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Wilson is a builder. A people builder. An organization builder and a community builder.
In addition to being a serial entrepreneur and 4x tech start-up founder, Wilson has an extensive background in mergers & acquisitions, capital markets, venture building and multi-generational experience in agriculture.
Wilson is also actively involved in the community through his roles on multiple advisory and community boards, including KidSport Calgary and Alberta IoT (Internet of Things).
Catch up with Wilson at:
Okay, so Wilson Acton is our guest today. And Wilson is a builder. He’s a people builder, an organization builder and a community builder. He’s been a serial entrepreneur and a four time tech startup founder. So like many of us that are here today, Wilson has many things on the go.
There’s one commonality between all of the different folks that we’ve had in our programs and that we tend to work with. We all have multiple pieces on the go. So it’s actually kind of funny to watch. Wilson has an extensive background in mergers and acquisitions. And Wilson, if I remember correctly, you’re actually a lawyer by trade, correct?
Yeah. That’s kind of what I remembered. So you worked in mergers and acquisitions, capital markets venture building, and somewhere along the way, discovered that being an entrepreneur was much more exciting.
He’s very involved in the community in Kidsport, in Calgary, and Alberta’s Internet of Things, which he’ll definitely have to tell us about. So without further ado, Wilson, please introduce yourself and just kind of give us a little bit of story. How do you go from being a lawyer wearing a suit to mergers and acquisitions to tech? Like, how the heck did that happen?
Yeah, it’s, uh, you know, much like life. It’s a winding path, you know, pleased to be here. They are me. On today. Yeah, it’s, you know, I actually recall, when I was departing my law practice so I was a, you know, a partner with one of the biggest law firms in the in the country had been there for just well, actually two weeks shy of a decade and had done all these transactions across a host of industries from infrastructure, oil, and gas, satellites, even car dealerships, you know, you kind of you name it. We bought and sold and financed it.
And, I was having a good conversation with a friend of mine, who was also a client, and it was gonna be a tough conversation to say, you know, hey, I know, we’ve worked together all these years, but I’m out, I’m leaving you. So you know, best of luck. And, and he said, Well, what took you so long? As somebody? I said, What are you talking about?
And he said, Well, the only reason we like working with you, we’re not the only reason but what the main reason was, you are an entrepreneur that just happened to be sitting in the lawyer’s chair, and you brought the legal tools to it.
And so, you know, a lot of people say, Wow, what an about shift to leave law, you know, big law, and in the end get into, you know, the entrepreneurial game, and the reality was, it was actually kind of big law. That was the odd thing out in the middle, you know, before law.
I was farming in the Moose Jaw area, my first degrees in agriculture from the U of S. You know, been, you know, grew up there and been in agriculture there on both sides of my family for I’m actually the fifth generation and through that, you know, start spun up a number of entrepreneurial ventures, including, while I was in law school, I started a construction company in Calgary, so you mentioned, you know, multiple things on the go, I was swinging a hammer in Calgary, you know, nights and between classes, you know, going to law school, at least most of the time, and still trying to farm in Moose Jaw. So we were covering some ground.
Oh, no kidding. Holy. That’s a Yeah, that’s having a ton on the go.
So sucker for punishment.
So okay, so you sit down with this client? And you’re like, Yeah, we’re, I’m leaving law. Did you totally leave behind? Or did you still do some practice? Are you just totally like, where did you go? When did you leave law?
So yeah, when I, when I left law, stepped into the, you know, first tech company, you know, in a, in a rapid series of four, and that business by the name of whipcord, it was in the data center space.
And so I actually joined, what were clients, they had actually a business that helped them exit a business, probably about two years earlier, and they were getting to restart. And so, you know, they were focused on data centers and, you know, a really interesting market. There’s the huge kind of Google’s telco, the telecoms and Amazons of the world.
But like, in a lot of things, there’s kind of this space in the middle, you know, the small players and and, you know, is there an opportunity to own a pretty interesting asset there and grow it and scale it and so that the goal behind that business originally, actually was to be very acquisition focused.
So buy a lot of data centers, think of it like a real estate play where, you know, people just keep buying more real estate and rent it out. It’s the same kind of premise, just our real estate was digital. Yeah. And so, you know, you never really leave the last stuff behind, you know, as part of what I’m saying is you bring those tools you bring those skills, you know, Whether it’s trying to buy and sell businesses, trying to build them, you know, form, you know, big commercial relationships.
Law is these, you know, tech law practice around m&a, you know, is really kind of strategy negotiation, you know, how do you kind of put these pieces together? How can we create wins. And so, you know, very transferable into the, into the business sphere, and, and that, you know, first business in the datacenter space, which we’ve since accident, you know, merged into another business, but that’s now called whipcord. Edge, you know, very, very interesting on where it’s going, you know, following that same directory, continuing to acquire, and, you know, and then you just kind of keep building up on, on those, those tools.
So we were first introduced to you by someone else who met with us, Scott Love, and he has a business here in Western Canada as well. So Scott refers to you as a business coach, then you’re a lawyer, then you’ve worked in these tech startups. So, like, helped me understand how these pieces come together? Where is that nucleus, that merger of all of these different pieces that you have on the go?
You know, it’s for sure. And it’s funny, I never thought of myself as a business coach. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever been referred to as one until I heard you and Scott call me that.
So, you know, it caused some internal reflection of what I am now? You know, I don’t, I don’t know. But, you know, I think that maybe to step back, like, the coaching of the people is, in my opinion, and doesn’t mean I’m right.
You know, my view is, in technology businesses in particular, the people are so crucial to the likelihood of success, the ability of that business to grow, that you can’t help a business grow, you can’t think about growing a business and doing all these great things, if you’re not thinking about the people, and you know, a very kind of seasoned investor was investing in one of the companies I was helping.
And this is, you know, a little while ago, and after the deal was all done, you know, we were having a conversation of, you know, why did you come into why did you come into this technology story, which was very bleeding edge, and, but also very early stage earlier than they normally would, and came in with, with great conviction, like, within, you know, a few hours of conversation, they were in for big bucks. And, and I remember him saying to me, like, Listen, you know, he’d come out of the mining world, and he said, these smells have come out of mining.
And, and made lots of money over the years, including in real estate, and all sorts of things. And there’s a mantra in real estate, which applies to mining, right?
In the, in the value of the business, it’s all about location, location, location, okay? In technology, the value of the business is all about people, people, people.
And, and to me, that was, you know, I joke, people call them aha moments, I call them like, a frying pan in the face, because it just kind of gets you like Looney Tunes. And these things hit and they resonate. And, that was one of those moments. And so, you know, because it really kind of tied a bunch of pieces together. And so, you know, what do I do?
You know, I help b2b technology businesses grow, you know, with strategy and and, you know, how are we going to execute? What do we think about growth? And depending on the stage, there’s kind of different aspects to it. You know, also think through kind of the investment strategies, how does that work? And then ultimately, I bring my m&a tools to the table as well.
And so whether that’s time to exit, or maybe they’re looking to buy something themselves, or whoever that looks, but, you know, twisted through all of that, is people, companies don’t buy each other people, you know, a company’s an employee, well, they just use another company’s by people.
Right? You’re buying a company because of the intellectual knowledge that’s there. Very seldom are we buying a company because of the, you know, the automations, or the machinery and stuff like that.
Well, even if you are, you know, it’s a person who’s made the decision to do that the same as, even in b2b sales. Companies don’t buy stuff. People inside companies buy stuff.
Yeah, exactly. People do business with people. Yeah, for sure. Okay, so, um, you know, if I, if I look at most of the folks that we work with, they’re somewhere in that growth cycle between the middle and growing, so very few are right at ground level. In order to grow Absolutely.
You either need people or you need to partner with people and in fact, that’s one of the things early lessons that I learned in my business, is as soon as I started partnering with people, then I really started to see growth, because instead of me trying to do everything for the folks that I was working with, it was like, hey, I’ll do a you do B. And look, there’s more for all of us.
So that partnership concept absolutely took off. So how does or how do you coach? Or how do you phrase, you know, finding those right people growing those people? And, you know, maybe taking, you know, that early moldable employee and helping them become a really high performer? What would you say to me, to create those high performers?
Well, you know, I think there’s a couple of key ingredients, and, you know, to pull kind of that high performer out of somebody out, you know, I think it’s in everybody.
And, and, you know, I came through the world of sport. I did a lot in sport over the years and can continue to do so you mentioned, you know, on the board of Kidsport. And so that’s something that’s close to my heart. And, and the reason I raised that is, if you step back and think about, like, what was that very, the best sports team that you were ever on.
