Dan Martell is the CEO of Clarity.FM, a much beloved Moncton-based startup backed by the likes of Mark Cuban and legendary Canadian investor Boris Wertz. His journey to this, his third run as a startup founder, is about as atypical as it gets. He didn’t attend any prestigious universities or grow up tinkering with technology. Instead, Dan grew up hustling on the streets of Eastern Canada. By the age of 17, he was a drug addict with two felony charges on his record.
We got the chance to sit down with Dan and talk about his life before tech, how much it costs to talk to Mark Cuban and how he’s planning to impact a billion people in the next 10 years.
There was definitely a defining moment when I decided to change things, and that was when I was arrested for a second time. It was after a high speed chase where there were guns and a stolen car involved. I didn’t want to go back to jail, so I told myself that if I get caught, I’m going to pull the gun and let the cops do their thing. But when I went to pull the gun it got stuck. The cops rushed the car and grabbed me. I don’t think my feet hit the ground for 20 feet.
Waking up the next morning and realizing that I should have been dead was the moment where I said to myself, “I’m going to do whatever it takes to change things”. In reality, everything that I went through has shaped who I am today. When you look at the risks I took as a teenager against the ones I taken an entrepreneur, they’re worlds apart. When I hear people talk about taking risks in the Valley, I laugh; the worst case scenario for them is that they get a job at Google.
That’s not a risk in my book.
There’s this great book called The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. One of the themes of that book is that whenever things are difficult, it’s supposed to be that way, because those are moments that help define and create your character. The craziness that I went through as a kid is still a big part of my life, and I still go visit and talk to the kids at the rehab centre I went through, even if it has been 17 years since I’ve gone clean.
I have a friend who’s a year-and-a-half sober now and it has completely changed his life.
Yeah, I love going to talk to those kids, because I learned business on the streets by trying to figure out how to front people’s drugs, negotiating deals and managing cash flow. These are things that, when I talk to 13 or 14 year old kids about them, they laugh at me, but I’m being serious. I tell them to take a bit of the hustle that defines their lives and apply it to things that they’re passionate about that are legal. That’s where magic can happen.
When you were going through all of that is when you discovered programming, right?
Yea, I was 17 and in rehab, and there was a book on Java and an old computer in this workout shed. When I read the book, it just made sense to me. That’s that the weird part. When I did go to class, I was great at school. I remember there was this one time where I wrote a test and got over 100% on it because of bonus points, but the teachers accused me of cheating.
I was always a pretty mathematical and systems thinking kind of person, so when I started reading this book on Java it all seemed to click. I thought, “Okay, if I type in these words, this will happen,” and then I was like, oh, I wonder what will happen if I type it in to a computer. That’s how I got introduced to programming. I then discovered the Internet and I felt like it was the most amazing thing ever.
People still take it for granted, but I remember the first day I created my own website and it occurred to me that if I took this GeoCities page and I sent it to anyone that had access to the Internet, they could see it. That’s such an amazing thing that people take for granted today. We can share whatever we build in real time.
Definitely, I think one of the most important developments is what Google is doing in Africa. They’re bringing high speed internet to a billion people that have never had it before. Their cultures are so different from ours, so I think it will be interesting to see how those cultures change as a result of that access. What sorts of companies do you think are going to come out of that?
When someone that has gone through hardship and has had to fight for their place in the world is given the right tools, you have to pay attention to what they’re about to do. I mean, The Valley is as great as it is because of the people that immigrated there. You look at the Forbes 1000 and it’s people that have had to hustle to create these big, meaningful companies. Looking at Africa, when they’re given the right tools, they’re going to start creating the world’s next big companies.
On that note, what do you think are some of the big opportunities here in Canada that entrepreneurs should be capitalizing on?
I’ve been fortunate to have some great mentors teach me how to look at different markets and figure out where they’re trending towards. Steve Jobs had a really great quote talking about the spring and the fall of technology. Something like the floppy disk, Apple took a look at the technology and decided to drop it from their computers way before anyone else. They didn’t wait for it to go full cycle.
If you look at the things that are happening in the tech market right now—Bitcoin, wearable technology, drones, quadcopters and 3D printing—anyone that has an interest in technology but is not looking at those things is crazy. However, I don’t believe that you can build a company and be on the leading edge just by building quadcopters or 3D printing objects.
