iStock Co-founder and Dissolve CEO Patrick Lor

Patrick Lor | BCBusiness
iStock co-founder and Dissolve CEO Patrick Lor in his post-speaker photo session at the 2013 GROW Conference.

Fresh from the GROW speakers’ stage, Patrick Lor discusses B.C.’s startup ecosystem and the woes of the entrepreneur

We caught up with iStock co-founder and Dissolve CEO Patrick Lor fresh from the GROW 2013 speakers’ stage to talk about entrepreneurship and startups in Canada. Lor co-founded stock-photo website iStock, sold it to Getty for US$50 million in 2006, then worked as president of North American operations of Fotolia. His most recent venture-in-progess is video stock-footage website Dissolve.

While working in the tech-arts business, Lor also been heavily involved in the Canadian startup ecosystem as an investor and mentor, which includes a role with Vancouver’s own GrowLab.

You’re the co-founder and CEO of Calgary-based stock-footage website Dissolve, but when you first came to Canada from Hong Kong, you arrived in Vancouver.
My parents, like every other Asian parent, said that they wanted their kids to grow up in this amazing educational environment, and that’s why we moved from Hong Kong to Vancouver. They were kind of hoping that their son would become a doctor, engineer or lawyer. We came here when I was five and they proceeded to sacrifice their lives for the sake of their children.

We lived for a little while in Mississauga, but most of my childhood has been in Vancouver and then Calgary.

We moved all over Canada, but I guess the long and short of it is that I hugely disappointed them by completing a degree in sociology (laughs) as opposed to an engineering, law or medical degree.

Even to this day, I think that entrepreneurship is misunderstood by most people. Entrepreneurship is a tough concept to grasp for anyone, let alone people that really just look at achievements in a very traditional way. Entrepreneurship is not traditional achievement.

You have a lot of ties to the B.C. startup community; you recently made an angel investment in Vancouver-based Allocadia, you’re also involved with Version One Ventures, an early-stage fund run by Vancouverite Boris Wertz. Have those been intentional moves on your part?
I think that as an investor I’d like to say no, and as a Canadian I’d like to say yes—because I love Vancouver. But I think if I were to put my investing hat on, I’ll just invest wherever the great businesses are and wherever the great people are. In Allocadia we’ve got a couple of great entrepreneurs and in Version One we have a fantastic partner in Boris Wertz, so I guess it’s a little bit of both. I want an excuse to come to Vancouver and visit the companies and visit my partners.

With your current company, Dissolve, you’ve hired people from Vancouver. Are they working remotely in Vancouver or will they be coming to Calgary?
They’re mostly working remotely and we want to bring them in very often into Calgary, because I think it’s just the culture thing. It’s very hard to capture culture over Skype and over emails. At the same time, we think that there’s a certain vibe in Vancouver, a certain culture, that you want to bring some of this outside influence into your company and you do that by hiring people that have varied experiences. If we had a lockdown on our people and we had to be with each other for 24 hours, it would be a very boring company, so that’s why we let our people out for few hours (laughs) and let them have friends and family, and let them pick up cultures so they can bring that and mix that into the pot.

As you see Dissolve growing, could you envision opening a second office in Vancouver?
I see Vancouver as just being amazing when it comes to the pieces of the culture that we want to capture, which is, number one, the physical beauty of B.C. It makes it the place to do film and TV production, and that’s very obvious. But beyond that, I think it’s in these cultures that appreciate art, and that’s where people gather and that’s what makes the film and TV and arts that much more rich—that community’s just richer. You have this gathering, this critical mass, of people with expertise and skills to bring all that together. We definitely want to have a piece of that culture.

New York is also a place where we want to set up a few more people; we have one of our employees there. There’s definitely places where we’ve marked around the world and said, “This is one of the epicentres where they do film, TV, arts, culture, and we want to be a part of that.”

How often do you make it out to Vancouver?
Probably once every quarter. I love it out here; it’s a completely different vibe. You watch shows like Portlandia and it kind of pokes fun, and Portlandia is essentially Vancouver south. It pokes fun at the culture, but at the same time, I think you have to really appreciate a little bit of that as well. People care about their environment and that’s a good thing. People care about what they eat and what they wear and what they fill their minds with, and that’s good stuff.

How do you see the larger startup community developing in Canada? Do you see more opportunities for entrepreneurs like yourself to be reaching beyond provincial borders?
I see a couple of things happening. I think one of the things happening is that Canadians are OK with sharing and that’s part of the Canadian culture, but it’s also part of the startup community culture as well. Especially in environments where we say, “Hey, we did this in Montreal, or we did this in Calgary and Edmonton, would you be willing to educate us in Toronto?” When I talk to Mike Edwards and say, “Hey, Mike, would you be willing to come and talk to our guys? Because we just want to copy what you’re doing, in Calgary.” Because we love what’s happening at Launch Academy and at GrowLab, and he says, “Yeah, I’m in.” So we have that kind of culture—I think it’s amazing.

Aside from that I think there’s also the physical reality, and the physical reality is that Vancouver is just a beautiful place to live. And it’s closer to where we want to do business—especially if you’re in the consumer Internet business. All your partners are in the Valley. It’s a little bit longer from Calgary, and it’s way longer if you’re in Toronto or Montreal. So just the physical reality of that makes Vancouver that much more attractive. And then also, just the artistic culture.

I think we just have to combine that with the startup mentality. Calgary has its own challenges; the Calgary challenge is that when we compete for employees, we compete on a dollar basis, because the oil companies have so much money to toss around. And Vancouver, I think that it’s almost an opposite thing; you can’t use money to convince people, you have to convince people with lifestyle or with passion, or with the kind of change-the-world mission. I think it changes the entrepreneurship goal—what your environment is.

I think that Vancouver will always figure big in the startup space no matter what happens.

What would you say the opportunities are right now for young entrepreneurs?
There’s a book called So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport; it basically debunks every single piece of advice given to young people about their careers. The typical advice is: find your passion, go out and only do what you’re passionate about. And Cal basically says that that’s very misinformed; you don’t know what you’re passionate about because you’ve done nothing. You can’t learn what you’re passionate about from somebody else or by listening to someone at a conference or by reading a book or by going to school. You actually have to do things. So he basically says, go out and do something. Do something for a year and then you’ll understand what doing that thing is really about and understand that passion. I think that for young people, the advice is get out and do something.

The first few years of your career, especially in a startup, are super important. That launch phase motivates you to do more in the next phase. Early success brings you more success. If you can be that intense at it, that’s probably the number one career booster.