r o g e r p a t t e r s o n - l a t e r g r a m m e
Roger knows a thing...or two...or 12,000,000 about startups. He is a serial entrepreneur and a true staple in the Vancouver innovation community. We promise you'll get to know Roger as you read this, but you'll get a lesson in 'startup land' - the life of a creator and constant ideator who has put all of his knowledge into Launch Academy (a Vancouver-based startup accelerator) as a founder and mentor and teaching at every university across Canada. Most recently, he is building Latergramme, a platform that allows users to manage their visual content on Instagram.
How is your day going so far?
It’s going fairly well - nothing too exciting, just the hum drum of startup land!
What is a typical day in startup land?
You can always abstract something out to a level of commonality, but it’s honestly something different each and every day. Today I have about twenty tasks of things to get done - I’m the CEO at Latergramme now so it’s a lot of business organizational stuff. I do HR, I just set up a few legal documents to get signed, had to dig up a few employee agreements, I had to come up with a budget for hiring and match it against projected revenues. I also made a competitive landscape matrix for a competition that we’re going into and dealt with a lot of business development stuff. Right now we’re working with a lot of big features, today was GQ and Specialized Bikes. Lot’s of stuff.
I know that you’re also a founder of the startup incubator, Launch Academy. Does Latergramme now take up most of your day?
In regards to Launch Academy, I’ve been more so cutting back on that recently. I still do mentoring over there and I’m still on the board of directors. I also do a lot of education stuff. I teach at universities, an average of one or two days a month that is just straight teaching for eight hours at one of the universities across Canada. The rest is at Latergramme.
I love that you’re bringing all of this knowledge to students through teaching! What is the biggest takeaway that you try to leave them with?
Well, I teach an intense one day entrepreneurship course to Masters and PhD students. It’s taught at pretty much every university in Canada, and I also teach at Queens University, which is where I did my MBA. It’s a week-long lecture course. The main takeaway is twofold. I think that the Western economies in general are becoming more and more startup-based. Innovation is largely now driven by startups, and it’s only going to become more-so. Our economies are switching from these large monolithic aggregators of capital to small startups, who are out-competing them. We’re moving slowly towards a completely startup-based economy. It behooves these people, then, to understand startups because I would say over fifty percent of them will either be starting their own company in the next ten years or working for a startup.
So for these young entrepreneurs who are just coming out of school, what traits do you see amongst them that make them so successful?
It’s tough to say. I think most of the Western world needs to improve its entrepreneurism not just in universities, but in the entire system. There are some good people doing some good things to try to instill that, but our education system is severely lacking in terms of adapting to the changes that have been made in the entrepreneurial world. There are two big things that have happened in the last ten years in terms of startups. One is that now, it’s incredibly cheap to start a company. Incredibly cheap. It’s the cheapest time in the history of the planet to start a company.
If you have an idea, you might as well?
Even if you don’t have an idea you might as well. Just start something. Now is the best time to do it. One example I always give is that the main generator of wealth and change, in general in society, is a product-based corporation. For better or for worse, that is the main vehicle for change and the main vehicle for wealth. Think back to the main type of product-based company thirty years ago. It was physical goods: cars, chairs, bikes, that kind of stuff. Now just think about what you need to start a car company, for example. You need a lot of money to buy a plant, equipment, manufacturing tools, land, distribution, all of that stuff. Could you or I given our current finances start a car company thirty years ago? No. Could anyone in this room? No. Probably no one that you know could. But I ask you, could you start a product based company today?
You could in one day. Most people don’t realize what a fundamental change in our economy and our society that is. We went from almost no one being able to start these companies to almost every person on the planet being able to. It’s huge, this generation has democratized wealth. The one percent is still very real and there’s still a lot of aggregation involved but if you look back to the early 1900s, it was way worse. If you look imperial oil, the worth of one of those companies was worth the same as ten countries. That’s how much wealth they had. If you weren’t born into the right family, then you weren’t rich. You were screwed. Now, kids from poor families on the East side of London are selling their company for twenty million pounds. That was physically impossible twenty years ago. Now it’s just another kid getting rich. Startups have so much power. Back to the two things that are happening: it’s so cheap to start companies now, and startups more than ever can out-compete bigger companies.
