The Best Surfers Find Big Waves

The Most Important Lesson I Learned from Ryan Holmes

I am part of an organization called Venture for Canada which you should most definitely check out. It’s over-arching goal is to improve the Canadian Start-up Ecosystem, and as part of that, brings in recent grads, pairs them with start-ups, and helps them to become the best entrepreneurs they can be.

As part of the program, we sometimes get guest speakers.

Last night we had two particularly high-profile speakers: John Ruffolo, CEO of OMERS Ventures, and Ryan Holmes, CEO of Hootsuite.

Together, they are some of the most influential people in the start-up space in Canada, and surely make waves into the States as well.

They told us a few stories about their companies, and about their lives, and then opened up the conversation to questions.

One of the questions was regarding finding your passion, and how to know when to pursue it.

Ryan Holmes said something really insightful, and I am paraphrasing here, but it went something like this:

Building a company is a lot like surfing. You can be a professional surfer, but if there are no waves around you, you are just paddling in the water. It goes the same if you’re an amateur surfer. But if there are big waves, you can be a mediocre surfer and still ride it. The point is that being a mediocre surfer on a big wave is still better than paddling in the water professionally.

The point he is trying to make is that in business, finding a thriving and growing market is often more important than being a great business(wo)man. A world-class CEO at a crappy company may not be able to produce world-class results, but an average CEO at a rocket-ship company might turn out okay.

But the really amazing insight is what it takes to become a world-class professional surfer.

I would say it takes two things:

  • A big wave
  • Experience in riding big waves

Catching a big wave is usually a function of luck: being in the right place at the right time. But any Joe Schmoe can be in the right place at the right time.

What makes you a professional is doing it consistently. In order to become experienced at riding big waves, you need to learn how to search them out, find them, and catch them consistently. It likely takes a lot of practice, quite a bit of falling, and a whole lot of courage.

The best surfers are the ones who know when to pass on the small waves so they can be in the right position to catch the big ones. They learn to read the water, and how to properly maneuver when things get rough.

So if you want to be a world-class at anything, that’s the secret recipe: big waves, and knowing how to surf.

The next time you want to start a company, ask yourself these:

Am I catching the big wave? Is there another one coming along that I should be focusing on inside?

Am I prepared to ride this out? Or is it going to be more of a yard sale?

Do you even want to surf big waves? Or would you prefer the manageable ones?

Often in tech, particularly with start-ups, people get lucky and happen on good fortune - they catch a big wave and are mediocre surfers - but more often even, people are amazing surfers and there are no waves to be found.

Want to be a world-class company?

Well then you’d best learn to surf.

Hat tip: Ryan Holmes.

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