Why local talent is the secret to success for A100 member Brad Zumwalt

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Humble, generous, and acutely passionate about local talent, Brad Zumwalt is one of the original Calgary tech success stories. We sat down with him to learn more about his blueprint for growing a great company.

As one of the original members of the A100, you’ve had quite a journey leading up to where you are today. Can you tell us how it all began? 

From the beginning I was always interested in small business. I had some student businesses when I was in university, which I mostly failed at. But a turning point was in 1984, when my father spent what would be the equivalent of $7,000 and bought the first Apple Macintosh computer, 128k RAM, no hard disk. I was fascinated by the Apple and Steve Jobs stories, and it was a turning point in how I started thinking about my future.

I learned everything I could about the software business and Bill Gates and Microsoft — that whole generation. I decided then that that’s what I wanted to do, is somehow to be a small business person in the software space as an entrepreneur. 

In the late ‘80s, I joined a company called Image Club, which was an allegory visual content company. I started as a Marketing Intern and then moved along to end up running that company. There’s a wonderful founding group there. And that’s how that journey began. 

“I was fascinated by the Apple and Steve Jobs stories, and it was a turning point in how I started thinking about my future.”

We ended up selling, after many years, to Adobe Systems. After about four and a half or five years with Adobe, we had an opportunity to start our own firm by buying a bunch of assets and doing a management buyout of some stuff from Adobe. We turned that into another business back on our own again, and this was the first business that I was the founder of along with a great founding team that was always by my side. 

We grew that business successfully and sold to another company called Getty Images, the world’s largest image company. Then we decided to start another business with most of the same founding team — a great group of people — and that one was called Veer. We sold that one almost 10 years ago now. From there I went on to angel investing and community volunteer mode, and that’s where you find me today.

That is a terrific story. Did you have a sense that tech was going to be as big as it was going to be? I mean, the Apple story in ‘84 was pretty early. What was it about those companies and leaders that really sparked something for you?

A big part of why I was interested in starting a company was the belief in homegrown talent. Through the first business that I joined as an employee (and then came to run) you could see and feel the quality of people we have right here. We had no business competing in the worldwide visual content space, out of Calgary. We should have been in New York, or Los Angeles, or London, and we had offices in all those places. But you realize that the homegrown talent that we have here is good enough, when focused, to compete in any industry in the world. 

“The homegrown talent that we have here is good enough, when focused, to compete in any industry in the world.” 

I just felt the quality of the team that we had deserved another opportunity to saddle up and get some capital and compete again. I had the same thought process with the next company, Veer — that the team was so good, we had a market opportunity, we knew how to work it. And the team deserved an opportunity to come together as a company and show the world what they could do. 

To have identified the quality of homegrown talent in an area that was completely outside of the dominant economy in the province was quite pioneering. How did you stay focused on that talent pool without feeling frustrated about people being leached off into other areas?

Certainly we would lose talent to the major industries in the city, and that’s just fine. Anyone growing a small business in any sector is going to have those frustrations. You know, we have to learn to compete and offer what employees need. And it’s not just always salary. It’s this idea of building something together and being part of a team and being treated well and respected for what you can individually bring to the problem, and learning how to collaborate with other folks. 

“We always have our struggles growing a business. But they bounce off you a little bit easier when there’s a deeper meaning inside you about what you’re building.”

I find it difficult to watch these reality business pitch shows because small business people and startup people put their heart and soul and reputation into their projects. And I just revere that. It’s not something that I think should be fodder for entertainment. I think it’s people bringing what’s unique about them in the world and how they think a problem can be solved. And I believe that needs to be honoured. We always have our struggles growing a business. But they bounce off you a little bit easier when there’s a deeper meaning inside you about what you’re building.

That’s an eloquent perspective, thank you. In the late ‘80s into the ‘90s, was there much of a tech community here? Or, did you feel like you were blazing the trail?

We would never be so presumptuous to think we were blazing a trail. We had a wonderful lawyer at the time (who has since passed), John Ramsey. Fifteen years before we were involved, John was supporting some of the first software companies in the city by writing software licenses — which was the first time that legal agreement had been written. So there were professionals who had walked the path long before us being there. 

And there were some important local partner firms that were walking the path with us, like Shawn Abbott of iNovia. Shawn used to run a company called the AND Group in Calgary, and we relied on them for some of our most complicated technical development. Shawn did some world class build out for us, and he remains a friend. There was a wonderful group in Edmonton, Shana Corporation — which was the Murphy brothers, Don and John Murphy — that was in the form software business, and they remain friends. 

So there wasn’t a large community, but more importantly, we weren’t alone. We had a tight group that I remain close friends with to this day. We just needed to build our own culture inside our own company and do our own thing. 

But having said all that, it certainly was a concern of ours, that we weren’t getting out enough to find who the other people were that were doing these things. There’s a funny story about how Evan Hu and I had both about 150-person companies in Calgary at about the same time. And Evan and I operated those companies at the same time, in the same city, and in the same office building, but we never met each other.

“We want to make sure that other founders don’t have to go through this process along the way that most of us did back in the day.”

