Inspiring chat with Bertrand Cesvet on his Entrepreneurial Journey!
Sid Lee, renowned for their creativity and originality is at the forefront of lateral thinking. Their talented team of professionals are leading the way in several sectors from out of the box design thinking, experiential marketing, strategic thinking, and more. Their success is entrenched in the core values of collectivism, embracing change and continuous innovation.
At C2 Montreal, which took place on May 22–24, 2019 we had the opportunity to speak with the man at the helm of Sid Lee, the talented and humble, Bertrand Cesvet. He’s also one of the founders of C2 Montreal, which by the way, this year attracted 7,000+ participants from over 60 countries and 34+ industries.
Bertrand is highly accomplished and multi-talented, he’s “authored a best-selling book called Conversational Capital; formulated the insight that gave birth to C2 Montréal; earned a Doctorate Honoris Causa in literature from McGill University; and sits on the boards of several organizations, including IDEO, C2 International, and Caisse de dépôts et de placements du Québec.”
We were most interested to learn about his entrepreneurial journey and how he took Sid Lee to a top-tier global company that’s continuing to expand the world over.
Here’s a look at our candid conversation:
What was it like building Sid Lee during the early stages?
Sid Lee has always been a collective project, it’s funny, a lot of people are born entrepreneurs, I, however, was born very risk-averse. My parents had high demands on me, like a lot of people that included going to a good school and having a very liberal profession, so I didn’t think I was an entrepreneur. So, what happened was that my partners picked me — so I was very desperate with my life in the corporate world. I was very unhappy; I was doing by most standards very well. It was really because I was so unhappy in the corporate world that I became an entrepreneur. So, it’s a different drive, a lot of people know, I didn’t know. So, I always give credit to Jean Francois and Phillipe, the guys I started Sid Lee with for recognizing that I had it in me. Its a good tale of what happened after, because what I’m most proud of in the Sid Lee adventure is the quality of the friendship and the team that we’ve maintained for all these years. I see a lot in the start-up scene today: I see a lot of good ideas, I see a lot of money available, I see over inflated egos, I see the inability to trust your partners. It's very hard to be an entrepreneur by yourself. And so for me in my experience has been a very collective one.
How did you create such an amazing work culture? How did you create that great dynamic with your team and co-founders?
Honestly, we didn’t have to work on it. It was just natural, that’s just the way we are. There is a lot of people nowadays that talk about the importance of collaboration and collectivism. For us, this is the way we are. We grew the organization to the scale we’re at today, and even to this day as we bring to the Sidney fold, like the Yard guys were on stage (referring to c2). Why I like to bring them into our organization is that they’re collaborative. First of all, they are friends. So friendship — a lot of people say don’t start a business with friends, for me, it has been the opposite. When the going gets tough, when you must fight against the world, or you’re trying to develop something new and it is not working out or you're going through a downturn, you just have to love each other. If you don’t love each other it’s not going to work.
Even the best of friends sometimes have disagreements and disputes, it’s inevitable. You’re a huge proponent of understanding human behavior, how do you address conflict?
The way I see myself is that my primary role in life is to create harmony. At the same time, when this is what you do, sometimes you see elements that are counterproductive to that goal. So sometimes you have to make hard decisions and decide not to continue with toxic people. The other thing is, I think it’s very important to tell each other the truth. It’s human behavior, it’s natural, some people are incapable of providing not always positive feedback. So for me, I’ve always been frank, always direct. At the same time, I don’t hold grudges. So the idea is I’ve developed a form of amnesia that I have the ability to tell people if I’m not happy with a situation. Then I quickly forget about it. Honestly, we have this notion that conflict is going to be very difficult and that conflict has a long tail. For me, I’m trying to cut the long tail out of conflict. Conflict is a moment, you have to deal with it. As soon as it is over you just move on.
Do you think this inability to confront is a reflection of our Canadian culture? We’re always so nice and diplomatic that we tend to avoid confrontation.
One thing that helps me a lot is that my family is an immigrant family, where I grew up, a great evening for us was where we screamed and argued at each other all night and then dinner was over and then we said what a great evening it was. I think that is one issue with Canada, is we’re such nice people and everything and we’re not comfortable with arguing and debating. Learning how to argue and debate your ideas is something that is very important. You look at other cultures and it’s different. In Montreal, I think it is easy to do things, it is easy to start a business, the framework is easy. Society doesn’t frown upon on you if you’re an entrepreneur like they do in South Korea or France. Now, France is waking up to entrepreneurship. In France, it’s much better to be a high-ranking official in society than being an entrepreneur. Here we don’t have that, entrepreneurs are respected. The flip side, what doesn’t work so well, is, example, Israel where entrepreneurship is everywhere, but in Israeli culture debate and speaking your mind is central to that culture and I think it makes it a little more productive. We can think of countless other cultures — every culture has its pros and cons so it’s important to speak up.
Now that Sid Lee has expanded and scaled internationally, what do you think about the Montreal ecosystem? And how do you compare it to others?
The Montreal ecosystem is for me great. I spend a lot of time here, now I’m on the board of a famous Valley company IDEO, they designed the very first mouse. True and true Palo Alto, so I learn a lot. I spend a lot of time in these environments. I’ve had the pleasure to spend a fair bit of time in Tel Aviv. What I like about Montreal is the humanity of our ecosystem here. The embedded collectivism of Montreal as a society is something that sets us apart from other environments. Tel Aviv has a strong sense of community. Especially in northern California, they all sound the same, it’s quite remarkable, I think it’s important to have divergent thinking. If everybody went to the same school and deals with the same VC’s, at one point everything becomes formatted. So I think we have a big chance in Montreal, the momentum we enjoy, there’s a lot of capital in this city to start businesses, but it’s difficult to scale. I’m proud that at Sydney we’re able to do this.
