Cheers to Crazy Entrepreneurs

Do local entrepreneurs have what it takes to be insanely great?

Steve Jobs, Apple | BCBusiness
Judging by the bold risk-taking profile of our province, one of our wild-eyed entrepreneurs has the potential to be the next Steve Jobs.

Do local entrepreneurs have what it takes to be insanely great?

Following the death of Steve Jobs last year and the subsequent bestselling biography, the iconic 1997 TV ad for the Think Different campaign served as an apt symbol for the life of one of the greatest American entrepreneurs. Narrated in the dulcet tones of Richard Dreyfuss, the ad gave homage to “the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square hole.” Even if you didn’t read the book, you know that Steve Jobs was one of those crazy ones. He was one of a rare breed of entrepreneur who dares to change the world but can be viewed as nutty before that change begins.

Starting a business, making it a success and making money for you and your investors is really hard. Making your business a global market-share leader and creating billions of dollars of value seems downright impossible. If you knew from the beginning that the only outcome would be either utter failure or a billion-dollar company, you would have to be crazy to even try. Here’s to the crazy ones.

It’s not as simple as saying you are going to dominate a market and become a global leader. You have to anticipate demand and have exquisite timing. You will be battling uphill to establish the product and grow the business. You need conviction, above all else, and that conviction, combined with the audacity to take on the world, will lead some to conclude that you’re crazy.

It is easy in hindsight to celebrate the crazy ones that built hugely successful companies, many of whom emanated from the risk-taking culture of Silicon Valley. Can a crazy entrepreneur in B.C. with a wild idea and ground-breaking technology ever achieve greatness? Or are we too Canadian to support and nurture the crazy, rebellious entrepreneurs? With our background in wild-eyed entrepreneurs from the mining sector, it would seem that B.C. has the risk-taking profile to support really big, bold ideas. But our lack of multi-billion-dollar technology companies suggests we may be missing out on some opportunities.

I believe we have an example in process: Alexander Fernandes, president, CEO and co-founder of Vancouver’s Avigilon Corp., has the conviction part nailed. In 2006 and 2007, he was telling people in the investment community how his approach to video surveillance was game-changing. For the most part, investors thought his idea wasn’t revolutionary enough and may have been put off by his firm sense of where Avigilon was headed. When an entrepreneur is so convinced of his success, he may have high expectations of value. Fernandes convinced some local angels and investors at Discovery Capital Management Corp. of his unique and potentially game-changing approach and they supported him. Watch Avigilon go now: an IPO in November 2011 and continued growth. Fernandes just may be creating an “insanely” great company. 

To cite one more local example, B.C.’s poster child for potentially “insanely” great entrepreneurialism is Geordie Rose, founder and CTO of D-Wave Systems Inc. His massive idea was to build a quantum computer. Nobody, not even the oldest computer company in the world, IBM, had built one. After he convinced investors that his team could get it done, Rose has been supported locally and internationally. In 2011, D-Wave announced the commercial sale of its first quantum computer. Insane.

For every intensely focused Fernandes or concocter of “boil the ocean” ideas like Rose, there is an entrepreneur with a huge idea that is, well, truly crazy and not bankable or supportable in any way. How do you tell the difference? How do you know that a 22-year-old, barefoot, smelly, banana-eating Steve Jobs is going to change the world? The answer is that you don’t know. You have to take some swings for the fence. Here in B.C., we need to continue to support the entrepreneurs (and their ideas) who might just be crazy enough to get it done.