Having worked with NASA, Apple and Boeing, John “Murf” Murphy talks the highs and lows of being a tech entrepreneur and why sometimes it’s about just getting it done
I’ve heard you say that you’ve never really worked for anybody else but yourself?
Yeah, that’s right. I’m just one of those serial entrepreneur guys. Right from the get go, I put myself through university running a little landscaping business. Then pretty much right out of university a couple of us started a company called Shana. We started with two people and over the next 18 years we grew it to about 100 people. Interestingly, one of the one of the programmers that we hired in the early days was Shawn Abbott. Small world. [laughs] He was a lot of fun. But you know, we were all just kids right out of university. It took us a while to go from just enough to a company that we were able to then sell, which we did in 2003.
Then I had a couple other little gigs going — did a little bit of investment, some of them worked, some of them didn’t. One of the one of the companies I started in the mid-2000s was called D-TEX, and that was a spin off out of the University of Calgary. It was a really interesting idea to be able to detect bacteria and E. coli and listeria in food. Unfortunately, the technology didn’t really work. We gave it a go for a few years and while we had some success at the bench level, when we got out into the real world samples it didn’t quite hold. So we shut that down.
I learned a little bit of what not to do, too. But that also brought me into the hardware world, because prior to that I’d only really been running software companies. And one of the things I found was, hardware — it was definitely hard. [laughs]
“This idea of working for other people was never really part of the picture. You just always did what you wanted to do.”
One of the things that came out of that experience with the chemical detection stuff was a patent we had filed and received. So we took some of that technology and started the company that I’m currently going with here, Stream Technologies. We had this US patent, which was for a little piece of glass — a little piece of glass-filtered light. When you shine light through you get a prism, but in a special way.
So we were thinking, hey, what could we do with that? And that gave us the idea of building what they call a hyperspectral camera or multispectral camera, which, I had no idea what that meant. [laughs] Anyway, instead of just taking pictures like a colour camera in three bands like red, green, and blue — which is what our eyes can see — it extended it to more channels, and even into the infrared where visible light and our eyes can’t see, but there’s still light bouncing off things in these different wavelengths.
At that point we’re thinking, wow, what are we going to do with that? And we thought we could build a camera that was one of these multispectral cameras. But then we wondered, what good would that be? What would we do with a multispectral camera we could build on. And the cool thing is, when you take a picture, if you could create an algorithm, you could analyze the light, you could analyze the picture that’s coming up with this camera, and you could see even kind of invisible things that you might not be able to see with a regular camera.
As an example, in the world of agriculture, you might want to take a picture of a plant and see if there’s a disease coming along, or how much nitrogen is in the leaf. These are things you can’t see when you’re looking at it with your eyeball. But if you could get a picture and then analyze the image scientifically, you could determine this stuff. So that was interesting.
But there was a wee bit of a problem. There’s always a wee bit of a problem. [laughs] The problem was, to build these algorithms to find something like nitrogen or disease or some fungus you might you’re looking for, you have to hire a PhD spectroscopy person. And it takes them about a year to build one of these algorithms for you — and about $100,000. But hey, man, your camera would work. But that would be ridiculous.
In the meantime, we’re building up this camera and we knew we had to make a software environment where people like me who are very non-technical — I’m able to build my own algorithm, on my own, even though I can hardly spell machine learning. [laughs]
“We just believed we could do it and that we were good at it. There was never, ever a thought of failure.”
So, that’s what we did. We use artificial intelligence and machine learning, and in particular deep learning — which is really neural nets. We created a platform that lets us build models just by taking pictures and pushing the button. Instead of having to hire a spectroscopy PhD for a year, we could just upload a bunch of images, label them and push a button, and it would build an algorithm in an hour instead of instead of a year. We call that our analytics platform.
Now, this is where we sit. We’ve got this platform and now we need to extend it to more cameras and tell the world.
That’s fascinating, and I can see you’re excited by it as well. It sounds like you always knew that you wanted to just do your own thing.
I was born and raised in and around Edmonton. I grew up here, I went to school here, we have a farm just outside of Edmonton, where my dad was a farmer. So we spent a little bit of time on the farm when I was younger. You just did what needed to get done. This idea of working for other people was never really part of the picture. You just always did what you wanted to do.
