What I Learned About Entrepreneurship Growing Up Off-The-Grid
In Grade 5, I won an Apple IIc computer. This was the early ’80s. No one I knew had a personal computer. And the IIc was the Rolls Royce of PCs. Built-in floppy drive. Rear expansion ports. And a svelte 7.5 pounds. It retailed for $1300 at the time — a luxury unimaginable for a little kid. Against the odds, I had taken it home in a school district-wide programming contest, and now it was all mine to enjoy.
Except for one problem. I didn’t have electricity.
My parents were back-to-the-land, homesteading types. I was raised on a hobby farm with plenty of goats, chickens and honeybees … but no running water and no electricity. For a while, we got by just on kerosene lamps. So when the computer came home, there was the small issue of where to plug it in.
But that was no problem for my father, who got it rigged it to run off a 12-volt car battery. That gave me enough juice to play around for the evening until the battery started to wane. Lots of nights, the only light in the house was the green glow from my computer screen.
My dad is a renaissance man. He was an engineer, math teacher, hobby farmer, mechanic, carpenter, counselor and social worker through his career. I learned as much about entrepreneurship from him as from any mentor. These definitely weren’t the standard lessons about evaluating product ideas, getting funding or scaling. But, decades later, what I absorbed from him fundamentally shaped how I built a business of nearly 1,000 employees, with offices around the world.
Cultivating radical self-sufficiency
For starters, Dad was ruthlessly self-sufficient and hands-on — and still is to this day. He’s in his 70s now and should be comfortably retired. But not long ago, my mom regaled me with a story about how he got on his hands and knees and wriggled into a crawl space to troubleshoot some plumbing — while the 30-something plumber hired to do the job just watched! Truth be known, he’s a pretty good self-taught plumber, not to mention electrician, framer, roofer, mason and all-around general contractor.
Surviving startup life requires this same kind of self-sufficiency. If something breaks, it’s up to you to fix it. There’s neither the time nor the money to call in the pros — especially in the early days. Instead, you need to be relentlessly resourceful and hack together a fix with the tools at your disposal. What you don’t know or understand — marketing, finance, coding, logistics, recruiting, accounting — you need to quickly develop at least a passable competence in.
I was lucky to absorb this spirit from my dad. Early on at Hootsuite, for example, we didn’t have an advertising budget … and I knew next to nothing about rolling out a global marketing plan. But we noticed that an unusually high percentage of our users were from Japan. So I got on a plane for a guerilla media tour — speaking at conferences, chatting with reporters, even talking my way into a meeting with one of the country’s biggest phone makers. By the end of it, we had cemented our place in the Japanese market, which remains one of our key customer bases.
Getting the job done, or else
Along with resourcefulness, my dad also taught me a complementary lesson — about accountability. On a small family farm, there’s no room for finger pointing and there’s no one to pass the buck to. If you’re not up at dawn to water the crops, they die. If you don’t muck out the barn, no one else will. Not following through has immediate and often serious consequences. Taking a day off or giving up on a project isn’t an option.
I think this same sense of extreme accountability drives good entrepreneurs, and — in many ways — lies at the heart of being an entrepreneur in the first place. You may not have all the tools at your disposal or enough time or enough money, but either you find a way forward or you fold up and go home. To me, this stands in contrast to the what some people associate with the “corporate” mindset. In big companies, it’s very easy to say, “It’s not my job.” It’s easy to leave projects half completed, then sugarcoat the results in a Powerpoint presentation.
My dad, however, taught me the primacy of actually getting the job done. And that mentality informed how we grew Hootsuite. From the very beginning, “building a better way” has been a core value. When there’s not a solution in front of you, create one. That spirit of hustle gave rise to our product in the first place — we needed a tool to monitor multiple social networks at once, so we hacked one together. Almost a decade later, it’s still central to who we are.
My dad doesn’t spend much time around the office, and when I see him, we rarely talk business. He’d rather be teetering up on a ladder or crawling under a house. But I know for a fact that I’m the entrepreneur I am today because of him and the off-the-grid upbringing we had.
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