Jim Estill is a partner at Canrock Ventures an early stage venture capital fund. Jim has a background in Systems Design Engineering from The University of Waterloo where he graduated in 1980. Jim’s entrepreneurial history starts in 1979 when he started EMJ Data; a company he grew for 25 years in the process took it public and sold it off to SYNNEX where he became the CEO. He grew this business out of the trunk of his car to $350,000,000 in sales until it was acquired. Jim continued to manage the acquiring company and grew it to 2 billion in sales. Currently, Jim blogs and has written two books about time management and leadership. He also sits on the board of one of Canada’s most famous technology companies, Research-in-Motion (RIM), the makers of the BlackBerry.
You have one of those teaser background stories that simply make the reader want to know more. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone claim 99 consecutive quarters of operating profit. That is truly impressive. So I have to bite, you started EMJ Data while still studying at Waterloo. I am just guessing here: you have a very technical background and saw an opportunity to make some money and went for it. Could you tell us the story in more depth? What motivated you to start? When did you realize that you ‘made it’?
You are right, I am an engineer (although perhaps not a real technical one like the ones that design airplanes). I did not see a big opportunity to make money when I started EMJ. Rather, I loved the technology and products and knew I wanted to work for myself.
Money is a byproduct of doing something you love.
As far as realizing when I have made it. Never. I think when that happens we lose our edge. All I keep doing is setting higher and higher goals.
Did you have a Steve Wozniak or Paul Allen with you? The conventional wisdom is you need a team, who was your team (formally or informally) and what made it work? If you were a single founder could you tell us the unique challenges of being a single founder and how you overcame them
I worked with my brother, Glen from about a year after I started. He is a genius. Glen is more conservative than I am so his answer was always no and I had to use logic and persuasion to convince him to go along with anything. This helped us get things right.
And we hired a great team of people. Any substantial company is not one person.
You don’t list any formal training in management or business. You are an engineer by training. Some of the most famous companies these days are engineering dominated companies (Google, Honda, etc) and some engineering/management theories have even been brought into startups (lean methodology). How has your engineering background influenced you as an executive? Did you ever go to business school or how did you learn business skills?
I did not go to business school although I did take a few electives in university. I am a constant learner though and deliberately studied the things I thought I needed to know about.
You’ve written books on time management and leadership. I can’t reasonably expect you to give us everything in such a short interview, but if you could define what you call ‘time leadership’ and tell us why it’s important for a startup?
Leadership is about direction and effectiveness – about doing the right things. Management is about efficiency and doing things right. In my opinion, leadership comes before management. Hence the title – Time Leadership.
As far as time being the critical ally and critical enemy in start up – it is. Clearly success rests on spending time on the right things and being efficient as well.
Time Management has been my competitive advantage.
You’ve done everything in terms of running a company: starting up, growth, going public, acquisitions and being acquired (and I am sure there are many other major events I am forgetting). You were in charge of EMJ Data from beginning and even took over as CEO of the company that acquired you (SYNNEX). I recently read an article Eric Schmidt wrote about the IPO experience of Google and how they stayed true to their beliefs even after going public. There seems to be this belief that these major events change companies. Did you see fundamental shifts in the company at each stage? How do you manage these changes? Are they inevitable and what are the biggest consequences?
Change is inevitable so I like to influence it. I am a growth junkie because I think it is more fun. It also give more opportunities to people. It is also the easiest way to drive efficiencies into a business. It is much easier to grow by 20% in sales and only add 10% more staff and cram them into the same space etc.
Company strategy needs to change as growth happens. Process needs to change as well. I am a big believer in continuous improvement so always polishing our systems. I am not sure I would call the shifts fundamental though. Then tend to be incremental but over time become major.
As I mentioned earlier, I study. I studied what I would have to do and be to be at the next level.
You are now a venture capitalist (working with some of our previous interviewees: Karma411 and General Sentiment). You describe CanRock Ventures as an early stage venture fund with a hands-on approach. Could you tell us more about your investment style and how you actually participate?
We actually start companies from 0 and run them. We hire the CEO. We incubate them then as they grow, let them move out on their own. So much more hands on than most other VCs that I know.
In some cases we do make investments but then only where we have significant value that we can add.
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