Having seen a wide range of Alberta tech success, angel investor and A100 member, John Pinsent, shares what he looks for in tech companies and his biggest lessons learned
We’ll start in the beginning. What can you tell me about your entrepreneurial journey?
Mine is probably a bit of a different story than most of my fellow A100 members. I mean, I have been entrepreneurial for a long time. But I’ve had it couched within mostly my angel investing activities. I’ve co-founded a couple of companies with entrepreneurs, where they brought their engineering or science expertise and I brought some business background and some money, and then off we went on a journey. I’ve successfully exited from a couple of those companies, and then continue to this day in a couple of other ones.
“My big focus was to really support the tech community via angel investing, and then by actually being actively involved.”
But I’m a partner in a chartered professional accounting practice. So, my full-time day job isn’t entrepreneurial in the classic sense, although it’s got that entrepreneurial side of things. I was in business with a couple of partners that built a chain of retail stores that got sold off and the mid ‘90s, and then I went back to public practice. When I left the big firm in 2004 and started my own practice, that put me back in an entrepreneurial space. My big focus was to really support the tech community via angel investing, and then by actually being actively involved. So it’s been an interesting journey, but probably a bit different than many folks.
You mentioned that you had partners in the retail companies in the ‘90s. Did you know from an early age that you wanted to run your own show? Or was it something you figured out after a few jobs?
I would say it was a pretty early thing. I certainly had experience with folks that were running their own businesses, and I enjoyed what that process looked like — both the freedom and the expectation that came with seeing people in those positions. So yeah, I always knew that, at the end of the day, I would be my own boss and to try and run my own destiny. But I’ve had some great experiences working for others as well, too.
You also said you knew you wanted to support tech. But it doesn’t sound like any of your early businesses were that tech focused.
When I was with Ernst & Young (from 1994 through to 2004), they gave me some rope to be the director of their technology, communication and entertainment practice for Alberta. The mandate that the firm gave me was go out and find opportunities that helped us diversify our portfolio of clients. I came back to them and said, look, I think that there’s a strong enough technology practice — early stage and evolving technology companies that we could build a bit of a practice around that. And so I had a cornerstone client in Shaw Communications. And they were very innovative as a cable company. They were doing new things in terms of radio and direct music and direct tv. So they were kind of the basis, and then I went out and built a bit of a practice around that.
“I knew a long time ago that, if we were going to have a community that my kids and grandkids could grow up in, we have to have more than just agriculture and oil and gas.”
That really put me right in the middle of things during that boom/bust through the 2000s, in terms of the tech community. We had a lot of great companies that we worked with during those years. And when I left the firm in 2004, they were looking for me to move to Toronto. I was a single dad raising three kids. So that wasn’t the journey that was going to work for me. But when I left I said, well, I’ve built a network around helping found the Banff Venture Forum and doing a lot of things with with structural organizations — getting what is now TEC Edmonton off the ground, etc — there’d been a lot of structural stuff that I had done in the community, and much of that work ended up following me. And that’s where my investments and my entrepreneurship growth opportunities came from. So it was a journey through some interesting times in the province that led me to put my focus on the technology community.
That’s terrific. Tell me a bit more about why you wanted to support the growth of tech in Alberta?
I knew a long time ago that, if we were going to have a community that my kids and grandkids could grow up in, that we have to have more than just agriculture and oil and gas. And there’s lots of complementary technologies that support both of those industries. But the swings in both industries have historically been just too wild. We needed to build something more than that here. You know, there are a lot of like minded people around who are looking to do those kinds of similar things. And so, that’s really where I got engaged and involved. And I’ve stayed on that path for 25 years.
Were there any early tech firms in Alberta that caught your eye?
Oh, sure, there were lots. I knew the guys at BioWare (including A100 members, Ray Muzyka and Aaryn Flynn). It was always interesting to see how they went through their growth situation. Again, Shaw was one of those foundational companies. Novatel was one of those foundational companies. But there are lots of interesting small companies. When Don and John Murphy built and then eventually sold Shana, that was a terrific opportunity that sent some good messaging. YottaYotta was a company that Wayne Karpov had built out of Myrias computing. There was fantastic brainpower that went into that organization. Ashif Mawji from Upside Software was a client and then a friend and a mentor. So I was super impressed with all the things that he was doing.
And then in my own practice, I got to meet people like Sam Pillar at Jobber, and help the guys at Mover to do their thing. There’s just been a whole series of organizations that have come out of the woodwork and gotten their start that I’ve been able to work with and support, and now I have 70 companies that I invested in over my history as an angel investor. So I’ve had a chance to touch a lot of organizations in a small way, or with some in a very big engaged way. And it’s just so impressive the things that we’ve been able to do in Alberta.
No kidding, you’ve definitely been dialled in. Not only that, you have seen the growth of those companies as well as the entire industry.
