We’re actually acquiring American companies, which is a nice little shift. One benefit is that we pick up great technology. The Chicago office was the first acquisition in 2009. We’ve actually grown all those offices and one of my great challenges is to make sure the culture fits.
What was the mind shift for you in becoming an entrepreneur?
That I was responsible for the payroll for everybody and that there was no one else to go to. It stops here and that’s stressful. It doesn’t matter how big a company you work for, you’re not responsible at the end of the day. But when it’s your own, if you don’t make the sales and can’t pay the bills, what do you do? It doesn’t actually hit you until you’re doing it.
What was toughest in the early years?
I had already been kind of retired for three years when I picked up this interesting technology and founded Haivision. So my biggest challenge was to go from this retirement mentality back to 24/7 like I used to be. So I hired a partner to run the day-to-day business. Big mistake ... I had to fire him. The good news is that actually forced me to get back into the business day-to-day very quickly.
So no more partners?
I have investment partners but no business partner. I’m CEO and I’ve got my killer executives. Most of my employees have stock options. We only stopped giving stock options two years ago.
Was money an issue for Haivision after your dot-com crash?
In the early days I raised money from friends and family to bootstrap the company and brought in one private investor who’s still there. I also put in my own money and borrowed some from the bank. But you always need more money than you think you need. When I had to raise more, I brought in money from a couple of institutions in 2007. We’ve been profitable ever since. That’s very compelling because we’ve been funding the company with our own profits. Most companies need venture capital or private equity money. So we’ve kind of bucked the trend, under the radar, very quietly.
A lot of your growth has been outside of Canada.
All of it. The biggest market we have is the U.S. About 75 per cent is from the U.S. and the other 22 per cent to 25 per cent is split between Asia and Europe. The big growth area for us was four and a half years ago when we cracked the U.S. military, which was huge for us. We were just in the right place at the right time with the right technology. We were fortunate.
Did that give you instant cred with other U.S. government agencies?
It definitely helped. At that point back in 2008, we had zero business with the U.S. federal. Now we have 12 people in Washington. We’re into every branch of the military but also in every branch of the federal government, including health. A big part of our business is in medical and higher education. We’re very diversified with four key components: enterprise, education, medical and federal. That balances the company. Sometimes some markets are low, some are high. But everything we do has to fit into those core markets.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs starting out?
Do what you love to do. Then find yourself a mentor.
Who was your most influential mentor?
Robert Burgess, who co-founded Silicon Graphics Canada and became president of Alias Research. He hired me twice.
What was the biggest lesson you learned?
To have the freedom to make mistakes.
What mistake have you really learned from?
I’d say trusting someone too much. But what I tell my kids is that I’d rather they be trusting than non-trusting.
Due diligence is something Canadian companies don’t do enough. Do due diligence on who you hire and on any companies you buy.
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