Rob Bennett, Program Director at the Victoria Innovation, Advanced Technology & Entrepreneurship Council (VIATEC) joined Cascadia Report for a relaxed conversation about his life and career to date, and how he has long-been involved with the business community in Victoria.
Rob co-founded Municipal Software Corporation in 1982 and he led the company through many different iterations, taking the company public at the beginning of 2002 as its President and CEO. He also led the development and launch of Municipal Software’s SaaS offering, Local Government Manager. This new service, based on Salesforce, allows jurisdictions that cannot use traditional solutions for local government due to their cost or complexity to now use the types of solutions that typically only larger cities and counties are able to implement.
Prior to beginning the company, he spent five years working within a local government agency where he was responsible for overall design and development of regional computer applications and oversaw delivery of data processing services at all regional departments, including health, engineering, finance, planning, transit, and administration.
Rob has been Program Director and Chief Operating Officer at VIATEC since 2012 and he is actively involved in his community advising a number of different companies on various strategic and tactical issues. In addition to his current role at VIATEC, he is a former board member of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce and is a former provincial director on the board of the BC Cancer Foundation. With such a deep involvement in the business community here in the Cascadia Corridor, I was eager to find out what the job of VIATEC COO looks like, and what keeps Rob excited to go to work (from home) every day.
“One of the things that really attracted me to this role is the fact that it is so different on a day-to-day basis. There's a wide variety of things happening all the time. The part of the role that I enjoy the most is connecting with people in the community. People that have just graduated from college or university or just moved to the island, or contemplating moving to Victoria. Working with all age groups from high school students that are going through science fairs, all the way through to folks that have retired after amazing careers and have relocated to Victoria and want to contribute from a mentorship perspective. It's a wide variety of conversations and I'm always learning along the way too, so it scratches all the itches.”
With a solid track record as a successful business founder and as a community leader on Vancouver Island, I asked Bennett to shed a little light on his career path, and what he had learned along the way.
“I graduated from the University of Victoria in 1983 with a Degree in Computer Science. I'd already co-founded two companies at that point, with my original partner, who I used to work for the Capital Regional District with. We worked on a project looking at the various constraints to growth in the capital region, the peninsula, and the Western Communities or the Westshore, as it's now called.
We knew that growth could occur either on the peninsula or in the Western communities or both. There was a two-year project that collected and analyzed data, so that the politicians could make informed decisions. I learned something important from that process - you can actually influence the quality of discussion and therefore the quality of decision by providing good quality information. That was a real, ‘ah ha’ moment.
Once I graduated from university, we decided to start these companies and focus on products that would allow local government departments to provide better quality information to their politicians. We started the company and grew it over 25 years, and I ended up leaving the company, and looking around for other opportunities. I left Municipal Software in 2007 and started looking for opportunities, and coaching was becoming a thing. Organizations like what became the BC Technology Association (formerly the BCTIA) in Vancouver, were hiring CEOs In Residence to provide coaching services to technology entrepreneurs.”
It’s at this point that Bennett’s eyes light up - it seems the world of mentoring and engaging with the business community truly was an ‘ah-ha’ moment! He went on to explain how he landed the role at VIATEC, and how he became a key part of the organisation from it’s very beginning.
“The CEO here at VIATEC, Dan Gunn, saw an opportunity to do something like BC Tech for Victoria-based entrepreneurs. He was working in conjunction with another technology hub in Kelowna called Accelerate Okanagan along with the provincial crown corporation called InnovateBC (formerly BCIC) to build a program that could be used to provide this sort of coaching. That became the Venture Acceleration Program (VAP), which is the program that he brought me on to complete the design to implement it. We've been running and evolving the VAP for almost a dozen years now.
It fits perfectly with my leadership style because it's really all about coaching. It's about listening to where people are at, asking good questions, connecting them with others in the community or beyond, that might be able to help them. It’s a mutual learning proposition where there's certain things I know, certain mistakes I've made, certain things I know that are shortcuts. There's curriculum we provide, there's amazing resources in this community that volunteer their expertise and their time to help entrepreneurs. And so, my role is assembling all of that in unique bespoke ways to help these budding entrepreneurs.”
