Opinion: Entrepreneurial lessons from a skateboard startup

Like many entrepreneurs, Ottawa-based ProjectSpeaker founder Pierre Bisaillon started early.

As a teenager growing up in North Bay, he was into skateboards. Like most 15-year-olds, his eyes were bigger than his wallet. Flipping through skateboard magazines, he noticed the fine print stating “Dealer enquiries welcome” and asked his father what it meant.

His dad put it into terms that immediately got his son’s attention: “It means if you own a store, you can become a dealer and get $300 boards for $150.”

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That sounded appealing to the young Mr. Bisaillon, so he opened a store in his parents’ garage called The Big Wheel Skateboard Shop. How did he come up with that name? His dad kept asking him, “So you think you are a big wheel now?” and it stuck.

Mr. Bisaillon used $50 of his McDonald’s earnings to print Big Wheel letterhead and envelopes (with a logo designed for him for free by a high school friend) and sent out 150 of them to dealers, some of whom approved the new “store.”

Next, Mr. Bisaillon created a Big Wheel catalogue by gluing cool pictures taken from magazines into a scrapbook. He went from skater hangout to skater hangout, selling boards for $300. He took cash deposits of 50 per cent so he was never out of pocket any money. It wasn’t long before Mr. Bisaillon had to quit his McDonald’s job to work full time at Big Wheel.

Mr. Bisaillon studied computer science at York University, spending two dreary summers debugging COBOL, a programming language. The experience made him realize that he would have to find an alternative to a career as a coder. He chose instead to apply to the RCMP, a move of which his father approved.

Around the same time, the university kicked him out of residence for operating another business from his dorm room. This time it was a stock image agency, an enterprise that indulged another of Mr. Bisaillon’s passions: photography.

Rather than joining the RCMP, he went to Toronto after graduating to open an office and work on his agency full time. Over the next seven years, he built relationships with magazine publishers who bought images as well as with photographers, many of whom – like most artists – were poor. After seven years representing his stable of creatives, he sold the agency to Tony Stone Worldwide (now called Getty Images) for $250,000 and joined them on a three-year contract.

Mr. Bisaillon now possessed great relationships with buyers and a virtually unlimited product inventory courtesy of Tony Stone, who became an important influence on Mr. Bisaillon’s life.

Mr. Stone was so impressed with the work Mr. Bisaillon had done with Tony Stone Canada that he asked him to go to New York City and open an office. The only thing Mr. Bisaillon knew about the Big Apple had come from watching the odd episode of NYPD Blue on TV. Nevertheless, under Mr. Bisaillon’s management, the office went from no revenues to $10 million in sales in 18 months.

I asked Mr. Bisaillon to share the key to his repeatable sales success.

“Look, we had the product – the most beautiful set of images ever created. But some of the staff in some of our offices felt that they were better than our clients. All I did was teach them to build relationships instead of sales.”

His next stop was working with a Tony Stone competitor, Pictor. It was there that a fateful intra-company newsletter arrived via e-mail from the company’s Munich office. A picture of a woman was on its cover, and within minutes Mr. Bisaillon was on the phone with the firm’s London office asking about her. He learned the woman’s name was Sylvie, and she worked in the Munich office.

By coincidence, Sylvie came to New York City on vacation and decided to check out Pictor’s New York office. Mr. Bisaillon was only too happy to show her around. Next, they drive 15 hours together to North Bay to celebrate Christmas with his parents. Three months later, they were married.

While living with Sylvie in Munich, Mr. Bisaillon launched a tech business. Backed by Frankfurt-based venture capitalists, the startup created and distributed PDF versions of newsstand magazines. The business was a success and was ultimately sold to Media Professionals.

The couple moved to Canada, where Mr. Bisaillon experimented with several startup ideas before launching ProjectSpeaker.com, which markets professional speakers to event planners. He understood that a great deal of value can be generated by creating platforms for industries where information is highly asymmetrical.

“When you bring transparency to an industry, top performers – some of whom may not be great marketers – can rise to the top.”

It’s free for event planners and keynote speakers to create a profile on ProjectSpeaker’s platform. More than 3,000 speakers (full disclosure: I’m one) as well as 15,000 event planners and 17 speaker bureaus have signed up for the service so far. ProjectSpeaker makes money from businesses supplying venues, audio-visual equipment, ground transportation, food and beverages, media relations services and marketing – they pay to get access to relevant RFPs generated by the system.

It’s a multibillion-dollar industry, and there are large players already in place. But ProjectSpeaker’s differentiating value is that the company is not building a directory like its competitors. It is building a community.

“Tony Stone instilled in me that we are here to serve our clients. If we help them become more successful, we will become more successful. That’s our only focus,” Mr. Bisaillon said.

Bruce M. Firestone is the founder of the Ottawa Senators and a broker at Century 21 Explorer Realty Inc. Follow him on Twitter @ProfBruce.

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