Rushing between meetings in Los Angeles on a late October morning, Ottawa’s CEO of the Year paused to reflect on an opportunity lost.
It was around the turn of the millennium, and Bruce Linton – an ambitious young businessman who’d helped found tech firm CrossKey Systems and take it public a few years earlier – was president of a fledgling startup called webHancer.
The software-as-a-service venture helped clients build better, faster web pages, focusing on technical aspects of the Net such as internal link structures. Its founders were so focused on addressing what they saw as a pressing need, they failed to realize they were sitting on a gold mine of information about things such as who was surfing the internet and the sites they were looking at.
“What we didn’t pay attention to was we were generating at that time probably one of the world’s leading data selections on what people do and act online and how they can be better served with content they want based on product clicks and follow-through behaviours,” said Linton, who is better known today as the co-founder and CEO of Smiths Falls cannabis producer Canopy Growth.
“We were really focused on fixing the internet, but I would say that, you know, some of our customers saw what we doing in an entirely different light. And we didn’t necessarily listen to them or think about it in the way they wanted, which was actually a much greater value proposition than fixing why the internet was annoying.”
One of the firm’s clients, Microsoft, did see the potential in the data webHancer was mining, and bought the company’s IP and assets in 2001.
Linton, meanwhile, moved on to other ventures, including clean-tech firm Clearford Industries. It took another decade or so, but he eventually found his mojo with medical cannabis producer Tweed, now the recreational and medical pot powerhouse known as Canopy. At roughly the same time he entered the cannabis space, Linton also became chief executive of software firm Martello Technologies, which went on to become the city’s fastest-growing company under his watch.
Yet the lessons Linton learned from his experience with webHancer remain embedded in his psyche.
Building a successful company, he said, comes down to “constantly reviewing all the opportunities and the actions you’re taking. That’s how I’d phrase it. Because they change every day.”
Failure, of course, is inevitable in business, and even the most accomplished entrepreneurs can look back on their careers and wish they had a few do-overs. At 52, Linton understands that better than ever.
“If (a venture) is successful, your IQ didn’t go up, and if it didn’t work, your IQ didn’t go down,” he said. “You’re going to have some things that don’t work when you try big things. But hopefully, you learn from these things.”
Indeed, Linton’s career trajectory from Molson beer rep while attending Carleton University (“the best student job ever”) to one of the region’s most recognizable – not to mention quotable – chief executives was not exactly of the hockey-stick variety. And he’s not shy to admit it.
“I don’t know anyone who got to where they are on a simple linear basis and it all worked perfect ... The stuff that (failure) teaches you is the more important stuff."
“I don’t know anyone who got to where they are on a simple linear basis and it all worked perfect,” he said. “The stuff that (failure) teaches you is the more important stuff. I don’t think we’d be having this conversation, or I don’t think Martello or Canopy would be where they are, if you don’t get hit in the head a few times with things that don’t work.”
With weed now legal in Canada for recreational use, Linton must figure out how to maintain Canopy’s position of dominance in a global market that is surely going to see more producers in more countries enter the fray as the trend toward legalization spreads.
In the short term at least, Linton is betting that the medical cannabis market will offer the most lucrative path to growth.
Canopy and its subsidiaries have already invested millions in medical research and are getting set to launch clinical trials on both humans and pets in an effort to better determine how cannabis can relieve conditions such as anxiety and insomnia.
“Medical is the governing model that’s gonna sweep the globe,” Linton said. “We’re already seeing it in about 30 countries. Which means that if you have intellectual property and proven outcomes with medical, as you enter those countries, no one can say that there’s no medical evidence. The medical market could be quite a lot bigger than the rec market over the next three years, because first (countries) have to do the medical and then they might add the party. It’s our big spend. It’s our big build. It’s a serious deal.”
Canopy has a first-mover advantage, but that will only take it so far. Unfazed, Linton said he’s ready for the challenges ahead.
“When I started this, there were like really two countries at it and a couple thinking about it,” he noted. “There are more than 30 now. It’s happening in Europe, it’s happening in South America, it’s happening in the Australia region. We’ve got to go fast to keep up with the globalization so we maximize the future value of the company.”
Linton, who lives in Kanata with wife Heather and sons Adam and Max, said his overnight success that was 25 years in the making couldn’t have come at a better time.
"It's just an accumulation of experience. I'm a slow learner, I guess."
“I think in some ways, it’s much easier to do these things at 52 than it was at 42. It’s just an accumulation of experience. I’m a slow learner, I guess.”
Linton will receive the CEO of the Year honour at the Best Ottawa Business Awards Nov. 16 at the Westin Ottawa.