John founded D2L in 1999, at the age of twenty-two, while attending the University of Waterloo. D2L is a global software company that believes learning is the foundation upon which all progress and achievement rests. A strong believer in community involvement, John devotes both his personal and business efforts to supporting young entrepreneurs who are developing and applying technology to improve society worldwide.
He was appointed to the Governing Council of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Member (Entrepreneurs’ Circle) of the Business Council of Canada, Business Higher Education Roundtable, Past Chair of the Board of Communitech, and is a board member of Canada’s National Ballet School. John was awarded the Meritorious Service Cross, the EY Entrepreneur of the Year (Ontario for Software and Technology), Young Alumni Achievement Medal from University of Waterloo, and Intrepid Entrepreneur of the Year in Waterloo Region Hall of Fame.
John graduated from the University of Waterloo with an Honours B.A.Sc. in Systems Design Engineering, with First Class Honours and an option in Management Sciences.
Where did the idea for D2L come from?
In 1999, I was in third-year engineering at the University of Waterloo when one of our professors challenged us to solve an open-ended problem. It took our team a month to land on the one problem we could agree to work on — which was re-inventing crutches.
That challenge got me thinking about an even bigger challenge. I asked myself what was the problem that I could solve that would have the biggest impact on the world? The answer was: transforming the way everyone learns.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I don’t think I have a typical day. It’s everything from meeting with clients, flying to places to meet clients, video calls, internal meetings, carving out enough time to do strategy, reviewing the business operations, you name it.
What’s consistent is a demand for attention to keep moving things forward, listening carefully to those using our software to learn, making key decisions, making sure that we keep teams aligned, and making sure the communication is flowing across the organization. Plus, working on things that allow us to build a more scalable company.
How do you bring ideas to life?
When we were a start-up, it was quite easy. You hammer out an idea with the folks around the table and then you just go off and build it.
Today, instead of me being top-down, we work across teams, doing things like organizing vision sessions where we get the right folks together. Working collaboratively, the team can craft a better vision than I would have alone or a better idea than I would have come up with alone. It takes more time and takes more effort, but it drives better engagement and better buy-in. All of this allows us to build the next generation of leadership and — ultimately — helps us solve the big challenges that come as you scale your company.
What’s one trend that excites you?
The future of work. Working with our higher education clients and our corporate clients, and crafting innovations to help them do the right things to build the talent they will need for the future, durable skills for people, and doing it in a lifelong manner.
We are building the learning platform that enables this future work to happen. And that’s part of what gets me excited in the day.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Trying not to ask too much. Trying to have people focus on the one thing that’s going to really make a big difference in their personal development, and that is going to make as big an impact on our clients. It’s the discipline to demand focus versus a sheer volume of things that you can accomplish during the day.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would put a lot more focus on really truly understanding product marketing and the importance of very clearly defining your value. How you provide value to that equation, and how to communicate that your solution is really aligned to do that in a better way than any other company can in the world.
Also, lay off the Doritos.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
I think that financial models for education where 3rd parties pay for the education of a student up front in return for a percentage of their salary later or to feed their advertising engine – treats the student as a product. Education should be the product, never the student.
Most of the folks I talk to have a different opinion — and believe it eliminates a barrier to education for some people. The debate around the office is spirited on this point.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Be thankful. I am thankful for our customers. I’m thankful for our team. I’m thankful for everything we’ve had the privilege of doing. I’m thankful for the opportunities that I get.
I would recommend being thankful as much as you possibly can.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
One strategy that we’re trying to lean in on right now is what I call a hub strategy, which is growing our business through helping our clients grow their business. We can help clients build relationships with more clients and all of a sudden you get some real velocity, real scale with your business.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I made a mistake by not trusting my gut and pushing harder for filing patents early in D2L development. This led to a situation where we didn’t have the tools needed to have a stronger defence in a patent war with our main competitor. It was a costly diversion of resources during a high-growth stage, which held us back. It took three and a half years to emerge fully vindicated.
In hindsight, we’re proud that we took the hard road and stuck to our principles, despite the challenges. In the end it has made us a stronger company as we learned new skills during this particular challenge.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I sometimes meet folks who think there are no problems left to solve in the world. There are literally millions of problems to solve.
I’d say, come up with innovative ways to do a power storage, leveraging effectively free or paid power at nighttime and return it to the grid in the daytime.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
A big bouquet of flowers for my wife.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
It’s the humans in the equation that have been making me productive. It’s when people very clearly articulate a problem and go off and come up with a very creative solution to it. That’s a huge productivity gain for me personally. More so than I see with any app.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
“Built to Last” by Jim Collins. Not enough businesses are built to last anymore. Lots are built to sell – almost every main competitor in my space sold to someone. And there needs to be more of us taking a long-term view on the market and building companies that are going to be here for decades, not years.
What is your favorite quote?
Marshall McLuhan: “Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools and yesterday’s concepts.”
- Relationships are key as you grow your business. Start-ups are all-hands-on-deck. To scale a business, you need to build a team of talented people you can turn problems over to, knowing they will do their best to solve them.
- Grow your business by helping your clients grow their business.
- The best form of communication is learning, and the future of work is lifelong learning.
- Be thankful, every single day.
- Doritos are super addictive.
Carlyn runs the day-to-day publishing operation here at ideamensch and interacts with our awesome customers and entrepreneurs. She is likely editing this with a cat on her lap.