As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Graeme Barlow.
Graeme joined the Iversoft team in 2016 as CMO and assumed the role of CEO in 2019. He’s an accomplished serial entrepreneur-turned-advisor-turned-executive, netting three exits to date, including selling his first company for over $1 million before the age of 17. As CEO, Graeme champions Iversoft’s aggressive plan for growth, focusing on developing Iversoft’s strategic direction and leading the company culture by example. His early endeavours were in gaming and social games, where Graeme learned about the powers of well-executed gamification, engagement and user experience. Graeme now uses that knowledge to help clients solve business challenges with technology solutions that integrate game-level engagement strategies. Graeme still enjoys gaming in his spare time. When he isn’t immersed in WoW sessions or working, he can be found speaking on digital transformation and technology trends at events, mentoring entrepreneurs, and advising start-ups and founders.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’ve been a tech entrepreneur for a little over 20 years now, working in everything from virtual currencies, to game development, and spending some time in early-stage venture capital. Now I am fortunate to be CEO of Iversoft, a digital consultancy where we get to work with brands and organizations all over the world on leading-edge, digital solutions, including mobile apps, XR experiences, website and platform development, and digital transformation initiatives. It’s been a pretty incredible journey for me so far to be able to have built so many of my own products and solutions and now, getting to work with a rich diversity of brands around the world working on cutting-edge technology is absolutely amazing and a ton of fun.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Some of the mistakes you make early on can be very expensive — and very painful. I was naïve in some of my earlier endeavours and thought I knew more than I did. Early on, when I was 19, I tried to start a web app advertising platform and decided I was comfortable putting three to five thousand dollars towards the entire project to get it started. I went out and asked for quotes from some companies I wanted to work with, and you can imagine my surprise when the quotes came back in the six-figure range! I was aghast and thought it completely absurd, but of course, I was the one being absurd — I just didn’t know any better. I think back on that a lot, especially when talking to young companies that come to Iversoft for help or quotes; new Founders and entrepreneurs are often so disconnected from the real time and effort it takes to launch something. I truly do believe that is one of the superpowers of young Founders, simply not knowing it shouldn’t be possible and trying anyway. It is also one of the risks, so I’m happy any time I can play a part in to help them navigate that. They have an optimistic view of the world and have a good idea of what they want to build, but no understanding of the reality of how many people and how long it takes to build something good. I see my 19-year-old self in them, so I empathize, but we still can’t say yes to building a Facebook challenger on a shoe-string budget.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I have two answers for you on that! My Mom gave me a bunch of books when I started University that I never really paid attention to, I figured they were nonsense and just put them on a bookshelf for decoration and went on with my life. As I made my way through the first year of University, I quickly became bored and confused as to how this was supposed to help me, and I found myself messing around on the internet a lot. Eventually, I picked up one of those books — it was The Success Principles by Jack Canfield. I’ll be honest, I’ve read the first half of that book numerous times, but I’ve never actually finished it! I didn’t need to, after reading the first half I was so excited to figure out how to build the kind of future I wanted for myself. I don’t think I went back to another class; I dropped out and started doing my own thing again. So that was a big one, the one that started it all.
Now for my second big influence, you mentioned podcasts, but podcasts are a relatively new medium; what I was actually really into was very early YouTube. I have followed Philip DeFranco and his webcast show for years. Almost ten years ago, he did a piece talking about what it was like to run a visual company, what their experience was in the early days of YouTube and what it was like growing up with it. That story has always been an inspiration for me and given me a framework for taking on the unknown. Today, when we’re asked to solve problems for companies and they haven’t really figured out a direction, I think about DeFranco’s journey. We’ve put together a toolkit of apps and campaign data and all kinds of stuff, but the challenge is taking those tools and turning them into something compelling and innovative that’s going to drive business, and often it all has to be done in a shifting landscape — you have to be comfortable with a little uncertainty but also be willing to make little bets.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
My previous two companies were both purpose driven! I even had the privilege of being the first Ottawa-based Certified B Corp with RocketOwl, which was a social gaming company that used games to drive social change. At RocketOwl we partnered with Canadian wildlife federation and reforestation organizations, and as we generated revenue in the game, we donated to those organizations to save forests, and turtles, and all sorts of things. I think it can be an extremely powerful business driver, and if you look at the trends around the future health of our planet, we need to find a way to align corporate interests and the health of the planet. It’s going to be critical for us succeeding as a species and I think my generation and the next generation are a lot more passionate and focused on the health of our planet going forward. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there; it’s extremely powerful to have something beyond capitalistic objectives for your business. It gives more substance to your business for your customers and employees to rally around when they know you’re driving change. I wouldn’t say that Iversoft is intentionally or philosophically a purpose driven company, however as part of our company culture initiatives, we have managed to find some incredible ways to engage the community and use our core skills to make a difference. Little things like doing tech seminars at senior centers we feel do make a difference. So, although we might not be a technically purpose driven company today, it is part of our company culture to give back to the community and aspire to make a difference for the better for our employees, our clients, and our communities. Does that count?