We often get passionate business leaders and entrepreneurs sharing their stories here at Cascadia Report, but the way Bennett speaks about his role as a coach and mentor is heartening, his enthusiasm for his work is infectious.
Outside of his professional career with his own businesses and VIATEC, he has also given a lot of his time to good causes such as the BC Cancer Foundation and the Salvation Army. I asked Bennett how important it was to him to work with charities and non-profits, and what that work meant to him.
“It's really important to me. Five or six years ago someone pointed out that everything that I was involved with was about building community, and I hadn't realized that. There's a lot of different ways of doing it. Initially, I took the position that building my company, providing employment, helping different jurisdictions all around North America make better decisions, all those things are community building. But the charitable aspect is also super important. And I think it's an important aspect of any sort of level of success that you provide some portion of what you do to paying back. In my role, right now there's an awful lot of payback. VIATEC is a non-profit, and we do have a charitable foundation as well. I've now focused all my efforts on those things. I participated in the Chamber of Commerce and the Salvation Army and the BC Cancer Foundation and I learned a lot from those experiences that I've been able to apply to my current experience at VIATEC and share with others in the program.”
While Bennett is no doubt extremely passionate about his role at VIATEC and his work in the community, things have not always been smooth sailing. Setbacks and disappointments are a part of every person's career and he is no different. I asked Bennett what challenges he’d faced along the way, and how they had shaped him as both a person and a professional.
“There's definitely been some setbacks. The first one I experienced was in university, where I failed my first course. At high school, marks were not a problem at all, I hardly had to do any work to achieve A’s across the board, University was different. The first time I failed a course I had to really think about what that meant. Then I was put on academic probation after a second year of university. That year, I had five part time jobs, and I was having a riot, but I wasn't doing any homework and barely showed up for classes. My 1.99 GPA showed the result of that.
Having completed two years, halfway through university, I had to think long and hard about what I really wanted to do. I was working in the industry and I was engaged doing some really great projects, working for the Capital Regional District full time. I decided at that point it was important to finish. That was one of the first principles I established for myself, that you need to finish the things that you started, and so I did. I did school part-time, so it took another four years to complete while I was working full time for the Capital Regional District. So that was interesting!
Through various business cycles the company was up and down, but the next most significant obstacle I faced was after running this company for about 25 years, to have my chair of the board tell me that I should resign - that was a real blow to the gut. I'd co-founded the company, I was the president of the company at that point in time, so to be fired was interesting. It took me about a week to get an appointment with an attorney, that gave me a lot of time to figure out what it was I really wanted to do. And in retrospect, it was one of the best things that could happen for me. If that hadn't happened, I'd probably still be at Municipal Software, I would have gone through 2008, which was a horrendous year for local governments. I'd be dealing with the current COVID situations in local government, which is not good from a funding perspective. Every time one of these downturns in the economy, it becomes a huge challenge to run a business.
I worked in government for five years, I'd worked with government for 25 years. If this fellow hadn't come to me and said, ‘Rob, you might want to consider moving to something else,’ I probably wouldn’t have. And because of that, I got involved in several things that are just amazing, including VIATEC. That was a major learning point in my career, that when things look the darkest there's usually some big opportunity about to happen. You have to be open to it, you have to help make some of these opportunities for yourself, or at least recognize them and act on them. But it really did open up opportunities that I wouldn't have had otherwise.”
It’s a bright and overwhelmingly positive perspective, though speaking to Bennett it soon becomes clear that he is not one to dwell on negatives for too long. In fact, he tells me that the Chinese symbols for ‘crisis’ and ‘opportunity’ are the same and refers back to his childhood days in Hawaii with a big grin.
