Mainframe Entertainment, lives by the William Goldman adage, “Nobody knows anything.” Just as he understands that other people can be wrong, he knows he can be off track, too. So he always listens to what others say about how to achieve the company’s goals. Six months ago, he considered moving locations. Management investigated various sites around B.C., then circulated a survey and held focus groups to gather staff input. What they heard was that the move would have a significant impact on staff members’ quality of life. Employees were concerned about commuting. They liked being near downtown Vancouver. So even though a move would have addressed particular financial issues faced by the company, those were balanced against what the employees told management. Mainframe stayed where it was. The take-home message here? Many of our CEOs have consciously constructed their companies in a way that shares power among all employees. And when you’ve hired someone who doesn’t fit with the team? “You cannot get rid of people who you feel in your gut are wrong fast enough,” says Rose. Another key point? These top performers don’t waste energy focusing on the negative. They figure out where the problems are, gather solid input on how to solve them and start testing solutions. And if all else fails, move on. TIP: Go global Rick Mischel CEO, Mainframe Entertainment ‘‘Nobody knows what they really want to do when they’re 16,” says Rick Mischel, CEO of Mainframe Entertainment. “And the truth is, you shouldn’t know when you’re 50. That’s not what life is.” When Mischel attended Tufts University and majored in international relations, it was not because he had a particular plan, but because he was curious about world history and global politics. “I just always had an interest in how the world was ordered and how the world was managed.” At 16 he went camping through Europe. At 19, he spent the summer living with a family in Mexico. In his 20s, he spent a semester in London studying European politics and history. A foray into law school led him into entertainment law because he liked the entertainment industry, and soon he was co-producing videos and purchasing video distribution rights. For comic and vacation relief, he took a job as a clown for Club Med. “We have clients and customers all over the world,” Mischel says,“and my education has given me the ability to create relationships with people in other countries that are very strong, that have helped me in my career all ways.” His years in show biz have led Mischel to another solid conclusion: “Don’t hype. Tell the truth. You’ll come across much better… The minute I find out that someone is hyping me, I want nothing to do with them. Life’s too short.” TIP: Be stubborn Kari Yuers President and CEO, the Kryton Group of Companies Kari Yuers, the “Queen of Concrete,” took a family business to big-league success and is responsible for its remarkable financial growth. An innovative woman in a male-dominated profession slow to embrace change, Yuers refused to listen to people who said she was crazy. Their dismissals just intensified her determination. Case in point: Kryton’s research team came up with an additive to make waterproof concrete at a time when the industry standard was to pour the concrete and later add a waterproof membrane to the outside surface. Kryton’s new ingredient made the entire poured mixture waterproof, saving time and money – and resulting in a more water-resistant product. A great idea, or so Yuers thought. She went to the concrete suppliers and was instantly dismissed. “Most of those guys just told me to quit,” Yuers recalls, laughing. “‘A young lady like you, you’re never going to change the industry. Good luck! The industry will never embrace this.’” [pagebreak] Undeterred, Yuers continued to promote the product until she found someone who said maybe. Or, more precisely, someone who said: “Tell you what, young lady. You go get us a job and we’ll supply the [concrete] and try your mixture.” Yuers admits to being just plain stubborn. “I think I was just so wrapped up in the fact that this was the right thing to do, and that it makes sense and that there is a need and that it solves problems.” She adds that it helps to keep a youthful perspective: “Youth is a wonderful thing. When you’re younger, you’re more apt to not give up. I didn’t come into the company to try a few things and fail, either.” Today the product is a standard choice in the industry. “In hindsight, it might have been easier if I’d been some six-foot-tall blond guy,” Yuers muses. “But I looked at being a woman in a male industry as an advantage. People remembered me from a meeting or from a job site – I wasn’t forgettable. The nice thing is that if you do break through and have success, you feel good that you can attribute it to bringing value.” TIP: Luck? No such thing Geordie Rose CEO & Founder , DWave Systems Most of our CEOs agree they were lucky, but they’re also the first to admit luck is really about positioning yourself, remaining open-minded and pushing through adversity to succeed. When it came time to find the capital to start DWave, Geordie Rose had the good fortune to know Haig Farris. But it wasn’t luck that brought Rose into Farris’s sights. He had taken one of Farris’s post-graduate commerce courses for engineering and MBA students at UBC – a class Farris taught with the express intention of encouraging entrepreneurs to enter the area of technology. He watched his students closely for anyone with promise. Rose was carrying a heavy course load that year and one night found himself staring at an essay assignment due the next day. He hadn’t even started it and toyed with the idea of not writing the paper. After all, it was for a commerce course that wouldn’t affect his final grades in science and engineering. He was tempted to blow it off but for some reason – a gut impulse – he resisted. Rose pulled an all-nighter and blearily turned in his effort. That paper earned him the best mark Farris had every handed out in the course. In Rose, Farris saw a unique blend of the innovative and the practical. When Farris began pondering the creation of a quantum computer, he knew Rose could be one of the people to make it happen. To this day, Rose says doing his homework that night changed his life. TIP: Navigate the bumps SHANE LUNNY Chairman and executive director of The Lunny Group Shane Lunny’s team of interactive designers, programmers, graphic artists, animators, writers, directors and producers lives project to project. Their work has included the Canada Pavilion for Expo 2005 in Aichi, Japan, the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre and the recently renovated Port of Vancouver headquarters. There have been triumphs – and challenges. “The very nature of project work is perilous,” Lunny explains. “One big danger is scope creep” – when a client hires his company to do one thing but then adds to it until the gap between what they want and what they’ve agreed to pay for is impossibly large. It happened on a project for a client in the Middle East. “We had all these assurances from the client of ‘We’ll be good for this and we’ll be good for that.’ At the end of the day, the client didn’t want to pay.” Lunny and his group took a loss and let the clients finish the project on their own. “It was not a perfect ending by any means.” The answer? “You take your lumps and you move on in imperfect circumstances.” In the end, future clients are sold on the next vision, and that’s where Lunny excels, drawing people into the excitement. “If you’re having a good adventure, be grateful for the trip, sorry for the bumps.” Tip: Know your market BOB RENNIE Director, Rennie Marketing Systems You have to know your stuff to understand where the opportunities are and how to cash in on them. Bob Rennie has built a condo marketing empire by paying close attention to what sells, what doesn’t and what actually closes the deal for a buyer. “We’re formula,” Rennie explains. “Big view, big suite; small view, small suite. It works in Surrey, it works in Hope, it works in Seattle, it works in Vancouver. The guy who will pay for the view also wants the privilege of space. The guy who just wants the location because it’s a close walk to work knows he can’t get a view, so [he buys] a smaller suite.” That formula, combined with Rennie’s philosophy that “a building can’t be everything to everybody,” means he avoids the disconnect of buildings where $99,000 studios are on offer beside $3-million-dollar penthouses. Before Rennie took his magic touch to The Lions condo project on Alberni Street in downtown Vancouver, the development had been sitting empty. It was a failure. The developer handed it over to Rennie, who figured out how much condo-buyers in the area were spending, what they were looking for and in what demographic his potential customers belonged. He had the building repackaged to cater to that clientele and changed the décor to give the building a different look. It sold out in 11 weeks. “It’s about instinct,” Rennie says, “but making sure you’ve got enough data behind you that can really back it up.”