Why do you think it’s difficult to scale here? How can the ecosystem help start-ups to scale?
It’s not my core area of expertise but scaling needs access to market, this is still a very small market. At the end of the day, another hypothesis for me is financial backers here are not comfortable with that 2nd, 3rd and 4th round of risk. Series A is understood, Series B, after that…..I see a lot of entrepreneurs in this city struggle. Our banking system is quite concentrated. You do have actors that can help you. Because of the mandate of institutions like Case Depot they’ve created something interesting in the city but it’s the second layer, I’m not sure were as comfortable with risk as other environments.
Montreal has a great culture of diversity, with recent government changes a lot of start-ups are finding it difficult to recruit and retain talent. What are your thoughts on this?
This is a terrible decision. The reason why I’m sitting with you right now is because I had the chance when I was a young kid to go to McGill and in my own city discover the whole world and different outlooks. And my parents are immigrants. The impact of my family on this City has been significant. I think Canada made a really good decision. My dad was one of the first foreign students at Poly Technique in the 50’s. It’s really too bad, because it doesn’t make sense to me, we’re in a shortage of labour situation. I think it is terrible, I think it's counterproductive. I think the new government, as opposed to other governments before, have a lot of people that know the business, people like Eric Can, Africk Gibbon and Cassan Dubey. They are friends, they understand entrepreneurship. I think it shows the rift between Montreal and the rest of Quebec. It goes against everything our city stands for and it creates a potential problem, we don’t want Montreal to be like, Brexit, is a bit about that. London is the most global city in the world, very welcoming, the rest of the UK is very scared and insular and not trustworthy of the other. So I think this reflects a bit of the conflict between Montreal and the rest of the Quebec.
What was one of your biggest failures in building Sid Lee and what did you learn from that?
A couple of things, very funny things, like being too early in a lot of things. Like for instance, I remember in the late 1990s the internet was just coming about and we made a massive investment in interactive t.v. and which is something that really happened 15 years later. For me, one of the things I do in my job is to create harmony and to look into the future. Sometimes I look too far ahead. For example, our foray into architecture was visionary. To imagine that building cities was a human-centric endeavour, it wasn’t a form and function thing, that existed in the context of an economic ecosystem, so we’ve been very successful with that. But I’m very comfortable with failing. We’ve failed a lot. I recently did another interview, it was about fear for creative people. And I said I’m really not scared of anything. It’s easy for me to say because I’m 55 and I don’t’ have a lot of financial insecurities. For me to use failure as freedom not to drag me down. The Sid Lee adventure has been fantastic, so energized, C2 is a different entity but when I walk around here, knowing that we played a part in imagining this I’m very proud.
How do you embrace chaos in this modern age? How do you personally cope with technological uncertainty, financial uncertainty, market uncertainty, competitive uncertainty?
I’m not sure I know how, but I know I can. I’m with a lot of people that I trust. My business is very straightforward — we have rent and labour. We don’t have IP, we don’t develop software. Chaos is quite easy to deal with if you are with the right people. If you’re with the wrong people then people start misbehaving. The other thing that’s important is that there is this notion that creativity is something that’s painful. You need to be mal-adjusted as a person, that you need to have unhealthy life habits. I’m ultra obsessed with time, like we started this interview 2 minutes ahead of schedule, this is how I roll. So just showing up on time, being organized and just being in the moment. This is a good basis. I see too many people in business where there is a sense of irresponsibility, immaturity and hubris. I see bad habits: a lot of people drink too much, this morning I saw someone on stage at 9 am who was high. I don’t think that is cool. To deal with that you have to be present, you have to be at the moment. It is complicated in my environment. A company like Sid Lee, it’s a punk organization, I’m very happy and proud that 26 years into this journey that nobody went to rehab, nobody died. You see a lot of these tragedies. We’ve had difficulties, like some people have got divorced and personal tragedies but remaining relatively healthy is a good way to deal with chaos.
You’re known for your advocacy of strategic thinking. How do you cultivate that? How do new entrepreneurs nurture that?
Strategic thinking is a combination of 2 things: it’s taking data and turning it into info. So, its basically analytics and it is a vision. For a lot of people who look at strategy, the way they teach it at school if you go to an MBA program, the process of analysis is really well understood and celebrated almost. The part that is harder is the vision. The notion of knowing where the puck is going. Strategy at Sid Lee is different from strategy at Deloitte and McKinzey. Its analysis and synthesis and at the same time trying to overlay vision. Vision is trying to look ahead and being obsessed with the future. You have to take a bet on what the future will look like. Vision only happens in the future.
What is the future for Sid Lee? What is the future for you?
The future of Sid Lee is incredible, we’re going to continue to grow. We’re driving a big transformation right now. In my business, a lot of people that come from the SI world who want to come into creativity. I want to go the other way, I want to take on the SI. I’m a very uni-dimensional guy, I love this, I love tennis, I love my family and I love to cook. I have no aspiration of opening a restaurant or art gallery, or hotel. This is it for me, this is what I do.
Thanks so much to Bertrand Cesvet for his generous time and forthright candour!