Tech Champion Jim Hayhurst’s Big Lessons in Leadership

From tackling everest to founding a non-profit for Youth to heading one of Victoria’s most successful Tech firms, Jim Hayhurst takes his leadership lessons from the journey, not the destination.

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Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

“When I tell people I went to Everest, the first question is always, ‘Did you get to the top?’” says Jim Hayhurst, president and CEO of Pretio Interactive. “Well, on the way up we saw the frozen bodies of men who made it to the top but who didn’t make it back down. So, then what is the definition of success? It forces you to recalibrate your notion of what a success is.” 

By any definition, Hayhurst is a success. His stature as a crucial leader and role model in Victoria was cemented in 2016 when VIATEC presented him with the prestigious Colin Lennox Award for Technology Champion — considered the organization’s highest honour. From tech to youth empowerment, he’s been instrumental in fostering the region’s development through his advisory role at organizations such as Pearson College UWC and Power to Be and his mentorship and guidance to startups as a venture adviser with technology investment firm Wesley Clover and its affiliated incubator, the Alacrity Group.

“It’s not always about Jim’s company,” says Scott Lake, founder of Shopify. “He’s a very community-oriented entrepreneur and every city needs that — that’s how great tech cities are grown.” 

When it comes to Hayhurst’s company, the 2015 Douglas 10 to Watch winner Pretio Interactive, there have been significant successes there too. The advertising technology firm, which allows brands to place rewards inside apps and games, achieved record profitability in the last quarter of 2016.

And Pretio’s recent acquisition and integration of GravityLab’s assets and video-advertising team will allow the company to bolster its internal video campaign capabilities.

Pretio’s co-founder and COO Tyrone Sinclair believes Hayhurst’s leadership style has helped shape the company culture.

“Jim is very open and transparent and wears his emotions on his sleeve,” Sinclair says. “He doesn’t sit at a desk and hide behind a screen. He makes himself available to the team. Many people say they have an open-door policy and that’s one approach, but Jim takes it a step further by walking with people for coffee or sitting at the picnic tables for lunch or hanging out around the office and having those in-the-moment conversations.”

Hayhurst made his first foray into technology at the Toronto tech incubator Exclamation, where he worked with Exponential Entertainment, a company focused on online gaming for charities. Exclamation went through the highs and lows of the dotcom boom of the 90s, after which all four projects in the incubator were rolled into Points.com, a loyalty management program that Hayhurst describes as a very successful company still traded on the Nasdaq.

At Exclamation, Hayhurst “cut his teeth” on the excitement of technologies he felt could “liberate marketplaces.” It’s an enduring passion and an element he looks for in startups he invests in and mentors through Alacrity.

It’s even a characteristic he saw in Triton Logging (now Triton Resources), the company that brought him to Victoria 12 years ago as an investor and vice president of marketing and communications (later VP of business development and global services) and whose submersible logging system can be used on the land flooded by hydro damns  — “liberating those 300 million trees stuck underwater.”

His time with Triton is another area where Hayhurst doesn’t shy away from analyzing the intricacies of success. Before he left Triton permanently in 2012, he was removed as VP due to the company’s lack of growth and profitability. It meant Hayhurst no longer had input into the company’s strategic decisions.

“Triton was my real-world MBA — I got all the information, but I’m not sure I passed the class,” Hayhurst says. “I left the company before the company succeeded. It’s still going now but in a very different form than it was. I’d refrain from saying it was a professional failure because I learned more from Triton than any other experience.”

It’s the story Hayhurst shared with the audience during his talk last year at FuckUp Nights (F.U.N.), the global event series he brought to Victoria in which entrepreneurs talk about their big mistakes. The theory is that the talks remove the stigma of failure, encouraging people to learn from others’ mistakes.

“I think Victoria needs FuckUp Nights more than almost any city because it’s very proper here and we don’t talk about stuff. You’ll often hear, ‘Don’t ask him about that’ if someone’s business fails. What are you talking about? Tell your stories so others don’t do it or so you can get through it. That’s what FuckUp Nights are for.” — Jim Hayhurst

“Jim is not afraid to expose the reality of what it means to be an entrepreneur, and when he puts on something like F.U.N. and stands up and does it himself, it basically says to everyone that it’s OK to admit that we’re not all geniuses,” says Lake, who spoke at F.U.N. about his own experiences with Source Metrics.

“Jim is so respected in the community and his story shows that entrepreneurship is a lifelong game.”  

When Douglas met with Hayhurst, we sat in Pretio’s work library, which features a collection he put together after asking staff to name their favourite titles. His own contribution is a copy of Dr. Seuss’s Oh, The Places You’ll Go! which he had signed by Al Gore when the two met through Triton. 

“It’s seemed fitting,” he says, “on so many levels.”

Q&A with Jim Hayhurst

Do you take a different leadership approach when you’re looking at a company in a traditional sector such as Triton versus a tech company such as Pretio?
I’m not a developer or an engineer or a computer-science major or data scientist. I am a businessperson, an English major and a generalist. I always look at businesses in exactly the same way, no matter what they are. The things I brought to Triton had to do with my network, and my ability to raise money and to grow the story. And also to strategize on how we would grow the business  internationally. Those are the same things that I do here at Pretio. One [company] has a yellow submarine that cuts trees underwater; the other has an algorithm that places ads in front of people at the right time in the right place. I‘m agnostic as to what the company does as long as it’s with good people and a vital marketplace.

