Podcast Episode 6

Lessons from Joel Lessem, Former CEO of Firmex

Joel Lessem, a tech entrepreneur with 30 years of experience. He shares insights on business opportunities, revenue growth, and profit management, emphasizing data-driven decisions, efficiency, and customer-centric service. Joel also highlights work-life balance, exercise, and hobbies for recharging, and warns against tying one’s identity solely to their business. He discusses better sleep, time management, and delegation, stressing the importance of breaks, trust in managers, and the lasting impact of a manager’s departure on a business. With 45+ successful exits at Peerscale, Joel’s wisdom guides us through tech entrepreneurship, emphasizing detail, adaptability, and personal well-being for lasting success.

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Naren: Today, we are excited to bring you our TBR Success Stories edition, where we learn from the best in tech. In today’s TBR Success Stories edition, I have a dear friend and an amazing entrepreneur to have a wonderful conversation with. His name is Joel Lessem. Welcome to the TBR Success Stories podcast. 

Thank you, Joel. I have known you for 10-plus years, I think more like 12 years, because we used to be part of the same organization called Peerscale. It used to be called, at the time, it was a community of tech entrepreneurs in the greater Toronto area. We would meet typically once a month and then throughout the year now, for longer times like a, let’s say, a retreat and stuff like that. I got so much value out of it, and today, you have done amazing things as an entrepreneur-built firm. And. I know we’re going to talk about that in the intro a little bit and, and you, you give back by, you know, leading this organization Peerscale, which is a nonprofit, they are to serve tech entrepreneurs. So welcome to the show, Joel. Why don’t we start by having the listeners get to know you who are you? maybe start as far back as you want to.

Early Background and Entrepreneurial Journey:

Joel: Sure. Well, my name is Joel. I grew up in Toronto. I still live in Toronto. I started my life studying history, sort of a nontraditional background. I have a master’s in history. I wanted to know how we got to where we are in the world and all the sort of chain of events that led to our current existence, a sort of philosophical view of life. Once I graduated with a master’s degree, I realized I had to get a job, and the only job you can get without any form, without any qualifications, is sales. And so I got a job selling brasiers for Playtex. And I worked for a large company that owned Playtex. And I realized very quickly that I wasn’t good with company politics. And, after a year, I got a job with an entrepreneur that was, I would say we’ll call it, smuggling Apple computers into the country on pickup trucks and gray marketing them in Canada. I realized that entrepreneurship is really what I wanted to do in 1994, just to kind of date myself. So it was almost 30 years ago. And that was my entry into tech and my inspiration to start a business in the future. So, I did. I just promised myself I’d start a business before I was 35, and I did. The first one did not succeed. And then I had to spend all my money, and I was living off my, it’s called an RSP or a 401k, I guess, to pay my rent. Five years later, I got involved in starting another business, which was a successful business. It was a software company that sold virtual data room software and grew profitably and quite, you know, with over 100 and 25 employees and a very, very good success story. And I ran that for over 16 years. And, you know, recently passed that over, it was, you know, on that it has new ownership now to the managers doing a great job. And now I’m as, as you know, I’m now giving back to the community; I’m helping run Peers Scale, which is the tech CEO Association here. And you know, certainly enjoying this next phase of life.

Qualities of a Good Manager:

Naren: Thank you, Joel. I know you’re very modest. You have done amazing things, and I know when people are around you, they are always seeking your advice, seeking your wisdom. So I’m really glad you agreed to do this because what I’m trying to do today is to ask you some questions that perhaps a lot of people who ended up having success as an entrepreneur are thinking about. Hopefully, you experience your knowledge, you know, not only the successes but also the failures, and hopefully, you can help the people listening today. So, let’s start at the beginning. Why did you become an entrepreneur?