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Always show up. I think that’s it. It’s really basic, it’s really simple, but the vast majority of my success has largely come from just showing up. Specifically, showing up when I didn’t want to. It’s always easy to find reasons not to show up for things, but opportunities often only come to those that are present, those who make an effort. It’s one of the most overlooked priorities for entrepreneurs, or anyone really, just showing up. Show up and see what happens, because if you surround yourself with good people and you show up, there’s a lot of opportunities to be gained.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
It has definitely been an adjustment! We’re in the tech industry, so we have been extremely fortunate. We were able to transition our team fairly quickly to completely distributed remote work, so it hasn’t really had an impact on our ability to deliver our services on a day to day basis. That being said, a lot of my role historically was outside of the office; meeting, interacting with people, networking, going to events — and all of that had stopped completely. I’m doing my best to recreate those opportunities virtually and visually, but it’s been a bit of a transition. I’m optimistic though because what that has meant is, I’m a lot more productive in a week now. All of that time I would have previously spent travelling or navigating the city I can now use that work on the business and still jump on every video conference and phone call I can book. That’s exciting, as people adjust to expect fewer in-person interactions and the tech is put in-place to support more virtual connections that frees up more time to be productive.
I also work with my wife, and historically in our day to day we would interact a bit, but with both of us at different meetings and doing different things, we didn’t cross paths too much. But now, working from home, we’re always together — and working closely on a lot of projects — so we see each other and interact 24–7. That has been an interesting adjustment, but one thing that made a big difference was creating dedicated workspaces for each of us and defining some family-time only space. We also schedule our work around individual and family breaks throughout the day to go for walks, play with the dogs, and we have set times to prepare and eat meals. Before we did that, it was too easy to work long and weird hours and snack at all times. This is much more structured and balanced, and it works for us.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The biggest challenges for us were right at the beginning of the mandatory isolation protocols, mainly stemming from other companies and their reaction to COVID-19. Overnight our marketing portfolio was decimated, our XR and app clients and prospects in the professional sports world froze all work and spending — and that was a big part of our business. The amount of uncertainty early on was a huge challenge. However, since then, we’ve heard from a significant number of brands ready to talk about digital transformation, updating apps, revamping websites and going more online, using more technology and looking to update their digital strategies. A lot of the companies reaching out to us now are companies we have talked to within the past 3–5 years and they just weren’t ready to pull the trigger then. Now priorities have shifted and getting more digital, more efficient and more remote work friendly is their top priority. So that’s been fantastic to see.
Going forward, however, I do think there’s going to be a lot of challenges around commercial real estate and commercial leases. We’ve lost all of our sub tenants since the beginning of COVID-19, and so far, our commercial landlord has not been helpful in adjusting to new realities. In talking with other CEOs and business owners, I find our situation is not uncommon. We’re having to consider what the future of our office space needs really are, what are we going to do with the space we have now once we can get back in, how do we re-shape it so people can be safe and comfortable working there, and how much are they actually going to be working there now that we are set up to work remotely and it’s effective?
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
The first couple of weeks were hard; they were a combination of disrupted lifestyles and routines, combined with everyone watching 24-hour coverage of updates on infection and death rates. It was suffocating and stressful. But eventually we started to get clarity, and governments of all levels rolled out their plans. Once we knew roughly what the support was for business, at least, I was able to level out a bit. I think being aware of — and controlling — how much news and social media you’re consuming is incredibly important. Focusing on forming productive routines in your life helps to add stability right now. Lately, I’ve been pretty proactive with making sure I’m only checking the news or updates briefly and at most once a day. We’ve created routines around walking the dogs, cooking meals, dedicated heads-down work time, and family time, and we make a point of trying to enjoy it; we consciously look for the positives. There is so much exciting opportunity around right now; we’re keen to take advantage of all of it!