So now, as Evan and I volunteer and invest, in a lot of ways we can finish each other’s sentences. But we didn’t have the connectivity of something like the A100. Imagine the normal amount of growing and hiring tensions, and what a thing it would have been to have someone just to bounce those ideas off of couple floors down, or a couple floors up in the very same office building. So we want to make sure that other founders don’t have to go through this process along the way that most of us did back in the day. And that’s the role of groups like the A100, VMSA, and Rainforest.

I’d like to know more about how you see the A100 impacting Alberta’s startup entrepreneurs. 

If people can learn lessons just a little bit faster by talking to other founders, if people can find good consultants or suppliers just a little bit faster by talking to other founders, if people can avoid bad investors or bad suppliers by talking to other founders — that’s all the stuff that we need to make sure we arm our brave founders with in this province. I think that’s the role of the A100. 

It’s about improving the outcomes for the whole ecosystem and for the homegrown companies we have. I’m all about the homegrown teams and homegrown companies. I don’t believe we need to import other companies. We need to tease out the inventiveness and innovation from our citizens and surround them with teams that can learn together how to sell their product globally, and export and grow a beautiful business here. So I think the A100 can play a beautiful role in assisting our homegrown teams. 

Agreed, 100%. There’s no question it’s a critical and exciting time for tech in Alberta. Speaking of growth, what are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned from your successes?

I’d say the importance of a team, whether it was my team in the operating companies, or the kind of loose team that we have working in these community projects, like the A100. It’s not just about getting more capital and the companies will come. It’s not just about getting more ideas and the companies will come. We have to bring along the culture piece, we have to bring along the encouragement and the support and the direction and advising that can come from experience. I think that culture thing and learning to ask and rely on others — that’s the only time that I’ve been able to enjoy success, is when the team part has worked.

It seems that part of the journey is learning to be self aware enough to step away from the ego to say, okay, who do I need to ask for help? Where’s my feedback? Where am I open to learn? 

Yeah, I think that’s exactly right in terms of stepping back and letting other people help. I mean, there are three or four other beautiful companies that still exist in Calgary as a result of our series of companies. So we had this natural cadence with our businesses that we would build for eight years or so and then find that we had built up to a level that someone wanted to acquire us. And then we had to leave that business and go backwards with a beginner’s mindset and start something again, building on the lessons we learned along the way. 

Given those lessons, you mentioned a couple of failures in your university years. What have you learned from those failures? 

Well, you learn much more about the business in the bad times than in the good times. When there’s momentum and things are sailing along, you’re not learning very much. You may be getting a little bit complacent and metaphorically fat and lazy. So you’ll learn more about the business in the hard times and in the challenging times. 

This idea that you can have a business and it’s going to be a good business, and it’s going to be in good shape all the time, that’s just not the case. You’re always tearing down and rebuilding a division and integrating new technology and stumbling along in a new market and stretching for a goal and not hitting it. So I don’t know if you call that failure or if you just call that building. If you’re building a house, guess what? You have an incomplete failure of a house on every day except the last day that it’s done. 

I think in small business, we get used to the idea that there’s always something to do a little bit better and something to fix, and hopefully your team can have their eye on the ball for you. And as the stakes get higher and higher, you’re continuing to compete and do okay.

“It’s something that you have to strive for and struggle for to really earn. That’s the ride that people should expect.”

That’s why we keep keep on building. If you lay the numbers down, people can say, hey, I know the goal we were shooting for, I have some ideas about what contributed to us not making it and can I play a role in trying to do something better next quarter. That winds people in, that kind of transparency and trust in your people to pass along the discomfort and belief that they can handle it is what you need in a team. 

So that failure is stretching and going for it. And that’s just the nature of a high growth business. It never comes just automatically, it’s something that you have to strive for and struggle for to really earn. That’s the ride that people should expect.

Good, pragmatic advice. Speaking of advice, which book has had the greatest influence on you so far? 

At the personal level I would go all the way back into the early ‘80s and pick out the character stuff around Stephen Covey — “The Seven Habits”. As entrepreneurs we try to be in that mindset of making sure this is a win win for everyone, not to be doing things just for yourself.

Then as I go from working on myself to really getting so lucky to be with an amazing team and thinking about growing our people in our business — then as you get into company building, it’s the “Good to Great” kind of books.

And as we get into the meta level, like how not to just build a single good company but how do we build a good environment for all companies, then I would say “The Rainforest” book about ecosystem building and the importance of culture and leadership and role models, and the six components that make up a high trust, high growth ecosystem. 

And last — I’m a big fan of this guy — Shane Parrish. He’s a great Canadian influencer, blogger, interviewer podcaster, and the company is called The Knowledge Project. He’s often speaking with authors and reviewing books, and they have Q&A — but really fantastic deep podcast interviews about current titles in nonfiction and the tech ecosystem. He’s just a great podcast, great interviews, and is always talking about good authors. 

We live in an age with so much good stuff out there, so much good research on startup counts and ecosystems, and these research papers from think tanks about what we need to be doing differently in Canada and in Alberta to be competitive. I enjoy those and putting them into context of these other ecosystem building books. So there’s three levels: the personal level, the one company at a time level, and then the ecosystem level — and then wrapped around with other channels for lifelong learning.