In his soul, Mario Thériault is an artist. He started out as a poet but that doesn’t pay the bills. In another time he might have been a revolutionary but instead he turned his creativity to the marketing and communications sector. He made a good living as a mad man but found his way into the political realm when his brother, Camille, took a run at the leadership of the Liberal party and became Premier. After a short stint as a political guy, Mario started ShiftCentral in 2000. Fast forward 19 years and ShiftCentral was just sold to an outfit in Los Angeles.
Politics runs deep in the Thériault family. Mario’s father, Norbert, was a top provincial government cabinet minister and lieutenant of LJR in the 1960s and ultimately was appointed to the Canadian Senate. I heard great stories of Norbert staring down business tycoons in an era of big and important changes in this province. In his 80s, he told me the key to his longevity was eating fish. In his youth they would eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Entrepreneurship runs deep in the Thériault family, too. As I recall, several of the clan owned their own businesses.
There are basically two kinds of entrepreneurs. For some, it is all about the big idea. They are working for another firm or hacking in their basement and they come up with a big idea. They take the idea and turn it into a business. The second kind is the pure entrepreneur. It doesn’t matter what the idea is, they have the soul of an entrepreneur – they don’t like working for someone else. They enjoy taking on risk. They are tenacious and determined. Mario is the second kind of entrepreneur. It really didn’t matter the business – I always said he could be manufacturing furniture or chocolates – for him it was about building something of value.
I got to know Mario when he recruited me in the late 1990s to come and work for him. I only found out later he had no way to guarantee my salary. In its first year the firm had burned up virtually all of the seed money he and his partners had put in and they were now running on fumes. I spent nearly six good years helping Mario build the business into a profitable shop with an expanding client base in Canada and the United States.
The original idea – to provide high value professional services to small businesses – died quickly when Mario realized small businesses had no money. He quickly pivoted to a new vision.
It was, and is, a neat idea. At the time ShiftCentral was founded there were a lot of new Web-based tools emerging help with searching content. In fact, the late 1990s, early 2000s was the era when that came of age. We would attend conferences with seminars covering topics such as semantic searching and how to best search the vast amount of unindexed content. But Mario’s insight was that busy organizations didn’t want their staff spending hours scrolling through content for the nuggets of relevancy. ShiftCentral would have a human do that for them. Instead of a bank or law firm having hundreds of staff spending 10 hours a week surfing the Web, they would get relevant content served up to them on a daily basis. Kind of like a smarter version of media monitoring.
At the time many people thought this was a stupid idea. But, stupid or not, Mario built a business around it – growing to more than 30 staff with clients across North America and beyond.
There were several times early on when ShiftCentral nearly went under. Mario pleaded with the bank to extend credit. He cashed his RRSPs. He made late night calls to hustle emergency angel funding. I have no idea how many weeks he went without paying himself. A lot of people like to complain about entrepreneurs – but Mario is the example – the entrepreneur gets paid last – after employees and suppliers, if there is anything left over – that is what goes to the owner.
He was tough but also a very good boss. I learned a lot in those years.
I’m not sure what’s next for Mario. Likely a new big idea. He has been involved on a variety of community boards and initiatives so I expect he will be in that realm as well.
We need more Marios. The pure entrepreneur looking to build something of value. Not just a lifestyle business owner looking to generate a comfortable income. People who want to leave their mark.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about self-discipline. What motivates people to get off the couch and leave the NetFlix and Cheetos behind? For most people these days it’s easy to live a life of leisure. But some people want more.
And it’s those people that move our society ahead. They are the ones that pursue the entrepreneurial dream. They are the ones that tackle the big challenges. They are the ones that make the world a better place.
Congrats to Mario and his team. I hope the new tie up with the LA-based firm leads to more growth here. New Brunswick’s future economic growth will depend on its entrepreneurs developing export markets and then integrating into global supply chains.