Photo: Cam Davies, Miovision10 years, 10 questions: Kurtis McBride on Miovision’s first decade Anthony Reinhart November 24, 2015 Communitech, Featured, News, Small to Mid Size Few jobs are more boring than counting traffic, a fact Kurtis McBride learned quickly during a summer job as a University of Waterloo student. True to entrepreneurial form, McBride decided to solve his own problem when he co-founded Miovision a decade ago. The company’s first product, Scout, is a video-based system that counts traffic at intersections without having to bore anyone. Today, close to half of North America’s monitored intersections use it. More recently, Miovision introduced Spectrum, a device that sits inside those mysterious cabinets we see attached to traffic signal poles. It takes data collected at intersections and sends it to the cloud, enabling cities to better co-ordinate signals and relieve gridlock. In 2006, Miovision was one of the first two companies admitted to the then-new Accelerator Centre in Waterloo – and its first graduate a few years later. Earlier this year, the company raised a $30 million Series B funding round from an all-Canadian slate of investors. As it turns 10 years old, the company finds itself poised for a future in which “smart cities,” enabled by embedded sensors in cars, highways and other public infrastructure, will use big data to improve mobility, among other things. We caught up with McBride, Miovision’s first and only CEO, and posed 10 questions about the company’s evolution, and his journey as an entrepreneur. 1. Looking back to 10 years ago, where did you think – or hope – your company would be today? KM – The truth is, if we go right back to the beginning when we started the company, there was a group of us – my partners and I who started the company – who just weren’t ready to go get real jobs. So, we started the company as much to delay the inevitable as anything. I don’t even know that I was thinking 10 years into the future about why I was doing what I was doing. I was just trying to avoid leaving the university campus. When we moved out of the Accelerator Centre and we started to think about it as a career, then it started to change, and we started to think about how big can we grow this thing, and how big of an impact can we have. But at the beginning, it was just trying not to be adults. 2. How have market conditions for your products, and the whole ‘smart cities’ concept, evolved during those 10 years? KM – I remember when we launched our first product; it was a video product for collecting data at intersections. At the time, the market leader sold these little hand clicker boards, so we went down to Pennsylvania and we basically pitched them on, ‘Hey, there’s this thing called the Internet, and there are these video camera things, and we think that’s how people are going to want to collect data in the future.’ And I remember this guy – Jim Martin – was basically like, ‘No one’s ever going to pay $4,000 for a camera and collect data that way.’ At the time, I didn’t know as much about technology adoption cycles and disruption theory, and I remember being very disheartened on the drive home, because maybe he was right; maybe this was how things were always going to be. Over the five or six years it took to get that market developed and get it penetrating, we saw the same attitude from lots of the incumbent vendors who were the customers we’d try to sell to; that ‘it’s been done this way forever; why would we change?’ And now, we’ve become, essentially, the de facto standard for the way people do intersection counts. In North America, I think we do almost half of the intersection counts with our equipment. There was a similar trend with the new product, when we initially went out a few years ago and just started conceptualizing and talking to people about the idea of using cellular networks and the cloud to control traffic flow, it was pretty radical. People were just starting to put in fibre-optic networks, and just the idea of connectivity at an intersection was in its infancy. Three years later, we’re starting to see a lot more openness. It’s still early days, but there’s a lot more openness. They’ve seen SaaS and cloud be successful in other industries, and even in other parts of government, like putting GPS transmitters in buses and connecting that to cellphones and things like that. There’s sort of a conservative willingness to adopt those new paradigms. I put us in a similar place that we were maybe in 2011 or 2012 with our Scout product. 