AIB Featured Business Leader – Ryan Holmes
As the the CEO of a company on the front lines of electronic media, Ryan Holmes has lived through several eras of technological advancement – and he’s only 43. He is the founder and CEO of Hootsuite, a platform for managing social media widely used by companies, which reaches over 7 million users and presides over 300 employees. In 2013, he launched an accelerator program for young tech entrepreneurs with the aim of keeping innovation within Canada instead of losing it to the States. He himself invests almost entirely in technology stocks and he’s a passionate advocate of the possibilities contained within technological disruption.
It’s a far cry from what his parents had in mind back in the 1970s. In response to a series of energy crises and a desire to reconnect with nature, Holmes’ teacher parents bought a 40 acre property near the small town of Vernon in British Columbia. There they lived off grid; raising livestock, drawing their water from a well and reading in the evenings by the light of a kerosene lamp.
If anything, the lack of technology inspired the young Holmes to provide for himself. In Grade 5, he became obsessed with the computer in the school’s library, seeking out opportunities to use it before and after school and every lunch hour. His persistence paid off, and he won a computer of his own in a programming contest, which of course he couldn’t use at home. Not daunted, he jury rigged his mother’s car battery to power the computer and play on it for hours after school, often running the battery flat in the quest to get his coding perfect.
While still in high school, Holmes started his first business, a paintball company which became an online retailer of paintball supplies. He graduated high school in 1997 and was accepted to the University of Vancouver where he enrolled in a business program. He lasted less than a year, dropping out to pursue entrepreneurial endeavours on his own instead.
His next foray was a pizza-by-the-slice business called Growlies which thrived enough that he was able to sell a franchise within the year. In 1999 he sold up and moved to Vancouver where he taught himself an intensive curriculum of internet design and development. He got a job at a startup which went bust in 2000 when the dot-com bubble burst, and was once again looking for something to do.
That’s when he started Invoke Media, a digital services agency that provides both design and content management solutions for companies. Out of Invoke grew Hootsuite, originally a tool developed within the agency to help its staff manage information across social media platforms.
In December of 2008, Holmes offered Hootsuite as a free service to outsiders, and just six months later, 100,000 users had signed on. Holmes knew he was onto something. He obtained $1.9M in venture funding from US financiers, and HootSuite Media, Inc. was formed.
By January 2010, HootSuite Media was valued at $6million. Three years later, TechCrunch and Mashable were estimating worth of closer to $1.65billion. It is now the most widely used social media platform in the world, and has been adopted by the White House, the Canadian Prime Minister’s office and 79 of the Fortune Top 100 companies. That’s an impressive portfolio, but Holmes has yet more ambition.
One of his ambitions is to keep both Hootsuite and younger tech entrepreneurs in Canada, but Holmes has admitted that there are some hurdles to realising this dream. Canadian entrepreneurs tend to be more risk-averse than their US counterparts, for one. It can be tempting for a young company carrying significant debt to sell out to an early bidder: Hootsuite has turned down many such offers. But more significant is the lack of homegrown talent, an issue that Australian entrepreneurs such as Mike Cannon-Brookes of Atlasssian has also highlighted. A lack of graduates, combined with the bright allure of Silicon Valley, means that Canadian firms either struggle or they move. Holmes is determined to do neither.
In 2013, he launched an accelerator program for young Canadian entrepreneurs called The Next Big Thing, in partnership with fellow entrepreneur Meredith Powell. The company focuses on 18-23 year olds, whether in or out of formal study, and provides them with a six month program of mentorship and support to try and realise their own next big thing.
Will Holmes ever go public with Hootsuite? He says not, and to date the company’s culture reflects his values in a way that might be lost after an IPO. His staff work long hours in a culture that encourages hard work and hard play. There are craft beers on Fridays and a nap room for respite from those long hours. Most Hootsuite employees cycle to work.
Holmes himself is no slouch when it comes to both working and playing hard. When he’s not steering his company along, he’s outside. His hobbies include yoga, surfing and rock climbing, as well as some pretty serious road cycling. When he’s not doing business with some of the biggest investment firms in North America, he’s often in plaid button-downs and cultivating a country beard. It’s an aesthetic that calls to mind his idiosyncratic rural upbringing, and it sits easily on one of Canada’s most modern men.
This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, Mashable, Canadian Business, Fortune, Australian Financial Review and Cantech Letter.