And it doesn’t have to be high caliber, it could have just been like, the neighborhood kids who got around and played shinny everyday after school, but it was just so much fun and great for whatever reason, right? Well, if you kind of stop and you think about it, and you really start to dissect it, I believe that there’s some key elements.
And there’s a there’s a, I’d have to find it. But there’s a book about this. So I’m looking around to see if I can see the title on my bookshelf, but it’s, it’s basically, you know, to help develop people, they have to feel safe, right?
Like, they have to be willing, you have to be willing to push and expand and fail. And that’s okay. You know, you need to have a shared fate within the team. Like, if, if everybody comes together and gets it done, but, you know, really, Barb’s the only one who gets the win out of it, well, it kind of waters is up, waters it out, right, like the soccer team, they all win, or they all lose, like half of them don’t win and half lose.
So there’s an element of that. And like, you can even keep boiling this down to like functional units within the organization, like the four people that are working on this project, you know, they’re in it together, they win or lose together, and you can transfer that into compensation and feedback, all sorts of stuff. Yeah.
And so you know, that kind of safety coupled with that shared fate, I think, is a really important thing. And, and, you know, a lot of people are talking about diversity these days. And, and I, you know, I want to be really careful with the word because it’s now been loaded up with so much stuff. I’m not talking about kind of genetic diversity, or kind of physical diversity.
I’m talking about thought diversity. And so, you know, the safety allows the thought diversity in the room, you could all look exactly the same. But if you’ve got different backgrounds, you know, I grew up farming outside of Moose Jaw, and somebody else know is from whatever an oil and gas family in Calgary and someone else is from, you know, North a PA or whatever, like, everyone’s bringing a different set of experiences in Yeah, so they’re going to look at the problem differently.
And, and no one has the market cornered on good ideas. And so you don’t know how you’re going to solve this problem. But you’re all working at it together, you’ve got a shared fate, you know, you kind of you know, a bunch of these pieces, you know, it’s safe, it’s okay to be wrong.
And there’s an element of, you know, for all of that to happen, also communications a huge part and, and I don’t just mean communicating, yeah. But the openness and the safety in it.
And so, this book, I, you know, I wish I could remember the name, it’s like innovating teamwork or something like that. It is, you know, it talks a lot about pairing meaning, you know, there’s a meeting the group meets, and then afterwards, you know, back in the before times, to have you would walk off by yourself on the way back to your desks and talk well, you know, what its own so say, Well, you know, Susie said this or, like, you guy stop all that, because that murders trust, right? Like, yeah, if you’re talking about if the two of you were talking about Susie, behind her back, and, you know, dollars for donuts, that you’re talking with two other people about each other, right, and it just kills the trust system.
And so that shared fate and that trust also is, you know, voicing both the constructive people and, you know, sharing the successes as a group, right? On the soccer team if the goal is doing poorly, right, like the whole team standard error at the timeout, while the coach has kind of a pep talk with the goalie. Yeah, it’s nothing hidden. Exactly. It’s gonna pull it all out in the open because it’s about building trust. If you don’t have trust in a similar customer relationship you don’t trust, shared faith You know, and safety, then you’re not going to get very far.
You know what’s really interesting to me, and you’ve made me think about some of my own sports analogies, without telling you a great big long story, because I’ll bore everyone. I coached my kids baseball team one year, and we won the championship.
Now, I don’t take any of the credit for that. I totally credit the kids. But one of the things I saw when we came down to that final game was the two teams showed up. And you know, let’s say there were 17 kids on a team at that point in time, our 17 showed up, we had probably got 34 parents like we were there in droves.
The other team purposely showed up with 10 kids, their 10 best players showed up, right. And we saw that I was dumbfounded. As a coach, I was absolutely dumbfounded to see that. Another coach would do that. In fact, I was ticked right off so I went to my parents, and I said, What do you want to do? Like they have stacked their team to win tonight.
And they’re like, Nope, we’re playing everybody. And we won, right, it totally, totally paid off. You could see how it hits me, right, until you see how some people step up to the plate. It’s the big moment, right, and that’s what matters.
So being able to recognize that in your people, this is who you know, steps up to the plate when we’re down to the time crunch. This is who, you know, we can count on them to be consistent. And so knowing your team is just so important, right? Being able to identify those unique, I don’t know, nuances, right? That we all have.