Joel: You know, as I mentioned earlier, Naren, I realized quite soon that I am not tolerant of any kind of company politics. I’m a very forthright person, and I just like to get to the, you know, honest answers to things and improve things. I think the other thing that led me to become an entrepreneur is that I’m very strong with numbers, and I have a capacity for risk. And so I’m very calculating as a person, and so I’m willing to take risks because I can calculate the odds quite easily. And I think those two things really, and I’m very competitive, and I think those things, you know, combined make for a good entrepreneur. In my case, anyway, it was my skills and things that I enjoy doing and that make me happy that make me a good entrepreneur.

Growing Revenues:

Naren: Thank you. So if you, you know, talk about your first business, right? You know, most people think about starting a business and making it successful, and it’s a difficult journey. And I have a lot of folks on the podcast, and when I asked them, you know, what is, what is, what is success? Many times, they tell me, you know, it’s a journey, it’s not a destination. And if you listen to Joel, that his first business did not succeed. What was your second business about, and how did you grow the revenues so much?

Joel: Yeah. I think the second business was very successful for several reasons. One of the main reasons, I would say, is that we focused on revenue growth. So from the very first year, you know, we were quite diligent, and we sort of created a model that had us, you know, revenue-focused from the first year and every year since. So the business has been, for 25 years in business, and we focused on revenue growth every year. And so it, I think that really was one of the keys to success. 

And then, you know, I think the other key to success is that we understood what the customer was looking for, and we built a product that met their needs. And we were always very inquisitive and looking to improve. And I think the other key to success is always understanding what the customer is looking for, and we built a product that meets their needs. And we were always very inquisitive and looking to improve.

Growing Profits:

Naren: What are your thoughts on profit, Joel? You know, some people say revenue vanity, profit sanity. What are your thoughts on it? 

Joel: Yeah, I think revenues are great, you know, I mean, certainly, you know, the top line is what drives the business. But at the end of the day, profit is sanity, and it’s all that matters because there are a lot of businesses that are built on losing money, and that’s never a good recipe for long-term success; at the end of the day, you have to have a business that’s making money. And so that’s always been the focus for us. So, one of the things that I’ve been able to do is, we’ve been able to build a business that’s profitable every year of its existence. And that’s one of the reasons I think that we’ve been able to sort of come out on top and have the kind of success that we’ve had.

Staying Mentally Focused During a Long Entrepreneurial Journey:

Naren: Joel, you’ve run this business for a very long time, right? You started it, and you’re doing other things now, but you were running it for a very long time. How did you stay focused mentally? It’s a long journey, right? It’s not something you do for a few years and then go on a holiday. You have done this for many years. How did you stay mentally focused? 

Joel: Yeah, it’s interesting. It’s something I’ve thought about quite a lot. And I think I’m very focused on being in the moment. And I think that’s something that’s always been a strength of mine. I’m a very in-the-moment person. I’m very focused on the tasks at hand. I’m very sort of dedicated to what I’m doing. And I think that’s one of the keys to success. I think the other thing is that I really love what I do. I’m very passionate about building businesses and creating success. And I think that one of the things that keep me going year after year is that I’m very passionate about what I do. And I’m very focused on the sort of the mission at hand. And I think that’s one of the keys to success.

Naren: I just, when he was 77 years old, finally got convinced to sell his company, and then he got cold feet because he doesn’t know who he is without being in charge of his company.

Joel Lessem: It’s a substantial, and it’s like a 200-employee company.

Naren: So, you eventually need to let others own your company.

Joel Lessem: So it’s not your company anymore.

Joel Lessem: It’s kind of like a child, right?

Naren: It develops, it grows up, it becomes independent of you, and one day it leaves home, right?

Joel Lessem: And so, your job is done; you’ve successfully gone through the life cycle.

Naren: And you know, those are the advice that I give people that, there’s more to life than your, the company, the successful company you built, let’s say, and there are many other things to explore in life.

Joel Lessem: and not, not to be, you know, to be prepared for that because I think that’s healthy too.

Naren: Thank you so much. I want to unpack some of this. So, let me ask a couple of follow-up questions. but let’s do it rapidly. What, what, what are your thoughts on sleep? I know you didn’t touch on that.