As someone who shares the experiences as a startup founder and mentor/facilitator, Bennett has worked with a vast number of companies in Victoria and the wider Cascadia Corridor in his role at VIATEC. I asked him for his take on the challenges faced by small companies and start-ups in the region, and what VIATEC is doing to address some of those challenges.
“There's been a shortage of qualified talent for decades, that's really nothing new. The pandemic has taught people a number of things. This notion of working from home has become quite common and many managers or managerial systems are now tweaked to deal with that. The fact that anyone can work from anywhere in the world, the globalization of the software development side of things. We already saw some of that happening through outsourcing but that's permanently established at this point. While there's still some advantages in having teams together, it's never been easier.
The whole talent equation has shifted a little bit, but there's still this need to find and work with good talent. It gets more complicated when you start moving up the chain. When you start talking about managerial talent or really good sales talent. People that understand what a consultative sales process looks like and can implement it for a technology company. The more senior that role is in your organization, the more acute that talent problem becomes. And the more likely it is that talent is going to be closer to home, or at least spend more time closer to home. Talent is the number one thing.
When I was first getting engaged with VIATEC, access to capital was being talked about a lot. There's tons of capital around now, that's definitely not a problem. In fact, that can create challenges where mediocre ideas end up being funded. The shortage right now from the venture capital side of things, is for solid ideas. The problem they have is sourcing quality entrepreneurs and venture concepts. The one common element is talent. A lot of what industry associations like VIATEC or accelerator programs do is try to build a peer network to try to establish these peer relationships. Because often that's where real learning can take place by sharing obstacles, challenges, opportunities, and solutions. An awful lot can be done to help accelerate the success of companies. I wouldn't say it's a problem, per se. But certainly, building communities of peers is something that we're very active in doing.”
It’s impossible to have a chat with anyone from VIATEC and not get into a discussion around networking. While the past year has been difficult for those of us that like to get out and meet people, many start-ups and small companies have pressed on regardless and even thrived. With that in mind, I asked Bennett what advice he would give start-up founders or people thinking of creating their own company in the current climate.
“I used to believe that networking was a waste of time. I am someone who executes, I get it done. I used to think that people that network just want to go and talk about stuff and so I didn't have any time for it. I can remember having various leaders of VIATEC in the day come and talk to me when I was running the company about becoming more involved with VIATEC and I wouldn't have anything to do with it because I couldn't see what the advantage was to myself, to our staff, or to our company.
As our company grew, I started to get into more ground that I was unfamiliar with, and I made more mistakes. The biggest mistake I made was to take our company public at far too early a stage. I suspect that if I had spent some time developing a peer network, my peers would have told me I was crazy and that there's other ways to raise money other than doing some sort of weird reverse takeover. So, I started becoming involved with VIATEC and then learned what I'd been missing. I learned the value of networking.
The strongest possible recommendation to anyone trying to start or build their venture further is to become involved with a group of people, a group of peers. There's a lot of different ways of doing it, VIATEC is a very strong way of doing it. But build that peer group because those people will actually be the most honest. There’s no hidden agenda, they're doing their own thing and seeking the advice of people that have either been there, done that, or know of people that have been there, done that, can really save time, effort, money and can actually save your business. That's probably the single biggest lesson learned that I share with up-and-coming entrepreneurs - get involved in a peer group.”
Bennett also reserved some advice for those thinking of starting their own business beyond the confines of the pandemic and was keen to reiterate the power that networking and consequential conversations can have.
“When you're building a start-up, if you talk to people that have built start-ups, but are further along, at the growth stage, or a more mature stage of business, you're going to learn an awful lot from them. And it's often at some of these networking events where you just grab someone for 10 or 15 minutes. You share your current thing you're working on and then you get some little tidbits. It feels like it's just all about fun. You've got a bottle of beer in your hand or a glass of wine, and it doesn’t feel like business taking place, but it is.