How do you see this whole switch affecting Vancouver?
Vancouver is doing a lot better than it used to. That’s one of the reasons I started Launch Academy with Ray. I came back to Vancouver in 2010 from the East Coast. I had started two startups in Vancouver in 2001 and 2007, but it wasn’t a good startup city. Everyone was siloed.
Was any city a good startup city in the early 2000s?
San Francisco, but that was about it. Vancouver was especially bad, there was zero community. The one company I started got up to about three hundred employees but still, no one knew about us and we didn’t know about anybody else. There was no hub. When I came back to the city, I knew I wanted to start another company. There was an accelerator that had been started called Bootup Garage. The idea was to create a space where people could just come in and just hack away on the company they were starting. It was very loosey-goosey. No structure, you just came in and had a desk and that’s about it. It was seminal in that it was the first time that you could go into your workplace and know that the person sitting next to you was also working on a startup. That was the key - you weren’t next to a consultant or a contractor. You were next to an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs have a certain energy and they have the same set of problems, even if they’re doing different things. When you’re in the same environment you can talk to each other and learn from each other. I was in that with Ray and Jesse, the three of eventually started Launch Academy. Bootup Garage shut down because it wasn’t well structured or funded. That was 2011. In 2012, Jesse, myself, and Ray got together and said “There was something special there. Let’s make it better and let’s make it bigger and make it 2.0, even 3.0”. We took our lean startup approach and held a whole bunch of meetups, we wanted to see if there was demand. The meetups were in strange locations and more and more people started coming out. We met in bars, in basements. Then we had to figure out what our price point was, would people be willing to pay $250 for a desk? What kind of space could we lease where desk rental would cover our costs? Jesse is a real smooth talker and he managed to convince Mike Edwards, at GrowLab (another accelerator), to let us have space for free. We just got to see what happened with some IKEA desks and chairs, and the people who had committed at the meetups. There were eleven companies in there a week. Our first person was so keen that he showed up on the first day before we did! At the end of a few months, it was clear that there was something there and we were all working on Launch Academy as volunteers. We weren’t paid at all. It got to the point where we made a gutsy move and took up the head lease that’s at our current space, 9,000 square feet. GrowLab became a tenant of ours!
"Entrepreneurs have a certain energy and they have the same set of problems, even if they’re doing different things"
Turning the tables, were you!
We just kept going. The government promised us all sorts of money and it never came through, it was a total bootstrap situation. We convinced Microsoft that they should be interested in startups and needed space in our space so they launched their first lab here. There were two venture capital firms that moved in. A space was created for people who were just coming up with their idea all the way to companies that were a lot bigger. It was an ecosystem. One of the things that I wanted to change about how the incubators worked was the education aspect of things - adding in mentorship programs and things like that. In the startup world, a lot of incubators are hypocritical because they will tell startups one of the axioms of lean startup methodology - that you should not presume to know the market. You have to test the market. Don’t try to predict the market, let it tell you what it wants. But then in order to apply to the accelerator, you give a business plan and they accept you if they think it’s a good idea. They’re predicting the market through their filtration! Whose to say they’re right? Often times they’re not. We flipped this process on its head and my rule was this: we don’t care what your idea is (it threw a lot of entrepreneurs for a loop because they came in trying to convince us that their idea was great). We told them we didn’t care about their idea, they had to have the means to execute. Whatever they were going to build, they had to have the people to do it. They also had to have some sort of plan, even if it was just drawn on the back of a napkin. They also had to have enough money to last three months. That was it.. Some of the cool stuff that happened at Launch Academy happened because of that. There was a density of entrepreneurial talent in one space and we started getting this reaction chain where an entrepreneur’s company was falling apart but they were sitting next to another entrepreneur and would join that one. It was a really organic process. Some of the best companies that got $20 million valuations out of Launch Academy came from amalgamations of companies. Latergramme is an example of that. It didn’t exist before Launch Academy. I had a geomobile game startup with another co-founder, Ian. At the time, the co-founders Matt and Cindy were in Thinkific. We all formed the company at a hackathon we went to together after meeting at Launch Academy. If we didn’t have Launch Academy, we wouldn’t have Latergramme.