So I think whatever the book is called but but there’s something to be said there for, you know, John’s a guy who’s gonna go up to bat and he’s gonna bring us home every time and, you know, Peters, the guy who’s gonna show up and, you know, pitch or cat or whatever, right, but being able to identify that.
So when you’re looking at a tech company, and and, you know, for the most part, our audience is local business. So when I look at that tech environment, that local business environment, you’re, you don’t necessarily know everybody’s nuances, maybe you’re not on site with them. Maybe your team is virtual.
So how have you found in your own experience that you’ve been able to, to get to what each person’s strength is? Because I agree with you, everybody can be that home run hitter? How do you find that moment? Right? How do you find that in a person?
Part of it is them finding it? Right, like, you know, I was a, you know, when I was in operational roles, and now you know, helping, you know, operating teams, I can’t be there all the time. You know, stuff going on, I’ve got meetings, you know, my kids get sick, so you get stuck doing that, you know, whatever it is.
And so, you know, it’s not really about me finding what it is, and you it’s, it’s about you. And so, you know, I need to create the environment, kind of think of it as I need to give you all the tools for you to succeed, you know, people use the bus analogy, right, we got to put all the people on the bus, the, you know, the tools, you can describe it however you want.
But the point is, you are the only one that can ultimately drive that bus or pick up those tools. And so, you need to kind of find that meaning, which is why I think actually the safety element, and the trust element is so important, because it’s the other people on the team that can help, you know, can help Andrew find his spot.
And, and, and, Andrew might be, you know, stop restocking the back warehouse, right, and like, Park tech company versus traditional whatever, like Andrew might be, you know, sweeping floors and stocking shelves. And, and that’s, you know, that’s fantastic, right?
And, because if the shelves aren’t stocked, and the floors aren’t clean, then, you know, Suzanne, who’s the top salesperson who sells $4 million dollars a year of whatever’s on those shelves, you know, can’t can’t get the product out the door, it doesn’t look right for the customer, right? Like it all comes together.
And so, you know, having that pride and leaning in and going for it. And then, you know, ultimately you have to, you have to communicate, you have to talk to them, you have to spend time, you know, with with people, you know, do you take the time to and to truly listen, not, oh, let’s have a one week 30 minute check in and you just update me on all the things you’re working on. Like no, no. That’s not getting anywhere. Like Exactly.
Tell me what’s going on in your life is your dog sick, like what’s, you know, moms had a heart attack and you’re not talking about it, but it’s weighing on your mind, like all these types of things.
And so, you know, there’s an element of that and that was building the bond. That’s what builds trust and that’s what brings it in And then you can continue to work up from there.
And the last point that I’d like to clarify is, I’m also not a, I’m not a big believer, although it may not sound this way. I’m not a big believer just throwing people at the problem.
Like, I also don’t think that’s the solution of, hey, we want we’ve got a bunch of work to do, we’ll just go hire a bunch of people. Okay. That’s probably not right. In fact, if you know, more likely, it’s how do we use what we have better? How do we be really intentional about where we hire? You know, maybe part of this is, you know, you know, there’s other tools we can get, there’s other technology we can get? You know, we don’t need a second Suzanne to grow revenues, perhaps we just need to focus Suzanne, exactly where she is just like dynamite. Yeah, and let’s, and let’s peel some of the other stuff out of her out of her plate. And that’s how we can actually, you know, enable her to be better.
Yeah. Yeah. And that makes very good sense to me. Definitely. So some of the other companies that you’re working with, you know, we talked to Scott already, do, you have a handful of companies that you’re helping through this growth phase. And if someone were to knock on your door and say, you know, look, Wilson, we want to grow this thing and just blow the doors off. What does that look like? How, how would you help someone with me, like me? Who has this, you know, digital marketing course? And like, hey, you know, we want a million people through this course. Which I don’t? Yeah, which I do not. But if the question were there,
yeah. First off, yeah, there’s, there’s a stack of companies that I work with, and they’re not all, you know, I’m, I’m careful to say that I work with b2b technology companies, not b2b software companies. Because not all are in the software space.
So, you know, Scott over it started, or they’re very much in the software space, you know, awesome to me, you know, I know, they’re kind of making waves in the Saskatchewan market and becoming a bit of a household. If you haven’t heard of them, look them up. There’s another group that I’m working with by the name of MG live, they’re also in the soccer space. Totally different from Store to Door, or they’re involved in the video live streaming of amateur sports.