There’s so much neat stuff out there that you can capitalize on that not related to mobile or the Internet. That’s just been my approach to building a business and I’ve been incredibly lucky.
There are a bunch of companies in Toronto that are doing great things in wearable tech like Bionym, Thalmic and Kiwi Wearables, which is in the Founder Fuel program.
There are some, but not in the numbers we need to see. We were working with a couple of other Moncton entrepreneurs on some Bitcoin stuff and it quickly became apparent that we’re still at such an early stage with something like Bitcoin. There’s stuff going outside of Moncton, but I believe the city has the opportunity to become the Bitcoin centre of the world. We have direct flights to Montreal, and from there it’s not far to New York, which is the financial capital of the world. We have a precedence for building VLT machines that we sell to Vegas, and so we already have the necessary competency.
I think regions should look at these really disruptive, game changing technologies and adopt them to make themselves world class at them. Building up an expertise in those technologies is something that will help them attract the best people in the world to their region.
You’re building a world class tech company in Moncton—what are the benefits and disadvantages of that?
We moved back here because we decided that we wanted to have a family. The other part of it is that we wanted to be a beacon and show people that you can build a startup anywhere, and I’m proud to say that we’ve done it.
It’s been interesting to do it, but it also means that I’ve got to spend a lot of time on planes. I’m in New York pretty much every week and in San Francisco every seven weeks. I do New York City, San Francisco and Toronto in a rotation. All our investors are in San Francisco, a lot of my friends are there and we still hire people there.
It’s more difficult, sure, but the upsides are definitely huge. There are a lot less distractions here, and the work life balance is better, too. For example, today I got a full day of work in, but I also got to go hiking.
What about finding talent in a place like that? Is that more difficult?
It is and it isn’t. We have people in Moncton, San Francisco and all over the world. The short answer is not really, but they aren’t looking for jobs. Moncton has had two companies grow into billion dollar companies, so there was definitely technical talent to mine here. Certain jobs, like a VP of marketing or a VP of product, are tougher to find, but luckily those are what I do. The biggest benefit is that employees are loyal. They won’t leave you after two years like they do at every other startup.
I mean, we’re seven kilometres from the beach and I have a cottage there. I’ll get up super early and work until 2pm, and then go to the cottage at night. I’ve been doing that for the last three weeks. Also, because of the time zone, I’ve already been working for several hours by the time the west coast gets up.
Can you talk a bit about Clarity?
Clarity was this crazy idea I had after I sold my last company, Flowtown. I started to think about whether there was a way to index everybody’s brains and make it accessible to the people that need it the most.
I looked at a lot of stuff and when I came across the idea of connecting people over the phone to help them move their business along, I realized this was the idea I needed to pursue.
If you look at all the things that have had a huge impact, they’re all networks like Facebook or Skype. That’s why I started this business. In the last 6 months, we’ve now grown to host over 200,000 calls, and we have verified experts like Brad Feld, Eric Ries and Mark Cuban, though Mark charges 10k an hour so he’s priced himself out of the market.
We recently launched Clarity Live, which is a monthly subscription to get access to group-based video Q and A. Users get six sessions a month, so it’s super affordable in comparison to the alternatives.
Clarity is about trying to connect people with the experts on a given subject.
Favourite Productivity Tools?
I’m a big believer in morning rituals and how you start your day. I have ADD and I think ADD is my superpower, but because of it I have to have a very focused morning ritual. The first thing I do is use this book called the 5 minute journal. It asks you what you want to accomplish today. Tim Ferris, who’s a good friend of mine, is such a big fan of it that he bought 1500 copies for his people. There’s also an app called Headspace for meditating that I use.
I use HipChat for collaborating with my team. I’m also a big fan of Evernote, as well as Pocket for reading.
Are you currently reading anything, or have you read something recently that you really enjoyed?
Yeah, I read all the time. My friend Cameron Herald just wrote a book called Double Double that I really loved.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things is a no brainer.
What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t doing what you’re doing now?
I’d still be building tech companies. There’s so many exciting things, but it’d be in and around Bitcoin, quadcopters or 3D printing. I’m going to invest in one of each and there’s one in Montreal that I’ve really been looking at.
If I wasn’t in tech, I’d probably just spend a lot of time talking to the kids, because I still remember this one conversation that someone had with me that helped me. I know the power that 15 minute conversation with someone can have on the direction on a person’s life.
Christian Borys is a contributor to Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter.