Reality vs the Hollywood version of one Ottawa founder's story

Joelle Parenteau
XPR founder Joelle Parenteau. Photo provided.

XPR founder Joelle Parenteau recently took up blogging. In a pair of recent posts, she contrasted the glamorous, "Hollywood version" of her startup story with the more honest but far less romantic story of feeling lost after a personal crisis and having to rediscover which way was up.

With her permission, Techopia shares her two stories below. You can find more of Parenteau's blogs here.

The Hollywood version

I needed a change of scenery. So I had a brilliant idea: move to Los Angeles. Why not right? I bought a one-way plane ticket, booked an Airbnb, and was ready for a new adventure.

Every morning I would wake up, go to Runyon Canyon, and run in the Hollywood Hills. I always stopped at the top to gaze across at the Hollywood sign and out over the massive expanse that is the city of Los Angeles all the way out to the ocean — with my iPod blasting City of Angels by Thirty Seconds to Mars. So surreal. It gave me goosebumps every time.

I was determined to learn to surf, this had long been high up on my bucket list. But I definitely didn’t want to settle for the lame commercialized lessons. I was in LA after all — surrounded by surfer dudes — surely one of them could show me? I wanted the real deal. But it wasn’t so simple.

Fortunately I had nothing but time, so I resorted to wandering the streets until one day I met a surfer dude happy to share his favourite hobby. I had the most incredible experience — he knew all the best spots, was a super cool dude, and had great tips and stories to share.

"People I hadn’t heard from in years sent messages asking how the hell I was doing all this. They were jealous. I felt guilty. I believe everyone should have access to this. I found my mission."

And not only was the surfing amazing, but this led to many other unique experiences: riding a motorcycle down the 101 into Malibu, shooting at the LA gun club (after almost accidentally walking through Skid Row), and much more. You couldn’t ask for more authentic experiences — with the coolest, realest, people in LALAland.

When I shared this on Facebook (proof of life for my mother not to worry) the response shocked me: people I hadn’t heard from in years sent messages asking how the hell I was doing all this. They were jealous. I felt guilty. I believe everyone should have access to this. I found my mission.

I was in LA for about five months — during which it rained for a grand total of about 30 minutes (aka drought) and was pretty much 95 F and sunny every single day. I loved it. But I knew I could only stay in the US for one more month before getting in serious trouble so I started thinking about Visas.

I decided to fly home for a quick visit to see friends and family and ended up crashing at my buddy Craig’s place (PageCloud Founder & CEO). He kept bugging me to tell him what I was up to — I mentioned I had this crazy idea but I didn’t want to tell him because I knew he was a tough critic and I assumed he would crush my startup dreams.

Finally I caved and told him, bracing for the worst. His response caught me completely off guard: ‘You have to build this’. Wait. What? He told me I could stay as long as I needed as long as I worked on this — and mentored me every evening after working at PageCloud all day. Which makes for a funny story when people ask me how I found my advisors…

Then I met Daniel (Shopify Co-Founder) for the first time. He generously agreed to a 30 minute coffee. We talked for 3 hours. When he asked what I do I told him my idea. He asked if I was fundraising. Uh ya…? I mean, yes, totally fundraising. As of now. He said he was interested in investing on one condition: I build this in Ottawa — not run away to LA again. Ok fine.

So I just left my stuff in LA and raised a quarter million dollars with nothing but a dream. XPR was born.

Kinda sounds like a movie screenplay doesn’t it? I go to LA and magically figure out what to do with my life (so cliche). I have a startup idea that gets funded. Wow, how inspiring. At least that’s what I tell people — cause everyone wants a blockbuster origin story.

Thing is, there’s two sides to every story. That’s the Hollywood version—ironically literally straight from Hollywood.

Next time I’ll tell you the real story.

Based on a true story

This is the other side of the Hollywood Version of my story. And though all true — it simply wasn’t the whole story. So now I’ll add a few of the key details I left out.

After just two years my marriage was falling apart. We weren’t right for each other and never would be. I asked for a divorce. It was by far the hardest, most gut wrenching, and heart breaking decision I’ve ever had to make. I needed to get away. So I ran away — to Los Angeles.