You never had to stress about a job interview! As far as the software side of things, were you inspired by other companies that were already up and running?
In the early years we went to these trade shows, like Macworld. We did that for 15 years in different cities — San Francisco, Boston, etc. — and we worked quite a bit with Apple. We were able to be a little part of the system, even though we were from Edmonton. And that was encouraging. We saw we could play and we could add value to large corporations like Apple.
During our Shana days, we sold a lot to Fortune 500 companies: NASA, Liberty Mutual, Boeing. We felt we could add value and play with the enterprise customers in North America. We just believed we could do it and that we were good at it. There was never, ever a thought of failure. It was just a matter of pivoting until you got it because there was just no backup plan.
Given what you see now in the Alberta tech landscape, how do you see the A100 impacting Alberta and this generation of new startups and entrepreneurs?
I was on the founding Board of the A100. Back then, Shawn (Abbott) had this idea of, hey, we’re all mentoring different companies but we’re not really supporting each other. And that just didn’t make a lot of sense. It resonated with me because I was getting asked a lot of questions from companies that I was trying to help but that I actually didn’t know the answer to, because even though I had a certain amount of success, it was in very specific areas.
I think one of the things that the A100 offers is this diversity of experience and of people that had been there, done that. We’re still doing all this individual mentoring and I think that that’s great, it makes a lot of sense. As to the future, I think that one of the things that the A100 can do is have the ability to direct innovation in the province, because we’re in this unique role and very well qualified. We’ve got the chops.
Speaking of having the chops, I’m interested to know what you’ve learned from your successes over the years?
What I’ve learned is that it’s really about the team, and how you can motivate folks. It’s not necessarily about the idea. It’s about who you can get excited about the idea and who you can motivate to take action around the idea. Often there are so many great ideas, but they’re not worth anything unless you can motivate the team. Especially as an entrepreneur — often they feel like it’s all on them. But you can’t get too hung up on just the idea. If you can’t motivate people, there’s a reason for that. And maybe you’re just a poor motivator, or maybe your idea’s not going to fly. Either way, it’s not going to be successful. You need to be able to recognize that and move on or pivot.
And what about failures?
There are different perceptions of success and what works. One of the things that I learned is, you have to be careful about what kind of questions you ask and who you’re asking because so often, as an entrepreneur, you get excited about things. There are different stages of creation and delivering and different steps. And I always ask, is it working? And depending on their perspective, who they are, the answer is often very different. The physicist might say, yes, it’s working. To them, the theory is solid and they’re excited. But we don’t have a product. So then you start building these prototypes and the engineering guys will say, yeah, it’s working. But you don’t have anything you can sell yet that the customer is going to be excited about. But you know, it’s all working well!
“Be careful what you ask and of whom…Maybe you’re asking the wrong question, or you have different expectations of what you want to hear.”
So there’s your expectation when you ask these questions of the team and of the market. It’s something I’ve learned over the years: be careful what you ask and of whom, as well as the interpretation of the answers. Because it’s not necessarily wrong in their mind, but it can be quite useless. Maybe you’re asking the wrong question, or you have different expectations of what you want to hear. And then, as I learned, it takes a long time to fail. That’s the mistake. Failing really isn’t so much the problem if you can fail quickly. But if you fail over a long period of time, then that’s just painful and expensive.
And much more difficult to recover from, if at all.
Given what you’ve said about success, failure, teams, leadership, motivation, etc, I wonder if there are any books you’ve read over the years that have inspired those ideas?
You know, there’s a there’s a book that I tell my kids to read. It’s called “Soar…If You Dare”, by James Ball. It’s not so much about business but about time and what’s important, and I tell you, it’s pretty good. If there was one book to read, just read that one.
Is there anything else — as a mentor to other startups and entrepreneurs — maybe a message you find yourself repeating that you want to share?
I tell people all the time that you’re going to find people who are just going to say, “No, it’ll never work.” But overall, you can look at those people in the eye and, at least with your inside voice, say, you know, screw you. Because there are just so many naysayers. And somewhere between that and people who are giving you solid advice — maybe you’ve got such a high risk thing that it actually won’t work — but for the most part, the default should be, just get on with it. There are so many people who will tell you, this won’t work. If you listen to them, you’re done.