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Jean-François Côté, CEO of District M, poses in its offices in Montreal on Aug. 14, 2018.

Christinne Muschi/Globe and Mail

Jean-François Côté is the chief executive officer of District M, a digital media company offering diverse programmatic advertising solutions for publishers and advertisers. He has more than 20 years of experience in the media industry and holds an MBA from the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM).

Growing up, I lived in a small French village, working in farming. My grandfather was a well-recognized entrepreneur in farming, and I learned a lot from him, observing his business deals and client meetings.

I understood early on the importance of speaking English to doing business in the global context, and my father encouraged me to pursue learning English in school. Learning English in 1998, in the absence of the internet, posed different challenges from learning English today, including struggling to finish exams while flipping dictionary pages.

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The job search was vastly different before the internet – I remember printing 40 CVs per day. I would borrow my dad’s car, and drive around to submit my CV to different companies.

I learned from incredibly powerful mentors during my time at Pratt & Whitney. John Di Bert, now chief financial officer of Bombardier, was one of the greatest influences and educators that I had there.

I spent 20 years working in the corporate world, before I pursued entrepreneurship, at PricewaterhouseCoopers in consulting, then at UQAM to pursue my MBA, and at Yellow Pages in Business Planning.

The shift from print to digital affected both publishing agencies and advertisers. I determined that if you were able to optimize on supply and demand for these stakeholders, you would be able to leverage technology to best help both.

Creativity in advertising is incredibly important, and in the wake of technology’s impact on business, companies sometimes forget to be creative. District M enables advertisers to maintain creativity while leveraging technology.

“What do my next 10 years look like?” This is a question I asked myself, after spending almost 20 years in the corporate world. I did my MBA, and was uncertain whether I saw my future at the C-level of a large corporation.

My first venture into entrepreneurship was when I was 15 and I ran a hockey-card business on [Montreal’s] South Shore; my grandfather gave me a $10,000 investment to turn this into a business. A few childhood ventures and many corporate years later, at age 35, I was faced with whether I would return to my entrepreneurial roots and try something on my own, or accept a good, stable, corporate job.

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Because of my corporate background, I really prepared to fail, and thought of what the “worst case scenario” would be. From the day I started District M, I put a huge focus and priority on planning. I knew that even if I were to be a C+ in strategy, that I would have to be an A+ in execution – and District M operates at a level of A+ in execution.

Sometimes you have sleepless nights and there is a lot on your mind and you’re tossing and turning and you can’t get any rest – you know that feeling? That’s the entrepreneurial mindset: You never really rest, there is always something else to think about.

I’m very proud to be in Montreal and go toe to toe with Toronto, New York and [Silicon] Valley businesses. Our costs are lower in Montreal, the people are very talented and we have the advantage of language, speaking eight different languages in my office. Language enables global reach, with business 80 per cent outside of Canada.

I’m very passionate about leadership. Getting to Yes changed my life, and I give it to all my new sales representatives to read. Growing up, I was always captains of my sports teams, and maybe it was coming from a large family, but I love to work as part of a team – win as a team and lose as a team.

Leadership is my mindset and I love to be a leader, talk about strategy, execution, get to know teams and manage the people based on their strengths and needs.

Intense workouts energize me and refresh my energy and a clear mindset – and this has a huge impact on how I run my business.

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Balancing work with a family, I often end my day at 6 p.m., go home to be with my kids and then come back online at 9 p.m. until around 11 p.m. or midnight. It is incredibly important to me to tend to my e-mails. People can always expect to hear back from me within 24 hours.

The luxury of being an entrepreneur is that I’m able to spot potential in people and train them. Someone coming from the restaurant industry and a former DJ, are now managers at District M because they had the aptitude and proper training.

We manage the company like a corporation, but with the culture of an entrepreneur. If you want to have the right culture in place, you can’t go top down – it needs to come from the employees themselves, bottom up.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length. With reporting by Elaina Yallen.

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