In these times, there's a distinct lack of networking. And I've learned once again over these last 14 months just how important networking is because we haven't been able to do it. I haven't seen a technology platform that allows the sort of serendipity to take place that happens in a real networking event. And consequently, our community is worse off for it. Those chance connections, or the ability to see people at an event and drag a person over and facilitate that introduction in real time, that doesn't happen anymore. I'm even forgetting people's names because I haven't seen them in such a long time. Staying up-to-date and being able to share recent experiences with people is a real challenge.”
Key to his role at VIATEC, Bennett is also a passionate advocate for the Accelerator Programs they run, which he has been involved in since its inception. The programs have taken various forms over the years to reflect the demands in the startup industry in Victoria and are constantly evolving.
I asked Bennett what the overarching mission of the Accelerator Programs is, what they look like for entrepreneurs embarking on their journey, and what impact he hopes it will have on start-ups in Victoria in the future.
“Everyone wants to work on scale ups right now. Scale ups have established that there's demand for their product or services in the marketplace. They’ve figured out what that revenue model is going to look like, they may have received investment already, and they've set the stage to scale. Some governments love to work with scale ups because there's more certainty. If they put money into scale ups, they're more likely to create employment. There are more likely outcomes for growth, and a higher return on investment for taxpayers. The problem is, you can't just enter at that stage, it is a pipeline, and you need to get a certain number of start-ups going, a certain number of those start-ups are going to fail. And others will succeed and get to that growth stage.
Accelerator programs like our Venture Acceleration Program basically tries to de-risk that process, it tries to create a more known outcome. Part of that is through the intake process, that we're identifying entrepreneurs and business models that seem to make sense. And then we apply resources to that, we apply training, we apply coaching and development of that peer network to try to nurture those entrepreneurs to get to that repeatable scalable revenue model, which is that growth stage trigger. And then hopefully they're off on their way and providing those big returns on investment."
With all his years of experience in the world of business, coaching, and understanding what makes the world of startups tick, I was keen to find out from Bennett what they looked for and what is key for the next generation of entrepreneurs to get right, and how those demands have changed over the years.
“Our role in this early-stage program is to identify entrepreneurs that have an interesting idea. There's no way anyone can know at the outset whether someone will be successful or not but there are certain patterns that we look for. Coachability in an entrepreneur is pretty important. If you're going to receive coaching, you should be coachable. Then we work with them for a period of six to twenty-four months to bring them to a point where they can leave the nest and do their own thing.
The program that we operate now is very different from the program that we started a dozen years ago. The only element that is the same is a bi-weekly meeting between the entrepreneur and the coach. At every meeting, there's a mutual agreement reached on two or three action items for the next two weeks. The next meeting, we look at those two things that we agreed they were going to work on and talk about how it went. There's an accountability loop that's built right in. When people graduate and we do exit interviews, we find that's one of the most significant pieces that, voicing those two or three action items every week, helps the entrepreneur commit to themselves. Knowing that they have to tell their coach what the result of their activities has been provides a level of accountability that entrepreneurs typically don't have, even if there's multiple co-founders. Because the co-founders aren't necessarily communicating like that with each other. So that accountability is a big piece.
There's been an addition in terms of our start-up visa designation. A couple of years ago, we started working with international entrepreneurs, attracting them to Victoria. And that required moving all our educational material online so that that could be done effectively, remotely. And luckily, we had that done prior to COVID-19. So, we were actually prepared for the pandemic from that perspective, ahead of time. It’s constantly changing, and we're always looking at better, more effective or more efficient ways of helping entrepreneurs.”
As ever, we couldn’t let our guest leave without putting them on the spot for three key takeaways. And as throughout our entire conversation, Rob was generous with his answers, and delivered his thoughts with a smile.
1. Always tell the truth.
2. If you feel like you're in a major crisis, keep your eyes and ears open because there's a major opportunity about to come your way,
3. Have fun. Even when it gets really challenging, find a way to laugh. Laugh at yourself, laugh at someone else, laugh at something else. But ultimately, we're here for a pretty short time so enjoy the ride.
You can learn more about Rob Bennett and VIATEC here: https://www.viatec.ca