Who needs unicorns when you have gazelles? Interview with A100 member Stephen King

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A100 founding member, Stephen King, shares thoughts on the importance of gazelles, tech dynasties, and why startup CEOs should stay off the stage. 

I know a little bit about the beginnings of your entrepreneurial journey, but feel free to refresh my memory.

I’m a product of Canada. I was born in the Maritimes, in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. My dad was in the military, and we ended up in Wainwright, Alberta, in 1970, which was, at that time, a town of about 3500 people in the middle of nowhere. 

I moved back to Nova Scotia in high school and went to Acadia University for a computer science degree. I’d had a job in Nova Scotia for a couple years in the video text industry (video text was a Canadian technology that was a precursor to the internet), but when I came back to Alberta in 1988, I got a job at a tax software company. And that started my whole career in tax and financial accounting software. It was called Cantax, and was the number one brand in Canada. It was actually two guys out of Calgary here, Henry Zimmer, and my good friend, Cameron Peters. Cameron and I went on to form Greenpoint Software together in 1995, because Cantax had been sold to CCH along the way. 

“If you haven’t worked inside a big corporation, it’s hard to imagine how to sell inside a big corporation.”

It was interesting because I joined a small company, then we are sold to a big company, and then I was an executive in the bigger company. Then we started Greenpoint, which was later acquired by Intuit. I ended up staying seven years at Intuit at varying levels of executive roles, which was a great journey. 

It’s interesting working for big companies — you just have to figure out how to use the systems and the structure to your advantage. But in doing that, you also get an understanding of how to sell inside enterprise as well. So if you haven’t worked inside a big corporation, it’s hard to imagine how to sell inside a big corporation. Especially in a matrix organization, like Intuit was. So I just kind of started doing marketing, because I had done documentation way back in the day. So I became the CMO of Intuit Canada. 

But you eventually left Intuit…

Yeah, eventually. I started consulting with different buddies like Cameron Peters, who had co-founded Cantax. He created another software company called Tax Cycle, which operates here in town. You look at dynasties in Calgary, like stock photo, for example. Why is there so much stock photo lineage here in town between iStock and Veer? It’s because all those people grew up in those industries together. And then they went off and started new companies. So there’s a whole bunch of really good tax software programmers in Calgary, and it’s because of the same reasons.

I want to understand more about your entrepreneurial drive. Why was it that you wanted to do your own thing, start your own company?

I think I fell into CMO4Hire almost by accident because I was consulting. I love the notion of being able to help various companies. But the problem with consulting is there’s no equity in it, which is why we created software. I really liked applying frameworks from across different industries and seeing how they all different because it’s fascinating — this whole notion of interlocking dependencies of systems is super interesting to me. So, from the consulting world I ended up doing work with Riley Kearl. He’s been my partner for about four years now.

Bringing it back to the tech focus and Alberta specifically, were there any other tech companies in Alberta that caught your eye and made you think that this was a landscape you wanted to contribute to?

No, but it was always on my horizon. I get inspired by all of my peers in the A100, everybody is so smart and doing such amazing inspirational things. draw a lot of inspiration from that. But the startups as well. I’ve mentored a lot since we started the A100, and every one of them bring something to the table that I get inspired by, too. 

Given your depth of experience with the organization, how do you see the A100 impacting Alberta’s startups?

I really like the identification of gazelles and how can we help gazelles. In the end, I think it’s the gazelles that led to the tech dynasties in Calgary — stock photography and tax systems. Not only do you get pretty good exits from gazelles — everyone’s looking for a unicorn, I guess I know they exist but I’ve never seen one — I’ve only ever been involved with tech businesses or in business in general, where you basically have to figure out your product fit and then grind it out.

“In the end, I think it’s the gazelles that led to the tech dynasties in Calgary.”

So I think there’s a lot of effort that goes into becoming a gazelle. And that’s the biggest impact I can see the A100 having is making sure that those gazelles get to the next level. I have a long list of Alberta companies that are cool companies out of the box. I love that there is such a wide range of successful companies in tech in Alberta, for sure.

That’s fantastic. Now, back to your journey. What have you learned from your successes?

Never ever, ever take them for granted. You know, it takes a village to raise a startup. Whether it’s the people on your team or the network you have — they make you successful, you don’t make you successful. I think that understanding is the most important thing about success.

I guess the number two thing that I’ve learned is cash flow management, and to be really realistic. It takes a lot to launch a business. And it’s easy to get a prototype of software out the door, but it’s really hard to scale it and to find that product-market fit. 

“Whether it’s the people on your team or the network you have — they make you successful, you don’t make you successful.”

The one thing I always say to entrepreneurs is to tell your story from the heart, the mind, the wallet. Those three things. And be very judicious with your time. And I also always say, stay off the stage, frankly. That was one of the mistakes I made. I was so enthralled with speaking. I love being on stage. You can get as many speaking gigs as you want as a startup CEO. But you’re not spending time with your customers. 

And what have you learned from your failures? What would you counsel other entrepreneurs?

Aside from staying off the stage? Cash Flow. Well, revenue. Revenue lets you play for another day. And investors aren’t revenue. I make sure people understand how difficult it is to get financing, and how much both opportunity and burden that can bring to an operation. But if you’re selling your business as well — which is what raising equity is for — you have to come up with all of those same materials. But for investors, because those become the customers of that sale of the equity of your business, you actually have to manage two different personas, two different sales channels. And for young startups, it’s virtually impossible to do that.

“You can get as many speaking gigs as you want as a startup CEO. But you’re not spending time with your customers.”

In general terms, is there a book that you would recommend that has had a particular influence on you?

Ziegler stuff. I’m a big Ziegler fan. Just straight up sales techniques. And they’re all still valid. Bill Bryson, “The History of Almost Everything” — it’s an amazing book. And, you know, it just further inspires the inventive spirit, for sure. I also just finished reading “Agencynomics”, which was a brilliant book.