I also try to keep some perspective; past generations have been called upon to fight — and die — in wars, and those times saw significant economic impacts as well. Today we’re being asked to isolate, stay at home and stay safe to help prevent millions of people dying. Despite the heaviness of the omnipresent news, we’re lucky to have today’s technology and infrastructure. We can all be connected by video at the touch of a button, we’re not waiting months for letters, and even family members with COVID-19 can stay connected and communicate from isolation or hospitals through calls, video calls, email and messaging. For example, my online gaming community has been a huge positive for me. I have always been a gamer, I love it, and I have a group of people from all over the world I’ve played with for years, so carving out time and making it a priority to connect with them has helped keep me balanced, feel connected, find some extra joy, relax and escape for a bit when needed. So, I guess my advice is: limit your exposure to the never-ending, negative news cycle, create routines and environments that are positive and work for you, reach out and connect with other people, and always look for the positives.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
First, I want to acknowledge, recognize and state that I appreciate the suffering and struggle that come as a result of this for so many. Even when COVID-19 presents as an opportunity for some, we can never forget the people that paid a harsh, or the ultimate price, at the expense of this pandemic. At the same time, we’re a digital company that has built a reputation for and specializes in helping brands and companies go digital. This pandemic has provided insurmountable validation for the work we do. The entire world has been simultaneously exposed to the fact that remote work, works. And the better your digital tools, technology and infrastructure is, the better it works. Some of the most immediate opportunities I think we’ll see, post-COVID will likely be around getting back to work, getting back out into public and traveling again; surface sanitation logging tools, wearable health tech, track and trace apps, stuff like that. Just talking to our clients, we expect to see more growth in the remote and mobile healthcare space, and we have already seen an eLearning application in our portfolio called Math Storytime go from hundreds of downloads per month to over 40,000 downloads in the first week and a half of quarantine. I’m excited; there’s so much opportunity, I think our biggest challenge is just figuring out where to invest and which opportunities to chase.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I think there will be a fundamental shift in what large gatherings look like. I think the logistics, risks and formats will need to be reexamined. We work with a lot of professional sports organizations and big music acts that rely on big crowds for their business model to work, but even for movie theatres, festivals, political rallies — I think change is coming. I think it’s likely we’ll see some kind of face-covering become a standard requirement for large venues. And as mentioned earlier, I think offices and companies are going to change significantly. I think the idea that you need a massive office where everyone is crammed together to work has changed very quickly. I think the trend will be towards more video conferencing and remote work tools. It’s funny, we’re a tech company but I think I can count on one (maybe two) hands how many times in the months leading up to COVID-19 we even used video conferencing! It was either voice calls or in-person meetings, but overnight video became the de facto option. With social distancing and distributed teams, video definitely makes a difference. Until there’s some kind of vaccination, I think larger meetings will remain video conferences even if smaller meetings start to happen before then.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We’re actively reviewing our strategic initiatives, but we are already investing heavily in business development and global growth. Our primary goal is still to expand and work with larger companies going digital. We’re also looking at possible product opportunities, exploring where we can leverage our core skills in mobile and web development and potentially find some product solutions to help post-COVID companies operate more effectively. I think we’re also going to be leaning a lot more into eCommerce solutions and scaling up and growing our eCommerce offerings.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I’d say this is a good time, if you’re not already a digital company, to reflect a bit on what parts of your business are core to the value you create, and what parts have been more based on tradition. I think business models based on trying to get as many people in a small space as possible is a very antiquated philosophy, given the technology at our fingertips. I’d challenge companies to take a break from planning what 3–5 years from now look like for them and take a moment to think about what the future of business will look like in 25 to 50 years. How does that change your plans? How does technology play into the future of business, and ultimately your business?
Secondly, I think we all have an obligation as business leaders now to think about how we keep our employees and customers safe. That’s a big, big thing. As leaders, we need to take this seriously because not everyone will and those that don’t will suffer the consequences, one way or another. The companies and brands that make it through COVID-19 are the ones that will lead the future of business. As a tech company, we’re seeing this as an opportunity to ask questions like when we’re allowed to go back into offices, do we need to? Does the benefit outweigh the potential risk for employees, the cost of sanitization, etc. if we’ve adjusted to a model that works? If that’s true, then how also do we support remote staff and build a robust culture digitally?
How can our readers further follow your work?
@graemebarlow on twitter, LinkedIn or on our website iversoft.ca