Jim Balsillie is the former co-CEO of Research In Motion (RIM, ‘BlackBerry’). He joined the company in 1992. He earned an MBA from Harvard Business School in 1989 and a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Toronto in 1984. I was interested in learning more about Jim Balsillie because of the rise and fall of RIM and of his stance on innovation in Canada.
1. On faith: "Jim Balsillie was never one to believe in fate. Life for him was a journey, not a destination, and the particular stops along the way were always a function of free will. All things could be controlled, Balsillie believed. And then he lost his job as executive vice-president and chief financial officer of a $70M technology contractor based in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. He was 31, and a new father. “I wasn’t scared,” he qualifies. “But I was anxious. When you come from a simple background, trusting how business and your place in it will evolve doesn’t come naturally because you didn’t grow up knowing and understanding it.” But faith in fate doesn’t demand the same kind of attention. And it was fate that took over for Jim Balsillie at this point in his life. As a trial, Balsillie did some work with Waterloo, Ontario-based Research in Motion for a couple of months. At the time, the company was in a financial pinch, and required Balsillie’s decision and his investment dollars to loosen the death grip. “I thought it was a fair investment deal and a reasonable shareholder’s agreement,” Balsillie recalls of the day he said goodbye to control and introduced himself to fate. “So you just close your eyes, put your money in and it disappears in a heartbeat. And there’s no getting it out.”
2. On letting go of control: "Balsillie’s biggest thrill comes with breaking the technical barriers that are constantly being re-adjusted in his business. “It’s a high-growth field that’s always exhilarating and dynamic.” This self-confessed “Type A, triple-plus personality,” who is now a father of two, says his inability to relax is both a blessing and a curse. But he’s grateful to have at least overcome his compunction to control his whole world. “Fate,” he sighs, “sometimes has to be allowed to just run its course.”
3. On the importance of distribution: “The kings in our game are the [telco] carriers. They’re the channel, they’re the big bill, they brand, they avail, they care, they invest: It is their business. There is a sentiment that they are being disintermediated and knocked down the food chain. But the one very unique thing about RIM is our strategic belief that you must empower the carrier and you must catalyze their ascent up the food chain, not accelerate their demise, through disintermediation, down the food chain. We took our customers, gave them to the carriers - the Bells, Rogers and Teluses of the world - and made the carriers our sales channel,” Balsillie says. “That was a big, big shift. We now have the carriers and their thousands of salespeople and points of presence pushing our products, and that’s largely what’s been turbocharging our business over the last two years.”
4. On designing for growth: “We’ve been growing at or close to 100% a year for 14 or 15 years. So this is no different. There are new issues and there are issues that are chronic. We’re designed to grow, we’re designed to scale. You plan for it. You keep adapting. You keep bringing in people who have experience and learn from them. Learn and adapt. If we’re not growing, something’s wrong.”
5. On the attributes of a CEO in the tech sector: “You have to be ready with what comes. You’ve got to be passionate and interested. For instance, I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be an expert on patent reform. And yet now I’m testifying before Congress with the Commissioner of the Patent Office. You also have to stay centred and aware enough to know what you do know and what you don’t know. Thatand knowing not to put yourself in the equation are probably the things that I’m pretty good at.”
6. On compensation and perks: “Money might keep somebody, but I don’t think you get the best out of them just by money. We have all the normal compensation mechanisms, but it’s really part of a broader package. People want a chance to realise themselves ultimately, and realising yourself is many-dimensional. I’m not a big believer in perks, because I tend not to be consumptive by nature. We just keep our heads down innovating BlackBerries and selling them and servicing them . . . Round here we don’t check stock markets. It’s amazing how happy you can be if you’re focused on advancing the company and serving your key constituencies.”
7. On the importance of IP: “Intellectual property (IP) has been on Balsillie’s mind for years. When he ran RIM in the 2000s, he travelled constantly, making sure the company’s IP was locked down and protected in countries that turn a blind eye to patent theft. “Anyone growing a tech company is extensively involved in public policy,” he says. “I learned that.” Intellectual property [IP] works on a principle of restricted rights or constraints—essentially, government-granted monopolies. The government makes the market for ideas and IP. It’s the exact opposite of free trade and of the traditional economy. You only have a market if the government’s there. And you only have a market that advances prosperity if CEOs and the policy community are talking.”
8. On the difference between 19-20th century economic policies and 21th century: “We’re stuck with 19th- and 20th-century economic policies for prosperity, and we use policies for traditional economies and inaccurately jumble them with innovation. Traditional industries, like resources, agriculture and manufacturing, compete on a cost basis. The government’s job is to create infrastructure and really get out of the way and allow the movement of free trade. Innovation economies function in the opposite fashion of free trade. They’re absolutely, diametrically opposed. We have not updated our policy thinking since the 1980s. Getting money for ideas and managing restriction systems is a very precise, technical and surgical exercise. We’ve had a bunch of failed policies and outcomes. When they didn’t work, the narrative of the policy community—unsubstantiated by any facts—was to say Canadians have a lack of fire in the belly. We’re not outward looking. Too complacent. They say all this stuff and they make it up, because their orthodoxy didn’t work out. If you don’t teach CEOs how the game is played, if you don’t mentor them, if you don’t have an ecosystem that supports the game, how do you expect anybody to scale? When you tell your entrepreneurs that it’s a hands-off, free market out there, you’re sending them to a gunfight with a knife.”
9. On innovation versus invention: “The word “innovation” is used in so many contexts that it has almost lost all meaning. When you talk about creating an innovation economy, what are you referring to? Innovation is a very specific thing: the commercialization of ideas across all industries and sectors. It’s a technical, specific, agreed upon economic definition. And we’ve had so much punditry and posturing by people in this country that they’ve taken what is a very specific, technical and surgical concept and made it broad and general. We’ve had catastrophic confusion about innovation for other things. For instance, science and technology is what universities do. That’s invention. Innovation is getting money for ideas. When we confuse those buckets, innovation gets diluted. And we wonder why Canada has had zero growth outputs in innovation over the past 30 years.”
10. On choosing a simple life: "Like millions of others, I too own a “CrackBerry,” as his habit-forming devices are known. Nonetheless, I’m caught in this spell: normal 43-year-old guy who’s been married 15 years to the same woman, has two kids and is juking his way through a quintessentially Canadian weekend. “I make a continuous and deliberate choice to lead a simpler life,” he tells me. It helps that his tastes are simple. “I know what things I like,” he says, then lists them: “Canadian rock, Georgian Bay, golfing when I can.”
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