Not all founders of tech companies have been coding since they could clutch a sippy-cup.
Ryan Holmes, the 42-year-old founder and CEO of the Canadian social-media management platform Hootsuite, had an off-the-grid upbringing that saw him tending to animals instead of web pages.
For the latest in Reuters‘ “Life Lessons” series, Holmes spoke with Reuters about how he transitioned from farm boy to running a company that is said to be at or near “unicorn”-level valuation of more than US$1 billion.
Q: You had a pretty unconventional childhood. Did that give you a unique life perspective?
A: Back in the 1970s, my parents left teaching and bought a farm, so that’s where I grew up. We were off the grid, with no electricity, a water well and kerosene lamps. We raised goats and chickens and honeybees. That gave me a lot of practical, hands-on life experience – and taught me how to fix things.
Q: Who were your biggest influences in getting started in the business world?
A: They say that children of entrepreneurs often become entrepreneurs themselves, because the whole process of going into business for yourself has been demystified. My mom was that influence for me. She came from London, and was a world traveler, artist and businesswoman. She helped me set up my first business, a paintball company, when I was only 16.
Q: You later dropped out of a college – why was that?
A: I wasn’t learning a ton that I thought would help me as an entrepreneur. I’m an experiential learner, and the best path for me is just to go out and do it. So I dropped out, started a pizza-by-the-slice restaurant. From that I learned how to set up an operation, and manage it, and be totally involved at all levels.
Q: How did you end up in the digital world?
A: This was back in 1999 and the internet was taking off, and I decided I wanted to chase that down. So I sold the restaurant, got a top-of-the-line computer, taught myself programming languages like HTML, and learned all about Web presence. From the beginning I was always a bit of a generalist: as a business owner you need to know about a whole lot of different things – and know enough to be dangerous.
Q: After Hootsuite became a success, how did you handle your personal wealth?
A: With my investment strategy, I tend to be hands-on and not super complex. I have placed some money under management and self-manage some as well. Since I have equity in Hootsuite, I tend to stay away from too many internet stocks, in order to achieve some balance. With my liquid assets, I am pretty middle-of-the-road in my risk tolerance, often with index funds.
I also have some real estate properties in my hometown of Vancouver, which has seen pretty incredible growth over the years. There is a ton of foreign investment that drives the real estate market here.
Q: What money mistakes have been most humbling for you?
A: Some of the hardest lessons have been around growth. We had some business teams that went from zero to $100 million in revenues, which is a huge run. I looked at the bench I had at the time, and it wasn’t the right team. Some people had to go. That was super hard. So some of the biggest mistakes have involved keeping people on board for longer than they should have. Sometimes you have to be ruthless about who is on the bus.
Q: Where do you direct your philanthropic efforts?
A: I am passionate about building a tech ecosystem in Canada. My dream is that I want 100 Hootsuites in Vancouver. We need a whole league of young innovators, so we need to find and accelerate these young entrepreneurs. To do that, Hootsuite donates office space and provides mentorship, and I have personally funded programs like that for a number of years.
Q: What would you consider a successful life?
A: To have a real legacy, and to create financial independence for a lot of people. So we have to keep leveling up, and – to use a hockey term – figure out where the puck is going. I would love to create something like the ‘PayPal Mafia,’ an alumni group of entrepreneurs going on to start their own amazing ventures. I want to create the ‘Maple Syrup Mafia.’
By Chris Taylor
(Editing by Beth Pinsker and G Crosse)
Photo courtesy of Hootsuite Media Inc