Arriving in the so called City of Angels I had nothing and knew no one. I wasalone and felt utterly lost. This was way outside my comfort zone. I’d read this quote somewhere: “Outside your comfort zone is where the magic happens.” Kinda corny I know. Yet here I was putting that theory to the test.

I woke up every morning wondering the same thing: what the hell am I doing? Before I could psych myself out too bad I’d throw on my running shoes and head out into the Hollywood Hills to distract myself.

The very first time I got to the top of Runyon Canyon and looked out at the view I was more awestruck then I’d ever been before. How in the world did I end up here? I realized just how hopelessly lost I’d become — and somehow simultaneously felt a strange sense of hope.

It’s a fairly steep climb up Runyon Canyon which on the flip side makes for a pretty precarious descent. Most people hike it. Few people run it. Especially the way down. I knew it was risky. People warned me, told me I was crazy. I did it anyway. It gave me goosebumps every time I felt my shoes skid and almost lose traction — it made me feel alive. Somehow I always made it down in one piece. It was a very effective mind clearing exercise.

JoelleParenteau2

I was desperate to try surfing. I needed the challenge; to prove something to myself. The typical tame lessons with big boards on little waves wouldn’t cut it; I stubbornly insisted on the shorter board and taller (up to 10ft) waves.

Mother nature kicked my ass. It was wonderfully humbling. At one point I remember being under water long enough to wonder which way is up?, should I panic?, and how long can I actually hold my breath? Yet I always came out of the water with the biggest stupidest smile plastered on my face. Ha! I didn’t drown — go me!

After days and days of hopelessly wandering Hollywood Blvd and the Venive Boardwalk I was lucky enough to find and get to know a guy who would show me unreal experiences you would typically never have access to. I was so grateful for these opportunities, but also I felt guilty. Why just me? Why not you too? Finally my life re-found some sense of purpose.

I lived out of a suitcase for 5 months. When I flew back to visit home I realized I no longer had a home in Ottawa: my ex got the house and condo in the divorce — as long as he didn’t touch my first business (which I may talk about in a future post if anyone’s interested). Fortunately my awesome buddy Craig (PageCloud Founder) said I could crash at his place.

Craig was the best mentor I could ask for. Daniel (Shopify Co-Founder) wanted to invest. So I prepped a pitch deck and met more investors. Everyone I shared with loved the idea. It was going so well!

One guy loved it so much he suggested he help me by rounding up a bunch of investor buddies of his. Sure, why not? I met each of them and they all loved the idea. This was so easy — life is so good! Or not.

At one point I remember being under water long enough to wonder which way is up?, should I panic?, and how long can I actually hold my breath?

One of the ‘buddies’ started to question my ability to lead: I was young and only had so much experience. At the last moment before the round was set to close, he demanded we change the terms — to give them more equity and control. And if I didn’t accept he, and all the buddies, would pull out.

Another big scary decision. Walk away from a quarter million dollars and hope like hell I can raise it again or get into a business marriage with men I couldn’t trust. Luckily I’d learned something from my failed marriage. And I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. Also, I don’t do take well to bullies. So in more ‘professional’ terms I told them to fuck off — admittedly with tears in my eyes cause at the end of the day I’m still human.

For the next week or so I woke up every morning feeling like I was going to throw up — and no, I wasn’t pregnant. I was thinking of how I’d wasted months of valuable time that might just ruin my chances at bringing this startup (different kind of baby) to life.

Thank god I still had Daniel. He promised he’d still invest — even offered to put in more if needed. But I still needed more. Then a true friend and very special human being named Jeff stepped in to help me find a couple more investors. And with one more guy I met at a poker home game I finally managed to close our first round: I had to raise a quarter million not once — but twice. Stressful as hell.

So yes, from the outside looking in I was living the dream — and in many ways I did. But it wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies. And it sure as hell wasn’t comfortable or easy.

If there’s one thing I truly believe it’s that everything happens for a reason. And it’s making the hard decisions that have led me to exactly where I am today. And there’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be.