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Connor Gottfried: ‘Hard work is fun. That might sound nerdy, but that’s what I love’

Entrepreneur Conner Gottfried who likes to mountain bike in Calgary, Alberta, June 28, 2017.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Connor Gottfried, 40, earned a mechanical-engineering degree from the University of Calgary and gained 13 years of experience in the field before launching the eLearning development company, Leara, in 2012. Since then, Leara has amassed a clientele that includes NASA, ATCO and Marriott Hotels. Mr. Gottfried is chief executive officer.

When I was 19, my high-school vice-principal (Cam Mateika, in Swan River, Manitoba) got funding from the government to bring Internet to small towns and hired students. I was super lucky to get that job. I was working at Dairy Queen.

We built the Swan Valley Community Network. I also worked on a regional video-conferencing network to allow an economic development group to give financial and business advice. It's not like the city where someone can come into your office. I started doing eLearning in a rudimentary sense.

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I was studying mechanical engineering (at the University of Calgary) and trying to decide if I should continue. When I saw what was happening with the Internet, I thought 'Wow, this is where I want to be for the rest of my life.'

I'm into mountain biking, and even to make a mountain bike, it's very difficult; you need a lot of materials and processes. With the Internet, you can build some software, and you can release it on the web and it will be instantly available all over the world. That really appealed to me.

I started working for an eLearning web developer and realized that regular web development was dependent on these business cycles.

The thing with eLearning is that it was very clearly cutting costs for businesses. A lot of companies were flying people in, sitting them in classrooms, putting them in hotels. They were spending a lot of money on training and eLearning was allowing them to deliver that same training while cutting all those costs. I realized right away that this was going to ride out any sort of economic cycle.

After 13 years, I left to start Leara and a lot of things changed. … primarily, you have to get clients.

We relied on SEO (search engine optimization), word of mouth. That type of thing. We did that through being innovative in the field. NASA found us because of our Respond5 software.

What I'm most proud of in business is Respond5. So many times, I've felt like it's not going to work, then something will happen. It almost seems like it wanted to come into the world. You would never think that when you start writing a piece of software, that it would define your career. The ideas for it keep coming and keeps me inspired.

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The future? It will go two ways: mobile devices will continue to explode. There will be performance support and on-the-job aids. The barista who can't remember how to use the coffee machine will be able to get help on demand. There will be a shift training in courses to training right when you need it.

Virtual reality training will change everything. Twenty years from now all training will be virtual reality. We will see an explosion of tools to create virtual reality training but also artificial intelligence in terms of how to interpret what employees have done and how did they address their weaknesses?

What I've found is there are experiences that create passion and experiences that take it away. When you put your time into things that don't inspire you, you dull your passion. What I'm passionate about is software innovation, so I put my time into that.

When not working, I play in a band called Tetrix with my brother and childhood friend. We made our Tetrix 14 album covers out of felt. It brings us together as a group. We laugh, we drink beer and we do the work. We cut out all the felt by hand and we glued them all by hand. When I started Tetrix 14, I said to my wife: "I don't want to do something easy. I want to do something hard, and I want to spend extra long on it." That's what we did.

Hard work is fun. That might sound nerdy, but that's what I love.

Advice for that small-town Manitoba kid? Focus on knowledge first. Always give yourself a project. Try to learn. If you want to be in a technology industry, you have to be constantly adapting to technological changes.

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