So that’s Tanner’s company, isn’t it?
Yeah. Tanner. And, and the group, they’re so you know, really interesting technology, really interesting kind of value proposition, they’re really excited about that one. And so helping them, you know, it’s even earlier stages than Store to Door are kind of near the end.
You know, there’s, there’s another company in the ag space that I’m working with, that is almost on the other end of that spectrum, you know, double digit million revenue every year, they’re kind of doing their thing. It’s a technology business, but very much a, you know, industrial bricks and mortar kind of, you know, process sort of thing.
And, and that’s kind of their question is how do we take this to the next level? Like we’ve done, you know, phenomenal job getting here, kind of now? What? Yeah. And, and so you kind of see them across the whole landscape.
You know, I’ve got another one who’s currently going through an m&a discussion, meaning, do we just sell this thing? And what does that look like? And sometimes that happens, because someone calls and says, I love what you’re doing, I want to buy it. And sometimes that happens, because, again, we’ve been at it for 20 years, we’ve had a great run, you know, it’s time to move on to the next thing, we think it’s time to kind of crystallize value for shareholders.
And so I’ll get involved with that into the spectrum. So kind of it depends on the business. But ultimately, the common thread is, you know, how can I add value?
And, and, you know, you could have built, let’s use the kind of industrial process company for a minute, you know, they’ve done an awesome job getting there. Well, if I can help them add value on going to that next level, I’m happy to do so. But maybe I can’t, and that’s okay.
And, and, you know, so be it, you know, what do you need me for if you’re already doing an awesome job, or maybe I can add value, because hey, we can look at this, you know, we can unlock other ways of raising capital, we can, you know, expand international markets, we can kind of do all this other stuff. And so, it comes back to when someone comes in.
You know, I always dig in, and, and sometimes it annoys people because I dig in for quite a while. On the why, okay, right. Like, why are you calling? Right? Yeah. Why do you want to in your example, why do you want to get a million people through your digital marketing? You know, of course, what and what are you trying to achieve? Why are you doing that? And really drive into that?
Because I think often, either people get in love with the idea of, well, I want to be a billion dollar company. That’s good. But why? Like, you know, you’re already making 2 million bucks a year, and you’re not working that hard. And you go skating with the kids every Thursday, like, do you really want a billion dollar company? Because you’re not gonna be skating with kids every Thursday? Like so? Think about it? Yeah.
So maybe you do, right, like because maybe the quest is not like this is my bucket list item. It’s like okay, well, let’s go for it. But really understanding the root of why What are you trying to achieve? Because if we’re kind of chasing the wrong thing, and it’s not aligned, one point or another, the wheels are gonna come off. It’s just, it’s just human nature.
Exactly. So I’m curious if people are choosing between growth or sales, which percentage goes which direction?
I guess I’m not sure I understand it. So meaning, what do you mean between growth or sales? Yeah. So
If I’m going to sell the company, or if I’m going to grow the company, Oh, I see the percentage of people who choose each.
Oh, you know, I’d say in this environment, right now the majority are going for growth, grow, grow, grow, grow, grow. And I think that’s ultimately where most people start, like, even if they want to sell Yeah, well, let’s grow it. So I can sell it for more. Like, that’s kind of where it starts. Yeah.
And, and I’ve often found that that journey of let’s grow it. Yeah. So I can sell it more often to help bring clarity to the Okay, well, why, like, ultimately, if you’re just tired, and you need to go off and do something else? And, and, you know, whatever, Dad has cancer, and you want to spend time with dad? Yeah, well, well, putting your foot on the gas and trying to grow the game for three years, isn’t going to achieve your goal, right? Because you need to go spend time with dad.
And that’s it. We’re out of time already. Thank you for joining us today. Wilson. It was a pleasure to meet you. Learn a little bit about your business and learn a little bit about your approach to building people, building organizations, things like that.
If you’d like to be a guest on the show, you can email me at Barb@abovethefold.live or reach out on our Facebook and Instagram page at Abovethefold.ca.
Just a reminder, you can even submit questions in advance of our show just on our Facebook page. I’m your host Barb McGrath, local business owner and #Googlegirl. Remember, you worked hard for your success. Don’t keep it a secret. Bye for now.