Welcome to the jungle: A100 member Tim Hodge on entrepreneurial battle scars

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After migrating out West, A100 member Tim Hodge faced a wild ride of entrepreneurial adventures. He shared with us some of his most valuable lessons learned.

Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me about your entrepreneurial journey.

I started in management consulting back in the mid ‘90s in Toronto. I was doing front end consulting to outsourcing contracts and that type of stuff. It was always interesting because you got to see a lot of different companies and get some good insights. 

After spending most of my time on a plane travelling around all over the world, I ended up at Bell Mobility. Back in the days of the brick phone, the wireless guys were growing so fast that they couldn’t keep up. It was all about, how can we figure out systems and processes and organizations to keep up with the growth? A couple of us were hired on to be internal consultants to help the company grow. 

I spent about a decade in the wireless and telecom space, and that’s what brought me to Alberta. I moved out here to be the startup person for Bell Mobility in Western Canada. I was the mergers and acquisitions person back East, so when they had the opportunity to move into a new time zone, I was the guy. 

So I was out here then managing that startup, and we grew from me being employee number one to more than 1000 employees in Western Canada when I left. I really got to do the operational stuff — build networks, build teams, keep subdividing as we grew, all that great stuff. Then it got to a point where my next option was to move back to Toronto, and that didn’t fit well with me. 

That’s when I ended up talking to an old customer of mine in Calgary, and he said, “I’ve been looking at this GPS tracking company, why don’t you come and have a look at it?” So I said I’d do a six-month consulting contract. Well, six months turned into 10 years and we grew that company — it was called GEOTrac — and it was on the fastest growing list in Alberta for a few years, fastest growing in Canada, etc. We eventually sold it to Trimble — a publicly listed company in the U.S. — because they were looking for an oil and gas play for their product line. So we sold to Trimble, I stayed on for a couple of years and then moved on my merry way.

So from the beginning, it wasn’t that you always knew that you wanted to do your own thing, but you just organically evolved into it.

Yeah, a little bit like that. I’ve done the big company thing, but I was the one not going by the rules. Even my assignments at Bell, I was always throwing myself into the jungle to figure something out. You know, at my first day at GEOTrac, I had to stop the sheriff at the door because they were taking the furniture. That’s the way it started [laughs]. It was a long and interesting journey.

I’ve done the big company thing, but I was the one not going by the rules.

And now, after your exit, you’re playing it cool seeing what’s out there?

Well, yeah. We’ve created a group called Birchcliff Partners, and we’re doing investments in small to medium businesses in Western Canada. Of course, the high tech startup stuff comes from me, and then we have more mature businesses that get led by a couple of the other guys. 

That’s fantastic. I guess if you started up around 2005, you would have seen quite an evolution in tech in Alberta in the last 15 years?

I mean, the economy went to boom/bust. When I was at Bell, I was a sponsor of Calgary Innovates as they were trying to do things for the ecosystem. And, you know, one of the things that attracted me to the A100 was the fact that it was funded by members. It wasn’t in this never ending cycle of trying to get outside funding to sustain itself. 

When you’re doing your enterprise — when I was the CEO and Chief Bottle Washer, for example — you really don’t put your head up to see what’s going on in the ecosystem and stay connected. If events aren’t focused specifically on your customers, then you skip them because you just don’t have enough time. It’s all about building your business. So, the networking aspect in the A100 of getting to meet like-minded people in town that have been through a similar journey — some bigger, some smaller, some more dramatic, etc. — it was another big attraction, getting to know who’s doing what in Alberta.

Which is actually good segue into my next question, about the A100’s impact on Alberta startups and entrepreneurs. What do you see as the biggest and most important way that the A100 influences startups here?

When I was going about it in the mid 2000s, there really wasn’t anybody you could reach out to for advice. There wasn’t anybody to have a coffee with, there wasn’t anybody to say, okay, you’ve got to do this phase — someone who’s done it before and will give you some guidance. I didn’t come across anyone in my travels who really was able to sit down and give me a little bit of direction on how to get where I needed to go. 

