As the force behind hot new agtech firms such as Enterra Feed and Waterford Farms, A100 member Keith Driver has become a major influence on Alberta’s tech landscape
Ok, this is an exciting one. Tell me how it all began.
I moved West in ‘99 and lasted about a year working for somebody else. I was an engineer and realized I didn’t speak the language of business. So I decided to finish my GMAT and then my MBA program. I did it by thesis, not by coursework, so I could just choose whatever course I wanted. I went with an entrepreneur course first. And by June of the following year, I bought my first company. I borrowed $10k from my parents put up the $4k that I had, bought my first company, and had to figure it all out from there. It was super inspiring and I really liked it — getting in with a bunch of entrepreneurs, hanging out with them and seeing how this world worked.
So what year was this?
That was in 2001, and it was a portable amusement business. I was a carnie for a couple of years [laughs]. I did that in the summers, and in the winters I did consulting work for various agencies. It was kind of a toe in the entrepreneurship game. And as that business grew, we opened an office in Ontario and were servicing all of Canada doing cross-country tours. We were thinking about doing some other things, but really, that business was never going to be a multimillion dollar business.
“I was like every other person that I have a first interview with now who’s interested in entrepreneurship but doesn’t know what they’re doing, which is totally cool, because I have a lot of empathy for that.”
I knew I wanted to get into the environmental space because I was an environmental engineer and environmental MBA at the time, and so I started going to these workshops on carbon pricing and carbon markets and climate change. I did what I guess we qualify as networking, which was just talking to anybody who would listen. I had this idea for a platform — an aggregation platform — and I was just telling anybody and everybody about it, trying to figure out the right way to do it. Of course, I’d never done a financing or anything. So I was like every other person that I have a first interview with now who’s interested in entrepreneurship but doesn’t know what they’re doing, which is totally cool, because I have a lot of empathy for that. I was that guy once.
I love to hear that. So then what happened?
Then I got a call from a lady who ran a not-for-profit here in town about a group of guys she knew who were looking for a young engineer to join this startup, and she wondered if I was interested. That was about five days before my son was born. I quit my job to go to a company that didn’t have a website and didn’t have any business. It was just nuts. To this day, I still don’t understand how that worked. They promised me about six months for the work, essentially, and it was the best decision ever made. The two guys who brought me on — they kindly brought me on as an employee to start — eventually made me full partner. And I’ve never met two individuals who were so open and concerned about me. They taught me how to negotiate, taught me how to mentor, how to manage people, everything. It was amazing.
“I was fighting with my partners — these guys that had been so great to me — because we just had different visions. I realized that I was the problem, and I should leave.”
We did that from 2004 through to 2009 when we sold the business for the second time. And at the end of two years, in 2010, they wanted to do a big restructuring and asked me to be the Chief Operating Officer, and they wanted me to change this and that. And I was fighting with my partners — these guys that had been so great to me — because we just had different visions. I realized that I was the problem, and I should leave. I needed to do something different. The problem was not them, it was definitely a difference of opinion. And, you know, I just needed a break. I was burnt out. I tried to quit, and they wouldn’t let me quit for the better part of four months. They kept paying me, and one point I said I’m not going to the office anymore and they said, Oh, well, you just need to take a week off, then let us know what you think. So I eventually quit. And still they were such good partners.
Even the guys who acquired us were such good folks — to this day — that they got me to come to New York and we mapped out what my next business was going to be. And only one of them asked how much equity should they get. Eventually, the prevailing was that they took none. We ended up being a competitor to theirs later, which was interesting, and taught me a little bit about how to give back. They knew they were there for themselves, but they were really just helping me out. So that was really cool.
Since then, we’ve gotten into this pattern of starting businesses and selling them off. Now, fast forward a few years, I come back to Calgary again. And this insect business is a primary business, and then I’ve got this portfolio of other businesses that I’m really interested in supporting and growing as part of a family office structure as I try and move out of being the day-to-day lead on as much stuff as possible.
So from carnies to bugs.
[laughs] There’s a private medical healthcare business in there, there’s carbon trading business, there’s a software service business, the fish farm business. I used to own a refining business. There’s been a whole bunch of them along the way, and now I’m sort of settled into three main investment spaces and feeling pretty good about that.
“It’s not for the money. It’s the thrill of the hunt.”
It’s never boring. It’s often overwhelming and high anxiety-producing. But you know, always onwards, right? I get a lot of opportunities, which is fun. But it’s not for the money. It’s the thrill of the hunt. I love ideation. So the reason for the family offices, I want to do that, but I can’t do it by myself again and again. I need to bring on more people so that I’m not doing every aspect of it.
The new Propel Ventures that we just launched earlier this year is that aggregation of family offices where we can do the work we wanted to do, but we can do it on a team basis as opposed to individually. That’s the big transition
I want to get into your work with the A100. What have you observed and what’s been your experience with the A100?
I used to describe entrepreneurship as the loneliest pursuit, even though there’s a community, it tends to be very lonely in that not too many people understand the experience of, you know, sometimes you go a year without a paycheque and all of a sudden, the big thing comes in, but your shares are escrowed for six months. There’s just so many experiences as an entrepreneur that aren’t shared by the other 90% of the population. And we don’t often share the mental challenges, the family challenges, the risk, all the challenges that come up in a business, the soft and the hard challenges.
And so for me, being in the A100 is about being in a group of leaders that are going to tell stories and provide examples, and they’re going to give advice or share experiences without necessarily having a handout as a consultant or otherwise, they’re just willing to build that ecosystem. And there’s lots of folks in the A100 that I know, Brad Zumwalt, Jim Gibson, Dave Edmonds — those are probably the three that I spend the most time with — who exemplify the traits that I want to do.
“If people thought that being an entrepreneur looks like what these folks have done, I’d be proud to be part of a group like that.”