Joel Lessem: Well, sleep has been a problem for me.

Joel Lessem: I suffer from periodic insomnia, and staying asleep is very challenging, mainly because I have a busy mind.

Naren: Right.

Joel Lessem: I think hard about things, and I think my brain wakes me up a lot at night. And so, it’s really, it’s tough, and I did finally improve that. You know, I tried all sorts of things like lots of exercise, eating healthy, you know, trying to wind up, you have to calm your mind, meditation, throw the book at it. It’s not easy for everybody to get a good night’s sleep, especially if they have a very busy life. and so, but sleep is one thing we can’t survive without; lack of sleep is one of the 11 major causes of dementia. It’s like it’s all sorts of problems. No animal on earth doesn’t sleep.

Naren: Right.

Joel Lessem: So, it’s really important you need to do better sleep.

Joel Lessem: It’s kind of when your brain kind of goes and sorts itself out and, you know, gives itself rest and, of course, the rest of the body; you talked about many interesting things.

Naren: You talked about food, you talked about exercise, and you also talked about this idea of taking a break, and you said at least one day, a full day, meaning not just six hours, eight hours, but 24 hours. That’s what I assume you meant, like, totally breaking away from your work, right?

Naren: Can you expand on that?

Naren: Would you even recommend two days, if possible, that one-day kind of all-in?

Joel Lessem: Yeah.

Joel Lessem: No, I, I certainly did.

Joel Lessem: I mean, and, with the firm as it became, you know, we got, I got a strong group of managers around me.

Joel Lessem: I was able to take weekends off and, and I think it’s important, it was a resolution I made in starting the second startup because I made a mistake in the first startup of, I’ve now had, I didn’t have a family, my first startup. I was still single but to regulate myself as I went through this next journey, which was far more successful than the first one. And so, you know, it’s just, you take that time, try to be efficient with your work during the week. and, you know, just take the time to focus on other things on the weekend. I mean, look, sometimes it’s inevitable. Something is under a time crunch; you gotta put some hours into the weekend. But, and more importantly, like I’m a, I exercise every day when I’m exercising. most of the time, I don’t have my phone with me. I think putting the phone away is critical. so my mind can just be on other things, you know, and, you know, whether it’s, particularly when you’re playing the sport, you know, with, you know, whether it’s a game you’ve got to focus on or, you know, you’re playing piano, or even you’re reading a book that has nothing to do with business, right? or you’re, you know, you have to be able to take a break from it.

Joel Lessem: I think it might have to, but it’s healthier to take a break from it.

Naren: Thank you.

Naren: And one thing, I learned, and it was just by accident.

Naren: I was getting so many spam calls, like 15 to 20 a day, and I was getting so tired of it.

Naren: So there’s a feature on an iPhone where you can, say, send everything to a voicemail unless it’s from somebody on your contact list.

Naren: And that kind of really helped me.

Naren: So I don’t get bugged by people.

Naren: I don’t want to get bugged by it; it just goes to voicemail, it goes to voicemail, and even my voicemail.

Naren: I say, you know, I don’t check my voicemail very often.

Naren: But if you need something urgently, text me.

Naren: So if they listen to it, they’ll text me.

Naren: I mean, I also think that you can’t achieve that kind of balance unless you put trust in your managers.

Joel Lessem: True, true. And many entrepreneurs can’t, or some have a hard time doing that. They’re so used to running the whole thing themselves because that’s how it worked when they started. They don’t let go, and they have to be involved in every decision and approve every initiative at every level. And it’s bad for the business. It’s bad for their managers. They’re not happy about it, and it’s bad for them. And so, you know, I think one critical thing is that you recognize your managers are going to do things slightly differently than you would do it. But that’s OK. As long as it’s a good result, there’s always more than one way to solve or execute a problem. And I think that’s critical. I find a lot of entrepreneurs fall into it. I’m so busy. My calendar is so jammed. I have no time because they’re not, they don’t have either, they don’t have good managers, or they’re not allowing managers to develop. And so, I had the least busy calendar of all my staff.