So, a lot of what the A100 does is to really have that credible conversation and say, here’s my scars, try to avoid getting these ones. Here’s how I did it. Here’s what I screwed up. As you go down this path, try not to make these mistakes — well, you’re going to make other mistakes. But if I can just help you not make these ones, you’ll be good. 

I didn’t come across anyone in my travels who really was able to sit down and give me a little bit of direction on how to get where I needed to go.

Of the five or 10 coffees a month that I end up meeting with people — people that I’m working with or sitting advisors on the board, or just people who reach out and just want to talk — a lot of it just becomes, well, here’s what I see from my experience. And I’m not an expert in anything, but here’s a heads up for these items, and let me know if I can be of any more assistance.

I’m going to come back to your battle scars in a minute. But I want to talk about your wins first. What have you learned from your successes?

I think my personal takeaway is, you know, I was successful, it was great. But with any element of success there’s always a degree of luck. I had a healthy paranoia around timelines that allowed me to exit at probably the peak of the market and really had some lucky timelines. I was driven by healthy paranoia and a sense of urgency to get deals done at the timeline we were in. 

You look back and see a lot of hard work and a lot of nose to the ground. But, there’s always a degree of luck — of finding that sliver in time when you can fit through and have a success. So, I definitely try not to let the ego get too big because it really is a fickle thing. The wrong decision at the wrong time, and you’re not going to make it.

Then speaking of wrong decisions, what have you learned from your failures?

A couple of things stick with me. You know, there are things that you miss, especially when you’re doing strategy and trying to plot the course of your company. It’s always about the questions you don’t ask. I’m always looking and scanning and trying to read the tea leaves a little bit deeper and ask more questions to make sure that you’re not missing a nuance in the market or in your customers. 

It’s the joy of the entrepreneur — you’re a hero one day and a zero the next.

But, you know, it’s always ups and downs. It’s the joy of the entrepreneur — you’re a hero one day and a zero the next. You can be doing really well and then sure enough, everything falls apart on you. It’s just a constant battle. There’s no gradual everything building on top of each other, one step after another. It’s always three steps forward, five steps back.

So I think perseverance is the other big one. It is hard, and you’re going to have setbacks. You need to have the fortitude to be able to be stubborn and just go with it.

Great advice. Did you glean any of that from any books you’ve read that you can recommend?

A book that I really latched onto over my career was, “The Wisdom of Teams” by Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith. That was a big one in the ‘90s. At that point in my career of being a consultant — always trying to build a team in a new organization, sorting through the hierarchy of personalities and what made a High Performance Team, etc. It’s funny how elusive and how hard it is to rebuild and bottle the magic of a High Performance Team. 

Then the whole analysis of process people in technology — it used to be called business process reengineering, it’s not called that anymore — but the books of business process reengineering on people process and technology has really filtered how I analyze most problems. For me, those are two that very much guided my thinking along the way.

I’m interested in your thoughts about the future of tech in Alberta?

Tech is growing in every corner of the world. The question is, can we accelerate our growth to move up and become a larger player? Or are we going to always just grow the tech GDP level? I think in the last few years, if you look back, we’ve come a long way. There’s a lot more resources — accelerators, startup ecosystem, etc. But I think Alberta still has some structural flaws — some around talent, which are hopefully being addressed by increasing the throughput of the technology students coming out of the different universities and colleges. 

The question is, can we accelerate our growth to move up and become a larger player?

And then is it consumer tech that we’re going to be the strongest at or is it going to be industrial? Everybody wants to be the next Amazon, the next Google, the next B2C-focused tech play. But my feeling is, the strength in our ecosystem is understanding the industrialized aspect, the B2B aspect of technology. It might reinforce the other 85% of the economy, which is oil and gas, etc. But, you know, really leveraging that strength to create enterprises that solve business problems versus consumer problems. It’ll be an interesting road ahead.