Beedie hosts HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes

Sep 27, 2012

Ryan Holmes (left), founder and CEO of HootSuite Media, being interviewed by CKNW host Bill Good (right).

Ryan Holmes, founder and CEO of social media management system HootSuite, sat in front of a live audience at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business on September 27 to share his experience as head of one of Canada’s largest tech start-ups.

The event was part of the Beedie School of Business’ partnership with prominent Vancouver radio station CKNW, which sees SFU’s downtown Vancouver campus play host to “The Chief Executives”, a series of live radio interviews conducted by CKNW host Bill Good, profiling some of the country’s top executives.

Eschewing typical CEO attire in favour of trainers, jeans and t-shirt, Holmes cut a relaxed figure as he joked with members of the audience and host Good throughout the interview. Keen to engage with the audience, Holmes at one point asked for a show of hands to survey the number of HootSuite users present in the room, prompting Good to joke that Holmes was taking over his show.

Describing himself as “an average student” in high school, Holmes opened the session by discussing his decision to drop out of university before completing his degree. “Having run my own business for four years in high school, I found I was learning a lot of stuff I had already been practicing,” he said. “I was young and impatient.” Upon hearing this, Good remarked that Holmes sounded a lot like a young Bill Gates.

Holmes’ first business was a paintball company he started as a high school student. After dropping out of university, he opened his own pizza restaurant in the Okanagan, which he insists was an excellent training ground for his future career. “In the restaurant industry you wear so many different hats,” he explained. “You have to be adept at marketing, sales, HR, finance and many other business skills.”

Holmes’ description of his childhood does not conjure up images of a boy who would go on to found one of the nation’s largest tech companies. Describing his household as “living off the grid”, Holmes’ love of computers came from his school library, where he would spend hours each day learning to program. At the age of ten, he won an Apple IIc computer in a competition, which at the time cost approximately $3000. With a weekly allowance at the time of $1, Holmes likened this prize to winning a Ferrari.

As Holmes’ household was not connected to the electrical grid, however, his father converted the computer to run off a 12-volt supply of electricity. “I would come home every night, pop the hood on my mom’s car, connect alligator clips to the battery and run the computer off that,” he said. “I would stay up late at night using it until the battery died. My mom would be mad at me the next morning when she came outside to find her car dead.”

In 2000, Holmes moved to Vancouver and taught himself how to build websites. After the collapse of the first company he worked at, he started his own, Invoke Media. Initially building servers and websites for other companies, by 2009 Invoke was increasingly working on social media projects for clients. Realizing that no good system existed for managing multiple social media tools, Holmes set about creating one to fill the gap. The end result, HootSuite, now has nearly four million users and employs 210 people – although Holmes jokes that he has no idea what they all do.

Holmes went on to share his thoughts on the growth of social media. “Over the last few years there has been a debate as to whether social media was a fad,” he said. “With the growth of Twitter and Facebook’s public listing, we now know it is here to stay. It’s the most disruptive form of communication the world has ever seen and is changing the way people communicate. Businesses are now understanding they need to get into social media to shape the conversation their customers are having about them.”

Holmes was then questioned about the impact social media is having on customer service expectations and how HootSuite is reacting to this. “Customers expect businesses to respond to them on social media now, and if you’re not involved in the conversation that is happening about your brand it can get out of hand,” he explained. “Just yesterday we launched a new part of our product called HootSuite Conversations. It allows conversations to go on in the background between team members. You can assign duties, and coordinate to ensure that you are ahead of the conversation happening about your company.”

Good then asked why Holmes had thus far resisted any inclination to sell to a larger company. Holmes explained that he believes the company’s potential is massive, and that he would not know what to do with himself if he sold it. He revealed that in the early days his board had pleaded with him to move the business to Silicon Valley. “I was adamant that it was a strategic benefit to stay in Vancouver. We have access to some of the smartest people in the world here.”

Throughout the interview, Holmes fielded questions from the audience, touching upon his business’ reliance upon other companies success; his view on what the modern CEO is; the evolving operational structure at HootSuite; and whether the next generation of entrepreneurs should attend university – a question Holmes described as “controversial”, given his surroundings at the Beedie School of Business.

Good ended the interview by inquiring what qualities Holmes looks for in a potential employee. “Entrepreneurship is a key for me,” he answered. “As companies grow they lose their entrepreneurial zeal – they start to put systems in place which can hamper creativity. Entrepreneurs get frustrated by this so they will look to break down the systems to keep things flowing. That’s very valuable to me.”

The next CEO to be interviewed as part of the Chief Executives Series will be Brian Scudamore, CEO of 1-800-GOT-JUNK.

For more information about the CKNW Chief Executives Series at the Beedie School of Business, visit http://beedie.sfu.ca/events/

 

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