Joel Lessem: My, and the reason was that I wasn’t involved in every work process.

Joel Lessem: I would give them the work.

Joel Lessem: Of course, I would measure the results and monitor them, and if there were a problem somewhere, I would come in and help.

Joel Lessem: But, as a general rule, I was like, I basically would delegate to others over, especially at scale.

Joel Lessem: And, you know, I, it allowed me to live a much healthier life, and the business was, I mean, we had a rule of 50 business every year, I mean, profit and growth combined, and it, it was in the top, you know, 5% pile, you know, it executed well. Still, it’s all about leveraging other people and having a healthy mind, and it affects how you treat other people, too, if you’re healthy, right?

Naren: True, true.

Joel Lessem: Your stress level will impact everyone around you.

Naren: Yeah, I think a good testament of an entrepreneur manager is what happens after they leave. I’ve looked at your business and a few others, and I noticed your business is doing much better after you have left compared to some of these other businesses.

Joel Lessem: I think sometimes you have a superstar CEO who is exceptional.

Joel Lessem: But when they leave things, don’t you?

Naren: Right.

Naren: Yeah.

Naren: And that’s something you, you, I think a lot of people can learn from, like, how do you, and that’s a great point.

Naren: It’s kind of like your child, you know, if you once stop being a parent and they fall apart, you didn’t do it.

Naren: Maybe they did a great job teaching them how to be adults.

Naren: You know, and so, yeah, Firmex continues to do well, and, you know, it’s the management team that developed the, the company, and I’m very proud of that.

Naren: I think that’s like, kind of like 100% like if you want to measure yourself as a good manager, it’s how the business does without you is a key measure in that analysis, right?

Naren: Because I mean, that business lives on even though you are not, you know, slave, you know, working hard for it.

Joel Lessem: That’s the beauty of it.

The Challenges of Letting Go of Your Company:

Naren: I’d like to start with a topic that many entrepreneurs struggle with: letting go of their company. Could you share some insights on this?

Joel Lessem: Absolutely. I recently spoke with a 77-year-old entrepreneur who was hesitant to sell his 200-employee company because he didn’t know who he would be without it. Eventually, you need to let others own your company. It becomes its independent organism, much like a child growing up and becoming independent. Your job is done, and there’s more to explore in life.

Importance of Trusting Your Managers:

Naren: Trusting your managers seems crucial. Can you elaborate on that?

Joel Lessem: Absolutely. Trusting your managers is essential. You must recognize that they may do things differently from you, but as long as they achieve good results, that’s what matters. Micro-managing every decision or initiative can harm your business and your well-being. When you let go and trust your managers, you can achieve a better work-life balance.

Maintaining Work-Life Balance:

Naren: You mentioned work-life balance. Could you share your thoughts on this?

Joel Lessem: Maintaining a work-life balance is vital. I recommend taking at least one full day off each week, ideally 24 hours when you completely disconnect from work. It’s also essential to put your phone away and focus on other activities, whether sports, music, or reading. This break is necessary for a healthy mind. Quality sleep is also crucial; lack of sleep can adversely affect your health.

Final Thoughts and Encouragement for Entrepreneurs:

Naren: Thank you for sharing those valuable insights, Joel. Do you have any final thoughts or encouragement for entrepreneurs?

Joel Lessem: To all aspiring entrepreneurs, remember that success often involves multiple attempts. Don’t get disheartened if your first or second try doesn’t succeed. Luck plays a role, and second chances are common. Keep giving it your best shot, and your dream may come true one day.

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Director of Marketing – Ekwa.Tech & Ekwa Marketing
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“Embrace data, efficiency, and customer-centricity. Remember to balance work and life, recharge through hobbies, and never tie your identity solely to your business.”

– Joel Lessem –