Hootsuite founder and CEO, Ryan Holmes, has a talent for picking a good wave and riding it all the way out. When he started the company in 2008, social media wasn’t as recognized for its potential. Seven years later, Hootsuite, based in Vancouver BC, is the most widely used platform for managing social media. This week, Holmes talked with FounderDating about growing up on a rural farm in Canada, social media strategy, building a startup ecosystem and company a little bit differently.
It’s interesting, coming from a childhood with very little media in your life at all to finding it weird if someone doesn’t engage with social.
I guess it’s a bit of a contrast. I grew up off the grid – with kerosene lamps and a well. I had a pretty remote childhood and my parents get a giggle out of thinking about me playing with kerosene lamps as a kid and now running a tech company. One of the things about my growing up is that lights and the magic of electricity has always fascinated me since I was a kid. Computers were an extension of that and I always had a big draw to them and the amazing power they had. I’ve always found that interesting.
You started Hootsuite in 2008, when social media was still considered a fad by a lot of people. What do you think has been the biggest change in the past 7-8 years around social media and marketing that’s made people take it seriously?
It’s definitely gone from the dorm room to the boardroom. Back when we were getting going, a lot of people still had big doubts about Twitter—Is it relevant? Is it here to stay? Do people care about what you’re eating for lunch? That has absolutely changed. The biggest piece that’s given it credibility as an industry and a medium has been the mass adoption by consumers. Ultimately, smart marketers know they have to go where the consumers are, and people are living in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, all of these other mediums.
That is a huge societal trend that has absolutely held true.
What do you think about people being told to “wash” their social media to apply for jobs?
I see a lot of posts on how to prepare your social media when applying for a job, and a lot of career prep advice to university students is to go hide all of your photos. Well, I’m kind of weirded out if people don’t have a social media presence. It’s obviously the industry I’m in, but I go right to Facebook or LinkedIn to see what a candidate’s up to, and if there’s nothing there, it probably means they’re not a good fit for us. If somebody’s putting out something like xenophobic or oppressive views, that’s obviously a problem. But if you see people partying, for instance—people party, surprise surprise. I don’t expect people to check their personality at the door.
What’s are the pros and cons of running Hootsuite in Vancouver versus a more tech-centric city like San Francisco?
Vancouver’s been great to us, and we’re proud to call it home. We’ve been able to scale up to almost 1,000 employees in our city, and attract the best and the brightest to come work with us. We live in the same time zone as San Francisco and are a 2-hour flight away, so we’ve got some great executives and other people who do make the commute. It’s a really nice blend—I think the best of both worlds.
There can be a lot of distraction in Silicon Valley, and one of the things we were able to do in our early stage was keep everybody focused on what we’re building versus what’s going on with our neighbors.
People kept their heads down and were working on building this common vision and we were able to succeed because of that.
Are you building a Maple Syrup Mafia as you’ve mentioned?
The thing that I’m most interested in is building an ecosystem. To build an ecosystem you need talent, capital and ideas. The talent comes with the ideas and the capital brings the money to pay the bills. I think we are doing that and that’s pretty exciting.
In previous interviews you mention being a college dropout fairly frequently. If you were talking to a young entrepreneur who was considering doing that now, what would you tell them?
First, I never want to apply my life to other people—everybody’s got to make their own decisions with regard to this. It’s a difficult and nuanced conversation where everybody has different positions and criteria. For me it was the right decision, but was very hard to make, as I think it is for most people. As an entrepreneur and a human, I’m a very experiential learner, so getting out in the workforce and building and doing and being an entrepreneur was the most important thing. But for other people maybe it’s not the right choice.
What are some pointers you’d offer for entrepreneurs outside of the Bay Area considering whether or not to move?
I would tell them to take advantage of the benefits offered where they’re at. It may be more difficult to find employees, but once you have them, retention is often easier to do. In Canada we had access to grants, which were helpful to us— that may be the case in other markets. Every market has its strengths and weaknesses, so try to play to the strength of the market you’re in.
What’s the next big wave or shift in social (media) that you’re excited about?
Video is huge and growing. Image-based stuff obviously has big opportunities as well. The next piece I think comes down to building relationships with customers; really understanding what’s going on with your customer in every aspect of your relationship with them is going to be a bigger part of it. People have talked about CRM for years, and ultimately that’s become synonymous with a sales tool, but I think customer relationships and social are really going to blend in a big and important way.
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