Pain relief or vitamins? A100 member Terry Sydoryk on the question founders need to ask

Terry Sydoryk

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Self-described ‘company creator’, Terry Sydoryk, digs into executing on product-market fit, the magic of good timing, and the secret to good leadership.

So, tell me how it all began.

I graduated from the University of Alberta with a mechanical engineering degree and spent about 18 months in the energy services business. I quickly realized the cyclical nature of that industry was something that I wasn’t sure I was comfortable with. So I chose to go back to get my MBA. And through that process, ended up with an interest in the whole entrepreneurial slant. 

Then I had the opportunity to join Nortel, and spent 10 years there. The first five I was on the finance side in a financial leadership program. When I reflect back, the value of that, combined with my MBA, was something I’ve leaned on ever since. Certainly in the startup world, the ability to understand financial statements and managing cash and how that all flows through. 

“One of the more critical roles in a business and certainly in a startup is for someone to have product focus.”

In the last half of my time at Nortel I was in a product management role. Something that the Carey Houstons of the world will tell you — and I’m a big believer — is one of the more critical roles in a business and certainly in a startup is for someone to have product focus, someone who marries the internal demand with the development constraints, with the market needs and the customer wants. Someone that’s balancing that all the time and steering the direction of the product and the offering, I think is extremely important. 

At Nortel, we operated like mini GMs and we have no direct responsibility. We had to use influence all the time, but we were accountable for product success. Those were two very strong foundational elements for a business person, which I reflect back on constantly. Right now in Calgary — in the entrepreneurial community — we’re running short of product managers and sale/business development. Depending on where you are in the cycle, those can kind of merge together. But as you grow through the traditional business from idea to test to commercialization, I think those rules are fundamental to long-term success, and certainly some of the early building blocks. 

I was working with Visa and MasterCard on an initiative around electronic cash. And at the same time, unbeknownst to me, the head of development that I worked into was crafting a proposal into Ventures West who, at the time, was probably the most recognized VC in Canada, and secured funding to initiate a startup. 

So we founded a company called Audesi Technologies, and that was right out of Nortel. We did a lot of work with an embedded operating system company, WindRiver, who ultimately, three years after we started the company, acquired the technology and the team for a product offering into market. WindRiver’s now part of Intel. 

Another Ventures West initiative, which had reached the same stage in Toronto — so again, a rinse and repeat kind of scenario — they were looking at doing an online graphics delivery system, a company is called Plazmic. Both of these companies were about the same raise, around $6 million in capital. We grew the business and in that two to three year mark were acquired. 

“By chance, we ended up in a conversation with the folks at Research In Motion and 30 days later they acquired the company.”

So Plazmic was Toronto-based and I had the COO role there. We went through a lot of ups and downs, a lot of challenges. Opportunistically, by chance, we ended up in a conversation with the folks at Research In Motion (Blackberry, at the time) and 30 days later they acquired the company. So stars aligned. We had been talking to RIM for months, but we just didn’t hit the right level. This was a freak conversation by a prior employee in a coffee break at a strategy meeting. And she recommended Mike Lazaridis — this Toronto company which was just down the road — and literally 30 days later we were part of RIM. That was pretty neat. It was unheard of as far as that kind of timeline. It was one of those things — you just never know what’s going to happen for you.

My wife and I had agreed that, once our time in Ontario ran its course, we would return to Calgary. So that’s what we did. And I dabbled in a bunch of different companies, but we ran into the 2008 crash. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and all our US investors basically overnight said they have to park for six months to take care of their existing investments and couldn’t do anything new. We were at the 11th hour trying to close financing and it evaporated overnight. So we had to downsize, immediately. The company is still around but it’s gone through a bunch of restructuring and is now more of a consulting group than than an actual product shop.

More recently, I got involved with Alice Reimer at Evoco and I joined them in a COO role. About six months after starting we were approached by a group wanting to discuss acquisition. We spent two or three months going through that dance. Ultimately, the company was acquired by a big US player and they did a massive roll up. They had huge success following the Evoco acquisition with their strategy, which was to align and acquire other Evocos to create a complete platform offering. 

Following Evoco I joined Chaordix. Again, the model for me has mostly been the same: I came in as COO at a time when the company needs to formalize functionally, maybe breakout, put more process in place, more repeatable elements of business, grow some functions, support functions, etc. So, really, at that commercialization stage. I’ve been here now over five years and have assumed the CEO role.  

So, I guess the next question is, why startups?

People say, are you an entrepreneur? Well, not really. I’m an operator. Other than the first company, I’ve never had a founding title. I’ve always come in once the company wants to take the first commercialization step in a meaningful way and build a company. That’s where my experiences are. I put myself in that “company creator” classification. 

We hear the term ‘ecosystem’ all the time and diversification for Calgary. When I first started, we built Audesi out of Nortel. If you look in the Valley, that’s kind of a classic model, where there’s these large anchor tenants that spin off ideas and people start up new initiatives. Then there’s an ecosystem that allows that to happen more — a supporting element.

“You know, success or failure, you’re always learning.”

Now we’re starting to see some good successes — Solium, Benevity, Critical Mass. We’re heading in the right direction, which I hope will continue. 

Looking at your own successes, what have you learned?

You know, success or failure, you’re always learning. Maybe things didn’t align for you. But your learnings are the same in terms of what worked and what didn’t. The “10-year overnight successes” — a phrase we hear often — you’re always learning and you carry that knowledge into subsequent periods within the company or subsequent companies.

But even then, because things change, you have to recognize that maybe it would work this time. So I think it’s just the perspective that you bring every time you go at these things that comes from that experiential base, both in success and failure. 

Understanding that you’ll always be learning from your failures as well, what have you discovered?

Whoa, that’s a great one. Patience is one thing, as much as your perception of how fast things happen. I mean, there’s a cadence to how things happen, but realistically they do take time.

Pain relief says there’s an urgency to a need. Vitamins, I would argue, is sort of a natural evolution.”

Second is ensuring you’re closer to a pain reliever versus a vitamin. It’s a category I’ve often used is, are you selling pain relief or are you selling vitamins? Pain relief says there’s an urgency to a need. Vitamins, I would argue, is sort of a natural evolution. So if your timing isn’t right you may or may not have a successful business in the marketplace. Maybe because there’s just not the urgency to move or an influential aspect where enterprises are interested in what you’re selling. 

So I think the combination of knowing when to execute product market fit, where you spend your money, and then the importance of the front end — don’t wait too long to put your marketing and sales efforts in place.

I’m interested to know what book has had the greatest influence on you so far?

John Wooden’s “On Leadership” — he was probably one of the most well regarded basketball coaches. His book “On Leadership” is something that, because of my sports orientation, I read for sports. But because of the role I play in organizations, I think the leadership aspect of it was phenomenal. I would definitely say that’s the number one book.

And then the one I’ve gone back to over time has been “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”. All too often we end up in environments that are just dysfunctional. So that book speaks to the importance of making sure that you spend the time to build your team. Too often that’s not where time is spent. It’s more of an afterthought. 

“Don’t listen to hear, listen to understand. The lesson is to understand.”

I was fortunate enough, early on, that my manager at Nortel took us through Myers-Briggs. As an engineer, I had no appreciation for that side of the world. It was eye opening for me. We did it as a family. We brought our spouses in and we went through a Myers-Briggs, and that allowed us to understand that people are different — their motivators are different, what they react to is different. It continues to have a massive influence on me as I understand and work with people — to understand why someone reacts in the way they do has been a big learning for me. One of the things I like to say to the team all the time is, don’t listen to hear, listen to understand. The lesson is to understand. I’d never had an education or understanding of that aspect of things. It was a life-changing moment when we went through it.