And then there are a lot of people in the A100 that I look up to. If people thought that being an entrepreneur looks like what these folks have done, I’d be proud to be part of a group like that. Guys like Matt Mastracci are an example of how people are recycling that capital, and the interest in the ecosystem to try and grow something. I mean, yeah, they’re doing it for financial reasons. But they’re actually actually doing it, they’re not hoarding.
I think that’s how I see the A100 impacting is setting the example: telling stories, providing the inertia for an ecosystem. In the pure tech ecosystem, there’s lots of folks pushing forward. And I’m really focused to try and do the same thing in agriculture as sort of the odd man out of the tech world. It’s super hot from an investment perspective, but it’s just not getting the attention. It’s a huge opportunity that Alberta is wasting, or at least not capturing at the moment. And so I see the A100 being a platform for me to be able to participate in that and build an ecosystem I wish had been there to help me.
With so many different kinds of businesses that you’ve had, there would have been lots of successes, and I’m assuming a few failures here and there. I want to understand a little bit more about what you’ve learned from those, starting with your successes.
I learned from my successes that I can’t do it alone. All the best successes I’ve had have come when there is more than one person rowing the boat.
I’ve also learned that it never quite works out the way you thought it did on day one. So the more adaptable you are, and the more open you are to being able to not get distracted, but also be malleable to the situation, adaptable — the better that comes. When we started our carbon trading business, we didn’t understand that we essentially have a consulting business that had a trading platform. We thought we’d be all traders and a couple of technical folks. And as it turned out, we were 35 people — 20 of them were technical and five or six of them were business development and then five back office — the business was absolutely the opposite of what we thought it was when we designed it. And that was fine. We were okay with that to the extent that we could just adapt as time went on.
All right, what about your failures?
Not to take it too personally. If you think you’re not going to risk failure, then you’re deluding yourself. There are so many opportunities to fail. Even in a great business. Bad decisions, bad partners, be influenced by bad advice, tough experiences, market challenges, downturns, all sorts of stuff. I’ve never had a business where the streets were lined with gold from the day we started. There have always been moments of despair.
“What I’ve learned from the failures is, how you get judged is how you deal with those moments of failure.”
What I’ve learned from the failures is, how you get judged is how you deal with those moments of failure. It’s okay that the business fails, and those investors get pretty upset about it. But it’s what you do about it in that situation that governs whether they trust you ever again. I had one where the guy came up to me afterwards and said, it’s not that I minded the business failed, it’s that you stopped answering my phone call. On one hand, I was tired of taking the phone call. But on the other hand, that’s what the guy needed. They wanted to feel like I still respected them and their money. That was one of the big lessons for me. Those investor calls or those client calls when you’re going to let them down, there’s a way to do it that doesn’t impinge on your reputation. There’s a way to do it that’s easier in some cases, but you pay a larger price for in the long run.
That’s a pretty strong learning, to acknowledge where you’ve messed up and the mistakes that you’ve made, and to consciously grow from them. To be humble and open about them is pretty valuable. That kind of flies in the face of the ego-driven, type-A entrepreneur personality stereotypes.
Yeah. I mean, you gotta be a bit “torpedoes be damned” sometimes and especially entrepreneurs. We’re not as much that way as some of our US compatriots might be. But at the same time, there’s a certain humility you’ve got to have when you are risking failure. If there was no risk of failure, it’s not really entrepreneurship in my view. Because you’re not really testing the limits of anything, if there’s no risk of failure.
I want to shift the conversation to more of a personal note, in terms of your growth, your learning. Are there any books that have had a particular influence on you?
The one book I read that I liked was “Why Mexicans Don’t Drink Molsons”. It’s a story about why, if we’re supposed to be this great country of beer, why other countries don’t drink our beer, but we drink theirs. They use that as an example of why most great Canadian companies have had a US CEO. Part of that is just because they’re more willing to take risks, they’re more willing to invest, jump in big and not limp in, and do some fun stuff. So that’s been an important piece for me.
There are times I feel like, as a Canadian company or a Canadian CEO, I’ve got to go beyond my own comfort level and risk failure, because investors don’t want a single. They don’t want to lose, but they also don’t want to never risk losing for the sake of never winning. And when I looked at that, I said, Okay, well, what that means to me is, I’ve got to be a bit more bold and take a few more risks than might otherwise feel comfortable. And that’s okay. The discomfort is only the first time you do it. After that, you kind of can kind of normalize behaviour or otherwise. But for me, it was feeling that I needed to do more.
I’ve also really learned from the people I work with. Some people have mentors where they meet once a month and it’s guided, and I’ve tried that, but it doesn’t suit me. What I need to do is watch people as they’ve gone through it, and I’ve been lucky enough to have a handful of folks that have had to make difficult decisions, personally, for the sake of the people that work for them or otherwise.
“I tend to be an oversharer. I think I get better results that way because people, I hope, feel greater connection. It’s how I feel better doing business.”
And so I’ve got this store of experiences. Those informal opportunities have just been so immensely valuable that I even have hand gestures or turns of phrase that I’ve just soaked up over time. I don’t read a lot of strategy — I’ve been more street smarts than book smarts. But those experiences and putting myself in a position where I can put up some vulnerability and ask people for things that they wouldn’t normally get asked for, like, I’m struggling with this, I don’t know what to do, what should I do? And having people recommend who they’ve talked to, getting real advice that shows that you don’t have all the answers. Having those moments have really been the key for me.
And some of those times, more often than not, I think I get a better view of the world. I get a better, more personal response from people than you might otherwise. I tend to be an oversharer. I tend to be over-communicative. But at the same time, I think I get better results that way because people, I hope, feel greater connection. It’s how I feel better doing business.
Photo credit: The Calgary Herald