Friday, 11 January 2013

HootSuite's founder learned lessons of entrepreneurship early

Ryan Holmes' technology career dates back to his days growing up in the '80s near Vernon when he won an Apple IIC computer in a computer programming contest at school.

Holmes' career has never stalled since his early forays into technology and today he is chief executive of Hoot-Suite, a social media company that he founded in Vancouver in 2008.

HootSuite is the darling of social media fans and investors alike, chalking up more than five million users for its social media dashboard, including 79 of the Fortune 100 companies and last spring attracting $20 million from OMERS Ventures, the venture capital investment arm of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System.

HootSuite outgrew its Downtown Eastside offices and will be moving to a 33,000-squarefoot, two-storey office building near Broadway and Main to accommodate burgeoning staff numbers that grew from 80 to 230 in 2012.

In this Q and A, Holmes shares his story of a successful start-up, his thoughts on Vancouver's digital sector and his New Year's resolutions for entrepreneurs.
Q: What was your first entrepreneurial venture? What came of it and did you learn lessons that stick with you today?

A: I grew up off the grid in Vernon and I saw my parents work hard every day, as teachers but also while farming and building a log home. So from a young age I knew the value of hard work.

I can remember, at age six, salvaging lumber (and nails) by pulling and straightening nails, earning myself one cent per nail. I think from then on I was continuously hunting for money-making ventures, mostly helping out on the farm.

When I was 12, I also washed the windows of my mom's clothing store for $5, and soon I was approaching other local businesses to wash their windows.

My first real venture was a paintball company I started in Grade 10, when I was 16. After hearing about it from a friend, I realized my town didn't have a playing field.

I did some research, spoke with other paintball company owners, and I started my own field the following summer.

I bought inventory, hired people and even filed my taxes for the first time. It was my first real taste of running a business and I learned a lot, specifically about marketing to businesses.

I found a void - the lack of field - and filled it, which is essentially the basis of entrepreneurship.

Q: Less than five years ago, people were dismissing Twitter and other social media networks as a waste of time where people shared nothing but news of what they ate for lunch. Today, you've committed to building a billion-dollar company based on social media. What has changed?

A: Since social networks gained popularity extremely rapidly there had been a debate as to whether social media was a fad. There are countless pieces of evidence now proving the contrary, among them the explosion in Twitter growth and Facebook's public listing. From helping rally people in revolutions to helping people get rescued during natural disasters, social media is the most disruptive form of communication the world has ever seen and is changing the way people communicate. Month after month more practical examples of just how valuable the tool is emerge. Businesses are now understanding that social media use is a necessity and industries that don't jump on this wagon are suffering. In summary, I would say everything has changed.

Q: Other digital media start-ups count an exit as success, courtesy of a generous buyout from Silicon Valley or other deep-pocketed investors and companies. You have pledged to stay and grow HootSuite in Vancouver. Why?

A: An exit is only a success if you set an exit as your primary goal. My primary goal was to build a globally influential tool, to build something from the ground up that could literally change how we communicated in business and individually. I firmly believe that HootSuite has already met this goal, which is why we've set the secondary goal of building a billion-dollar company. But that remains a back-of-mind bar we want to hit, while we focus our attention on building the best possible social media dashboard.

I've emphasized that I want to stay in Vancouver because this is where HootSuite was thought of, built, expanded and has thrived. The key to building a successful company is the talent, which Vancouver has in droves. While companies are fighting over the talent in Silicon Valley, we've been lucky enough to have hundreds of amazing individuals seek us out wanting to be a part of HootSuite.

By being away from the mob, we've developed at our own pace and on our own level, but it's close enough to the Valley to go do business when necessary. The city's digital media sector is strong and continues to grow, and the general public and the City of Vancouver have supported us along the way. Vancouver is my home, it's the home of our amazing team, and it's Hoot-Suite's home. I can't imagine setting up anywhere else.

Q: What is the 'PayPal mafia' and why do you think Canada's needs its own version of it?

A: The PayPal mafia is a group of American business people and investors who were founders or early employees of the ecommerce company PayPal. Essentially these people got into the business early and then took money off of the table, using their profits to work together and co-invest in different start-ups, with incredible success. They've since invested into countless major start-ups, so their revenue keeps pouring in and they keep taking money and putting it towards news ventures.