3. Miovision was one the first Accelerator Centre startups to enter and graduate the program. How are conditions different for young startup entrepreneurs today, compared to 10 years ago? KM – There were two companies considered the first to go in; us and a company called Semacode. Then, we were the first graduate, and I would argue they invented the term ‘graduation’ because they didn’t have the heart to just kick us out. We were then 20 people in 715 square feet. We’d reconfigured the desks a number of times, and when we hired the 20th person, it was the week we left, and we couldn’t fit them in the office, so they literally sat in the hallway that week. I try to do a lot of pay-it-forward mentoring and meeting with entrepreneurs, and my observation is, it’s both easier and harder, and I don’t know if it ends up just coming out in the wash, or what. But it’s easier in the sense that there’s a lot more infrastructure than there was when we got started, whether it’s Communitech or the Accelerator Centre being much more developed, or things like Velocity and the Foundry. Capital is also a lot more organized. I remember when we just had to just kind of network out and go drive to wherever and try to pitch the company. Now, you actually have aggregations of capital. The VC market is much more developed for early stage. So, in that sense, it’s easier. But, in another sense, it’s harder. When we raised money, we hardly even had an idea. We had a team and we were a scarce commodity at the time, so we raised money. But now, I see the sophistication of some of the business plans that are being developed at pre-revenue-stage companies, and I think it’s a lot more competitive. So, while there’s more capital and more infrastructure, there’s also a lot more competition for that capital. 4. How would you describe the change in the Waterloo Region and Canadian tech sectors over that same period of time? KM – Ten years ago, Waterloo was – I wouldn’t say a one-trick pony, but there were half a dozen ponies, maybe less, in town. BlackBerry is the obvious one, but there were OpenText and Sybase (and others). You still have those big names that are in Waterloo, but there’s now a lot more activity at the frothy-formation end of the spectrum, and you’re starting to see groups like D2L and Aeryon Labs and Clearpath; you’re starting to see some breakouts that are really starting to get on a good growth clip. I’d like to think we’re at the starting line, but we’re approaching a sort of Phase 2 of a diversification in the community. I think over the next 25 years, hopefully that diversification will accelerate, and we’ll see a lot more $20- to $50-million companies starting to show up on the scene. The only time I’ve ever hung out with other Canadian CEOs was at a C100 event in California, and I remember at the time thinking, ‘This is bizarre. Why do I have to go to California to meet other Canadian CEOs?’ So I can’t say that I know the state of other ecosystems, but it does seem like there’s a bigger ecosystem of companies. The capital ecosystem is certainly better, compared to 2010, when BDC was pretty much the only VC in Canada; now there are dozens of them, probably, that are active. The one thing I think hasn’t changed is that Canadians are still a little conservative, and I think if in Canada, and in Ontario in particular, if we’re going to rest on this innovation economy as the main growth driver into the future for the country, I think the customers and the capital have to change. They have to be come more-early adopters and more willing to take risks; otherwise, the entrepreneurs have to go further and further afield to find capital and customers, which I don’t think is good for the country. 5. How have you grown as an entrepreneur since Miovision launched? KM – The list of how I haven’t changed is probably shorter. When you’re first starting up, you don’t have anyone working with you, so you have to do everything. Also, you only know how to do things; you don’t necessarily know how to build teams that can do things. I used to feel the need to dive in deep, and if I saw that something needed doing, my automatic reaction was to go do it. I wouldn’t say that I’ve completely cured myself of that, but I certainly spend time trying to find people who are a lot smarter than me to do the things that need to be done. I wrote something called the Top 10 Tactics for Managing in an Empowered Environment. It was a blog article we put together that itemized 10 tricks I’ve learned about how to get organizations to rally behind the things you’re trying to get done. 6. How close have you come to just throwing in the towel? KM – The only time I’ve actually seriously considered throwing in the towel was when we were in the Accelerator Centre, and we had this product concept – we thought it was a product we could sell, but in retrospect, it was probably more of a concept – and all the advice we were getting was, ‘Keep your costs of sale down.’ So, ‘sell close to home’ was the moral of the story – phone Waterloo, phone Guelph and London and Toronto, and keep it close to home. We were doing that, and we’d either get, ‘No, we’re not interested,’ or ‘Wow, sounds interesting, call me back in eight months and we’ll figure out putting it into our budget for next year.’ I remember feeling, ‘Maybe we don’t actually have a good idea here.’ We thought we had a good business case; we thought we had something innovative. Then, on a hunch, I just didn’t listen to the advice that I should stay close to home, and I phoned Maryland. And within two weeks, we had our first deal. What I learned then was, although Canadian and U.S. cultures, on the surface, are very similar, our business cultures are actually quite different. I stopped calling Canada and started calling the U.S., and we started to hit a ramp. That was the only time we were probably weeks away from deciding we had to shut it down because it wasn’t going anywhere. There have been lots of other times where you go through thread-the-needle cash crunches and stuff like that, but at some point, things always have a tendency to work out. 7. What’s been your biggest surprise during 10 years as an entrepreneur? KM – How do I say this without sounding like a weirdo? I find there’s a certain degree of luck involved with being an entrepreneur, or at least I used think that’s what it was, but now I’ve kind of come to see it differently. If you have a vision of where you’re trying to go, and you don’t compromise on the vision, and you wait, then eventually the world will present an opportunity to you that you can use to forge your vision. Maybe the surprise is, I find there’s a lot of what looks like serendipity, but it’s probably just that uncompromising quest to find the little piece that you need in order to move the vision forward, and eventually you just find it. I’ve always been surprised at how the right capital will show up at the right time, or the right customer will show up at the right time, or the right talent set from an employee will show up at the right time, or the right building will show up at the right time. You went through this month or two where you were like, ‘Oh my god, we have to compromise, we have to take a shortcut.’ And then, all of a sudden, somebody shows up and it just clicks together. I’ve gotten to the point, almost, where I just know that even if I speed the train up, the tracks will lay themselves down in front of me. Sometimes I think that has always been true, because it hasn’t yet not been true, and one day it won’t be true and I won’t be here getting interviewed, but . . . It’s almost like you’re reading a book that’s already written as you’re doing it, and you just haven’t got to the next page yet. 8. What’s your biggest regret? KM – I don’t like regrets. You learn stuff along the way. I wouldn’t classify this as a regret; maybe more of a lesson that I’ve learned along the way: Always trust your gut. The only times that I’ve ever regretted a decision that I’ve made is when I knew the right decision, and then listened to my head instead of my gut and made a different decision, and I don’t think ever once has it turned out that I should have listened to my head. Trust that first instinct; it’s always right, especially when it comes to people. I’ve hired some people who are senior, they have great resumes, they come highly recommended, and your gut’s telling you they’re not going to work out, and three months later you’re having a tough conversation. But I don’t know how else you would have learned the lesson without going through it. 9. Your biggest achievement? KM – I also don’t like achievements. I don’t think I’ve achieved it yet, but we are setting out to change the way people experience mobility in cities. There are lots of little wins along the way, and often, my team will kick me in the head and tell me we need to celebrate those, so we try to do that. The day that I walk by the water cooler and people are not complaining about traffic, that’ll be the day that I sit back and feel like I’ve achieved something. 10. What will Miovision look like 10 years from now? KM – One of my favourite quotes from Bill Gates says that people often overestimate what they can get done in a year, and underestimate what they can get done in 10. I think that will be true for us. We’re looking at our 12-month plan, and maybe it’s not as far into the future as I would like it to be; it’s further than maybe some think we can get. But I think even if you take a conservative view, and you multiply it 10 years over – whether you take a conservative view or an aggressive view, any way you look at it, in 10 years it’s going to be pretty amazing. With the Internet of Things, the true realization of it is that literally every physical device will generate information and we’ll put it on the Internet. So, your glass of water is empty, and your glass will turn red and there will be a button you can press that says ‘Do you want more water?’ The asphalt will emit information; the sidewalks will emit information. I think we have an opportunity to be a part of helping to usher that in, which really means rebuilding all aspects of our cities – at least all aspects where the information that can be produced from rebuilding them can improve the experience. I think we have an opportunity to be either a small part of that or a really big part of that. I think even a small part is really exciting, and when we look around, we don’t really see anyone else who is thinking about the problem the way we are, which means, maybe, we find ourselves being a big part of it. It’s a very nebulous answer, but it’s the best I’ve got.