Spend any length of time with Bill Tam, and you will invariably hear about his middle-class aspirations.
As the CEO of the BC Technology Industry Association (BCTIA), his role is to provide support for and lobby on behalf of B.C.'s technology industry, which now employs roughly 83,000 people – more than forestry, mining and the oil and gas sectors combined.
His job includes running the Centre4Growth, which has helped 285 tech companies expand their business by $57 million since 2010.
But the 45-year-old entrepreneur and former venture capitalist sees his primary mission to be growing a middle class for the B.C. tech sector – middle class being companies with 50 to 500 employees.
"Here in B.C., roughly 3% of our companies are 50 people and above," Tam said. "If we look at competitive jurisdictions, especially in the U.S., you'll see that the middle class is usually around 8% to 10% of the population of the companies."
B.C. has no shortage of talent and entrepreneurial drive and a number of accelerators and incubators have helped spawn dozens of new startups. But with the exception of a handful of companies like MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (TSX:MDA), PMC-Sierra Inc. (Nasdaq:PMCS), Sierra Wireless Inc. (TSX:SW), Telus (TSX:T), and Westport Innovations, most of B.C.'s technology companies are smaller enterprises, many of them startups that can vanish overnight through acquisition or failure.
"I think what we need is just a few leaders to really show the opportunity to build significant businesses here, and that provides the cultural markers and inspires legions of others to do the same," Tam said.
The biggest obstacle to growth for B.C. tech companies is a lack of capital. Helping companies grow, access markets and get on the radar screen of investors is what the Centre4Growth is all about.
The accelerator works with companies in the early revenue generation stage and helps them push past the so-called $5 million glass ceiling – the point where many companies can stall. Now entering its third year, Centre4Growth has graduated 285 tech companies.
"Those companies, on average, have almost doubled their revenue growth," Tam said. "If you compare that to the normal trajectory of companies, which usually grow at 10% to 20% per year, that's a phenomenal difference."
One of the services it provides is mentorship through a CEO-in-residence program, which is where Tam's association with the BCTIA started. He initially joined in 2010 as a CEO in residence, and when former BCTIA CEO Pascal Spothelfer left in 2011, Tam was tapped for the job.
Adam Lorant, a fellow Centre4Growth CEO in residence, said Tam was an ideal choice to head the BCTIA.
"He's done everything," said Lorant, who chaired the board of directors for EQO Communications, a startup Tam co-founded. "He's been in the seats of that starving entrepreneur with an idea, all the way through to large companies."
Born in Hong Kong, Tam immigrated to Canada as a young child and grew up in Toronto. He earned an electrical engineering degree from McGill University and MBA from the University of Western Ontario. In the early 1990s, he worked for two major Canadian telecoms – BCE Inc. (TSX:BC) and Nortel Networks Corp. – developing video conferencing, improved 911 services and other new communications technology in the early 1990s.
He got a taste for the startup culture when he worked for a division of Bell devoted to starting new ventures. He spent some time in the U.S. working with a small team on a precursor to high-speed Internet networks in the mid-1990s.
"It was a startup, but it happened to have the backing of a $1 billion company," Tam said.
When Phil Ladouceur, COO for Bell Canada International, left to start MetroNet Communications in 1996, Tam joined him to become a founding executive and chief marketing officer. The company built fibre-optic networks for small and medium-sized business.
"Heady days," said Tam, who eventually ended up in Calgary. "The capital markets were in our favour, and that's when telecom deregulation happened in Canada. We started that up with just a handful of people and raised about $50 million in venture capital over a few rounds, grew the company from startup to about 1,300 people.
"In the spring of 1997, when we were about a $500,000 company in revenue, we decided we would go and raise $250 million in debt on Wall Street. We closed the largest financing in that year for a telecom company that had barely got started. By the end of 1997, we had gone IPO on TSX and Nasdaq."
In 1999, AT&T acquired Metro Net for $7 billion in what was then the second largest domestic merger in Canada.
With his profits from the Metro Net merger, Tam joined a handful of other former MetroNet executives in starting SpringBank TechVentures, a small venture capital fund focused on Western Canadian startups, in 2001 and moved to Vancouver in 2002. They took a bath on some of their initial investments, although a few eventually paid off.
In 2006, Tam returned to what he loves most: the startup. He co-founded EQO Communications, which, in hindsight, should have been a major success, given the space it was in – Voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP) and mobile social media. After all, the company launched the same year that Twitter made its appearance and one year ahead of the iPhone.
EQO raised $13 million in venture capital and had amassed three million users, but by 2008 when the company went for a second raise, the banking crisis in the U.S. had put a chill on venture capital.
"We ended up selling the company – in my view, prematurely – because we hadn't yet realized the full potential of what we were undertaking," Tam said.
The EQO experience taught him some valuable lessons about focusing on business basics.
"Venture capital was flowing pretty freely, there was an exuberance in the marketplace and we sort of lost sight of some of the important business fundamentals in turning the revenue corner. If we bothered to turn the corner on revenue earlier, we probably would have sufficient resources to continue building the business.
"You never should lose sight of the fundamentals of growing your business. It's not about hitting the home run, it's about enough at-bats that you have a chance to hit a home run."
In 2009, EQO was pieced off, and a number of local companies, like Global Relay and CounterPath, ended up acquiring some of EQO's technology.
After Tam cashed out, he took a break and spent four months travelling with his wife, Julie, and his two children – then aged eight and 10 – through Asia, India, Egypt and North Africa.
When they returned to Canada in 2010, it was just as the BCTIA was starting up the Centre4Growth, and Tam was asked to join as a CEO in residence. A year later, he was given the CEO's job.
The job allows Tam to spend less time on airplanes and more time with his family and playing tennis, squash and skiing. But it's a position that typically last only three or four years. When his job with the BCTIA is done, he plans to return to the work he loves most: starting new companies.
"At the age that I'm at, I kind of feel like I'm a tweener," he said. "I still feel that I've got a ton of energy to want to do more startups."