Yeah, and we’ve had good days and we’ve had bad days. You know, when companies like BioWare got bought by Electronic Arts, that’s a huge win in the fact that we were able to build it and grow it to that. But it’s also a huge loss, because it’s another organization that got built to a certain size and then moved on to ownership by others. I celebrate that, because it gives opportunities for people inside those organizations to come out and start their own opportunities and then there’s a trickle effect that happens. And I believe that that’s important. But it also can take jobs and opportunities out of the community. So that’s the tricky part.
“We’ve had dark days and bright days. And that’s just the nature of the tech community, no matter where you are.”
We’ve had so few corner tenants that we could build significant things around, and that’s a challenge for us as a province. But there’s been so many good things that have happened and so much great talent that’s been built — there are many others that do so much. So for me, it’s an exciting situation. But yeah, we’ve had dark days and bright days. And that’s just the nature of the tech community, no matter where you are.
With all your touchpoints with various tech companies over the years and also as an A100 member, how do you see the A100 impacting Alberta’s startup entrepreneurs?
Much of what I do today is about mentorship and connectivity. Trying to accelerate people through the stumbling blocks that are early stage tech journeys. To me, that is the most important thing we do from an A100 perspective — to make ourselves available to help in terms of the mentorship side of things and then to be free and liberal with our networks on our connectivity to help people get things done faster.
“A100 members do as much as we can to help people get as far as they can and as high as they can fly.”
I’ve always been that guy. Not everybody is as quick to open up their Rolodex and to make those referrals. But honestly, when people reach out to me, I try to make their journey so much smoother and faster. And if I know somebody who can help them get through a particular challenge or situation faster, then I’m quick to make that referral. And I would say all of my A100 colleagues are the same. We do as much as we can to help people get as far as they can and as high as they can fly.
As you say, you don’t find that kind of openness in many other industries and it’s definitely an advantage as we move to elevate tech in Alberta. Let’s go back to your personal experience — what have you learned from your successes?
I think the biggest learnings for me have been around patience and perseverance. It just takes longer to do everything that you want to do if you want to do it right. And it just takes pure grind it out power and perseverance to get to the end of the day. Not every idea is going to make it through to full corporate success. And you have to be patient and understand that that is the case — that there will be successes, there will be failures, but you can’t hurry any of those through the process. You just have to be a patient investor, you have to be a patient leader. You have to be a patient community.
“Anytime I’ve failed the test of patience it usually led to bad outcomes.”
I think anytime I’ve failed the test of patience it usually led to bad outcomes. Maybe one of the benefits of doing this for 25 years is that you you learn there is no quick solution, and deals that were done on the back of envelopes in the boom/bust of the late ‘90s generally failed, because there wasn’t a patience factor, there wasn’t a real business, it was just hype. And yes, hype and enthusiasm have their place, but they don’t generally lead to industry building.
Is that something that’s top of mind for you when you’re mentoring people? Do you see that come up frequently amongst younger entrepreneurs and startups?
I used to, but one thing I would say about our entrepreneurial community these days is that they come into all of this way better trained and much smarter than we were back in the ‘90s and the 2000s. The foundational work that’s done by all of the accelerators and incubators just puts people in a much better position to be realistic about what they can and can’t do.
I see it a little bit where people are just gung ho, and that’s great from an enthusiasm perspective. But honestly, I think if people were as prepared as they are now and as well mentored as they are now, if we’d had that same support mechanism 20 years ago, I think the outcomes would have been dramatically different. So I’m always encouraged by the fact that we have a lot of that support in place.
And looking at the the other side of the entrepreneur experience, what have you discovered from your failures? And what would you share with others about failure?
The times that I’ve really fallen down, it’s generally been because I was enamoured with a technology or a situation and didn’t pay attention to the people factor. A lot of people talk about how you invest in a first-rate team before you invest in a first-rate technology. Well, I’ve made that mistake. I’ve seen what I thought was game-changing technology and invested hard and put a lot of time, money and effort into it, not realizing that the people that were around that technology really didn’t have the right stuff to move it, or didn’t have the right principles to be good business people. And that’s been my biggest failure, when I’ve not paid attention to the human factor. And now I’m much more sensitive to that. I look very carefully at the teams before I get involved with my time, money or talents. And I make sure that I’m comfortable with that founder and that team, before I get too far down the track.
That’s a good lesson — and a valuable heads up to other startups looking for investors. Speaking of life lessons, is there a particular book that you’d recommend to others?
I like Stephen Covey’s book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. It’s good, practical advice to anybody in life. But, my favourite part is the whole win-win habit of always trying to create situations where both sides of the equation can win no matter what that is. And when you’re building a company, you’ve got to build a product or service that benefits your customer, they have to win for you to really win. And so when I invest, I look for that.
When I want to get involved in companies, I look for something real that is going to make a difference to the customer, to the community, to the region to the country. And if that’s the case, then there’s a basis to build everything else around. That was always what spoke volumes to me. There’s been a lot of great, inspirational human journey stories that I’ve enjoyed. But you know, just as pure advice to others, I think that that’s a good book that people should have a look at.