While some Canadian companies have seen great buyouts from American investors, they haven't been on a scale where a company's entire team has done well enough to re-invest in new ideas and start-ups. The reason I think Canada needs a PayPal mafia is because success breeds success. Once a company does well enough that its employees can together continue to invest in new start-ups, it's going to turn into a circular wheel of investment and reinvestment. This is a main reason why I want HootSuite to be a billion-dollar company: it would allow me, my colleagues and HootSuite's investors to reinvest and mentor the budding local tech businesses.

Entrepreneurs in Canada need something to get excited about right here at home and a cohort of financially independent angel investors would do just that.

Q: Social media users are fickle, as Friendster and other names that have fallen from favour can attest. Do you worry about keeping HootSuite ahead of the curve and relevant?

A: I'm not worried about keeping HootSuite ahead of the curve because it's essentially our first priority. HootSuite's strategy is based on listening to the needs of our users and customers and on accommodating the global social media trends.

A prime example of this commitment is the HootSuite App Directory, which is now one year old and is continuing to grow. The App Directory launched on Nov. 9, 2011 with four apps: YouTube, Tumblr, Flickr, and Get Satisfaction. Since then, it has grown to 44 apps including: Instagram, Yammer, Evernote, MailChimp, HubSpot, Trend-spottr, StumbleUpon, Slide-Share, reddit, and more. These apps represent the most useful or the most widely used tools in social media and on the Internet. As more tools emerge, you can bet we'll be working to include them in our directory. More than 400,000 apps have been installed by HootSuite users since the App Directory's launch, which we take as a sign that our users appreciate all of these integrations.

HootSuite takes pride in the fact that so many of the updates and app integrations we've had have come directly from user suggestions. We're constantly monitoring our feedback forum, where users make suggestions for new features or improvements to the dashboard. There is no better means of gauging the needs of our users and it has helped us create a loyal user base.

In terms of relevance, we at HootSuite also strive to be a resource to all social media users. We take a proactive approach to putting many multiple levels of learning resources in place for our clients and potential customers better inform themselves about our product. These include Social Media Coach webinars, Hoot-Suite University programs, HootTips (easy to read breakdowns of basic product functionality), product walk-throughs, whitepapers, case studies, documentaries which feature Hoot-Suite clients, and more.

Q: What's the last book you read that you'd recommend to others and did you read it in print or do you have a favourite ebook reader?

A: Whenever I'm asked about a book recommendation I'll usually suggest The Long Walk, Polish soldier Slavomir Rawicz's story of capture by the Soviets in the Second World War and escape from Siberia to India, published in the 1950s. To the surprise of some industry colleagues I actually try to spend a few minutes a day offline, and reading is one way to unwind. I read this in print, and have a few copies of it in my office.

Q: When you're not building a digital media empire, what do you do in your spare time?

A: Aside from reading, growing up in the Okanagan I developed a love of the outdoors and my passions generally reflect that. Surfing, paragliding, rock climbing, cycling and scuba diving are some of my favourite pastimes. I also enjoy yoga and have a very public and deep relationship with my dog Mika, who has been with me since my Invoke days and with whom I spend lots of time snuggling.

Q: Can you tell us three New Year's resolutions that you think would be a help to entrepreneurs launching - or hoping to launch - their first start-up?

A: A main piece of advice that I always give to budding entrepreneurs is that bootstrapping is very difficult and that there is nothing wrong with taking investments early. Build your understanding about financing and seek it out, as it will allow you to scale up more quickly.

Encourage and teach social media use throughout your entire company, not just for marketers and advertisers. The potential of social media is not confined to certain sectors of a business, but can be used by everyone for various reasons, from hiring to building client relationships. As I recently noted in an article, a recent McKinsey report showed that a majority of the estimated $1.3 trillion in untapped value from social technologies lies in "improved communications and collaboration within and across enterprises."

Social media should no longer be seen as a time waster since there are countless ways that it can help your productivity across the company.

Look to social for advertising. In 2013 I expect social networks will expand and evolve their social ad models to surpass the traditional banners and interruptions. Promoted tweets, sponsored stories and more innovative and intuitive ads will be created to better optimize the advertising spaces offered by social media.

As social advertising evolves, companies should be evolving to embrace it. There really is nothing better than reaching clients on their own pages, their own streams. Companies should be identifying which tweets and posts are the most read through analytics, and then turning their content into ads and subsequently into revenue. Successful advertising is all about convergence now, and social advertising offers just that.

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