I’ve heard you describe your management style as “management by walking around.” Is that exactly what it sounds like?
I have a very tough time knowing what’s going on in the company and therefore adding value or solving problems if I’m not in touch. That’s my job as a CEO. Many of those online communication tools are great, but I see more value in literally laughing out loud with people instead of LOLing. And I like eye contact.

What is the reaction from your staff?
I don’t want to disrupt people, and I’m aware of that. I was taught early on by Rob O’Dwyer, Pretio’s CTO and one of our founders. He sent me a note that said: “Jim, just so you know, headphones with two ears on is ‘Do not disturb me.’ One ear off is ‘It better be important.’ Two off is ‘Come and talk to me, but I am probably leaving for the day anyways.” So I take those cues.

What draws you to the organizations you work with?
It’s cliché, but it’s the people: usually a person, often the founder with that characteristic that they’ll run through a wall for the idea that they have — but they’re also pragmatic and they get shit done. And they’ve got to be fun and interesting and interested in the world beyond their nose. And that’s sometimes tough, especially for founders because they are so focused.

The second factor? Is this a disruptive, interesting market? As a non-developer, can I translate this into a story that’s understandable to the mass market? That mass market could be the 15 people that would invest in it or the end customers or media or even the people we are going to hire.

You attempted to climb Everest with your dad as a young man. What lessons did you take from that?
One big lesson my dad put in his book The Right Mountain was how helpful it is to show your human side as a parent or CEO. I was 20 when I climbed Everest with my father. I’m the kid, he’s the dad, and that’s an inequitable power structure, but when we got to Everest, it was the great leveller: he got sick, I was fine; he couldn’t continue, I kept going; he needed help, I helped him. It’s what allowed me to work with my dad and even conceive of starting a business with him in Trails Youth Initiatives [a non-profit focused on youth in at-risk areas in Toronto]. That was only possible because I saw him as a person with all his faults and his failures.

What that does for any child or employee is give them permission to lead because the space isn’t completely occupied.

Does this define your leadership style?
I don’t have a definition of leadership, but if I did, one of the things would be: leadership is actually getting out of the way and giving the reins over to your team. Creating the conditions for them to succeed, but truly trusting that if you’ve set the right expectations and treat them well and let them have some fun, they’ll always do the right thing. If they don’t, then failure instructs. Hashtag #failureinstructs, and then we get a FuckUp Night.

What are your metrics for success in business?
So, that idea of what is success for a company is one that I don’t think businesses unpack as much as they should, and I do really push it with our company. We’re going through something right now where we have to define what success means for us in terms of what we are going to be focusing on and whether that’s the things that are immediately profitable for us or the things that are going to drive future value. There is a trade-off.

So what’s next for Pretio?
We’ve grown in the past year. We’ve almost doubled our head count [to 23 people]. This year we will almost quadruple our revenue and we will be profitable. Those are tangible measures of success.

We’re trying to tackle the big problem in performance marketing, which is how do you automate it? Right now, a lot of it is still manual. We have a technology we’re working on called Apollo, because it’s our “moon shot” to a degree. It might require more investment to really see it work. There could be an investment round in the next year.

The other big opportunity for us is China. There is a specific need for what we do in China, and because of our relationship with Wesley Clover and their global networks, we have established some good relationships over there.

What advice do you have for companies looking for investment?
It is really tough to compete with companies seeking investment in Toronto, Boston, New York, San Francisco and even Vancouver. They are there constantly, and interacting constantly. It really is a numbers game: how many meetings you have in a day, a week, a month, a year. Just the sheer volume and access to those conversations means that if you’re really serious about raising a big round, you’re probably going have to consider going to those places. And through Alacrity and Wesley Clover we’ve set up that mechanism through the San Francisco office. The likelihood of funding without you having greater exposure and spending some time in these other parts of the world needs to be assessed, because until I get everybody coming here, which I am really trying to do, and until we build up a fund here, there’s going to have to be some outward-looking conversations.

Do you see Victoria’s current tech boom as a bubble that can burst?
I don’t. You don’t have this influx of people who can just come and couch surf and land an internship and get a job and create the gases that a bubble requires — like that frothiness that anybody can go to San Francisco with a ComSci degree and land a job at the latest startup that just got $30 million that is about to blow its head off.

What’s the difference?
The people who do come here are really good at what they do and they can do it almost anywhere. They’ve actually made the decision to invest their time and their family and now their hard-earned money in real estate to be here — because they’re here for the long term. Conversely, if people do come here thinking that they can just come in and say “Hey, I am a ex-senior vice-president of IBM and who needs me?” Well, nobody needs you. You’re going to have to moderate those expectations and commit to being here not just for a job but to build the community.

You foster this community and are so well known — why did you want to share your story at FuckUp Nights?
I was asking people to do something I hadn’t done and I realized I should do it. I did the Triton story. Triton was not a success for me. I have no problem with people knowing that. I talked about my ego and my depression and other things that I didn’t expect to talk about. Even now it was really helpful for me because I hadn’t worked through it.

People said how helpful it was to see me, the “success guy,” up there, talking about things not going right. I think I was comfortable with that because I was the guy who went to Everest and who didn’t get to the top but was still able to tell a good story about it. I’m used to talking about failure in a different context. The destination is important, but I’m curious about the journey.