How do you come up with your ideas?
If there is a commonality, it’s pattern recognition. As Wayne Gretzky once said, you don’t move to where the puck is, you move to where the puck is going to be”. If you can apply that to a startup then you’re better off. You don’t want to do what’s hot right now, you want to do what’s going to be hot. I think about how are people changing, how is society changing, how is the economy changing. Are there going to be changes that create an opportunity in six months or a year? You just have to take a shot at it. I’m not always right - I thought Twitter was never going to work. When the iPhone first came out in 2007, the fact that they had GPS and always-on internet showed to me that there were some synergies that people hadn’t totally recognized yet. These things are connected to the real world. That’s where I got the idea for my geomobile game company MapDash which, in hindsight, was a little too early for the market. It was like a personalized ‘Amazing Race’ that you could design using the web. People were just starting to figure out the benefits of geo-mobile. That was before Squarespace and those guys. Snapchat figured it out and timed it right, for example. I was just too ahead of my time for that one!
"You have to be around people with good energy or else you'll just give up"
Do you have any rituals that you do every day to keep yourself sane amongst all of this innovating?
Yes. Every morning I come up with a list - before I get on the computer or anything like that, I come up with a list. I still use paper. I think about what I have to do for the day and prioritize it. I figure out my to-do before I actually start anything. That helps because startups are chaotic and if you don’t have something, it gets tough. I bike every morning too - you have to keep physical fitness going because otherwise, it really does affect your mental health. The number one reason why startups fail is because of loneliness and depression. You have to keep exercising and you have to be social. That’s why places like Launch Academy are important - you have to be around people with good energy or else you’ll just give up.
How did you figure that out?
I did it the hard way, I got the loneliness and depression. My first company, I started with three co-founders and my second company I started by myself in my basement. I thought “I don’t need co-founders because they’re messy and they make dumb decisions”. That was hell- absolute hell. I think I was the most depressed I had ever been in my life. Don’t try to start a company by yourself and stay in your basement, you will go crazy.
When you’re interacting with someone, what is the first thing you notice about them?
The first thing I notice is if they actually listen because a lot of people don’t. A lot of people don’t listen actively and that’s the beginning of so much about a person. You change your life immeasurably just by becoming an active listener. A lot of people either half listener or just wait for their turn to speak. Active listening is not only good for you, but it’s a lot more comfortable for the people talking to you.
What are you passionate about?
I’m passionate about helping other people become entrerpeneurs. It’s funny, I think the entrepreneurial community is the most giving. Entrepreneurs are great at giving back and really want to help each other. I fit in with that group perfectly and that’s why I teach. It’s why there are so many volunteer mentors at Launch Academy.
What is it about the entrepreneurial community that makes people want to do that?
Because starting a company is so much about trial by fire, once you’ve been through it you feel a sense of identity with that community. It’s getting easier but because it was so tough in the past, it becomes part of your identity and part of what you want to share. Group success. Maybe I’m a bit jaded, but there’s so much CSR and social enterprise that doesn’t truly feel genuine. This is a type of helping that comes from such a deep place.
What is your mantra?
I don’t think there are any universal truths. Knowing yourself is probably one of the most worthwhile exercises you can do. For me, “action is everything”. Movement too. My cousin used to say, “Action preceeds motivation”. What that means to me is that a lot of people wait around to start something, but for me, if you start, the motivation will always come.