Adapt or die

A conversation with author and entrepreneur Julien Smith, keynote speaker at this year’s The ONE conference.

In a peripatetic career that has taken him from Montreal sales clerk to pioneering podcaster to founding CEO of Breather, a 250-person space rental company, Julien Smith has learned a thing or two about adapting. In advance of his September keynote speech at the ONE conference in Halifax, CPA Canada spoke to Smith about how to adapt in an ever-changing world.

How do you build adaptability into a corporate environment that can be quite rigid?
As a company grows and becomes older—like, by year one—it has to, by definition, become adaptable or it dies. In year three, a company develops processes—and as it develops processes, it essentially is constantly choosing either to be streamlined, which is one form of efficiency, or to be adaptable, which is another form of efficiency when the future is uncertain. My company, when it was one year old, we did whatever we needed to do that day. That’s the most adaptable you can become. Now, I will say we probably design in quarters.

But, it’s much easier when you’re a young start-up to build in adaptability than if you’re a GE or IBM and dealing with hundreds of thousands of employees.
I think what happens for a larger company is they just need to look toward what are the systemic changes coming that are going to affect their business. Take cloud computing. In the very beginning, everyone had their own circle of things, including IBM; now you have every company instead going in the opposite direction, using cloud computing because it’s heading in that direction. It’s about how we make sure that we disrupt that thing inside of our company and win that nascent market, instead of someone else.

You’ve used a phrase before in your talks: “Become a weapon or be destroyed.” If you’re a business professional trying to navigate office politics, how do you “weaponize” yourself?
Inside of a company, you have a set of people who are trying to make this work and keep their heads down—and then you have a set of people who are, to a degree, troublemakers. And, these troublemakers are often super well-intentioned, sometimes not…but there’s a set of people who are like, “Hold on, we need to look at what this company is doing over here.” And there’s this cultural reaction. In a small company, that critical force is a hundred times, a thousand times, more powerful than at a large company, where the shift in culture needs to come from the top.

You studied at a temple in Japan, and the original concept for Breather was a meditation studio business. How would you describe the Zen influence on how your company operates?
The fundamental thesis behind our company, and why we started it, was: Space is very scarce. Our bodies and our brains need space—and that space needs to be productive and useful and able to be something that’s hopefully accessible. You see that everywhere. You see that in the loss of sacred spaces: it’s impossible to find a space that’s quiet, so we have this collective café culture to kind of replace that to a degree. And you see it by the loss of people having their own office in commercial real estate, because everyone’s office is now an open office plan. And so everyone begins to buy $400 noise canceling headphones to be able to get some peace and quiet, and get some work done.

Speaking of adaptability, you started off in sales at Eaton’s in Montreal two decades ago. How and why did you decide to forgo the corporate world for life as an entrepreneur?
I would not have defined myself as an entrepreneur back then. I would just have said that it’s hard for me to work for other people, so, progressively, I started to develop my own projects. Being an entrepreneur—a failing one sometimes; a successful one if you succeed at least once—means having that ability to fundamentally adapt in the face of death. Your company’s death. Or maybe your savings and debt. Starting a project, you could be right or you could be wrong—but it’s one of the best ways to try and become fundamentally adaptable to reality.

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Disclaimer

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the interview subject and do not necessarily reflect that of CPA Canada.