John Baker, President and CEO of D2L
Published by Speaking of Business Podcast on
This transcript is unedited.
GOLDY HYDER:Welcome to Speaking of Business, Conversations with Canadian Innovators, Entrepreneurs, and Business Leaders. I’m Goldy Hyder, President and CEO of the Business Council of Canada.
Today, I’m speaking with John Baker of D2L, the world-leading education software company, based in Kitchener, Ontario. John was a 22-year-old student at the University of Waterloo when he started D2L. Fastforward two decades, and the technology he created is now helping millions of customers around the world in school, colleges, universities, government, and business.
In this episode, we’ll hear how a young man with a dream help launch a learning revolution. We’ll also talk about John’s biggest regret as a CEO and the mistake that almost cost him the company. It’s a fascinating story, so let’s get straight to it.
John, thanks so much for doing this.
JOHN BAKER: Goldy, it’s a real pleasure to be joining you here today.
GOLDY HYDER:All right. Let’s start off with the thing that I think our listeners are going to want to know right away. D2L, what is that?
JOHN BAKER: D2L stands for Desire2Learn. It’s a learning platform that’s used by schools, universities, and companies all over the world to do a more modern way of learning.
GOLDY HYDER:Now, why not call it Design2Learn? I know the answer, I think, but tell me why not?
JOHN BAKER: Well, if you actually look at the old definition of study, you know, more than a thousand years ago, it’s not the definition you find in the — in the dictionary today. Today, they talk about mental effort, clinical, attentive. You can picture yourself cramming for an exam. But in the old days, they used to talk about desire, passion, pursuit, zeal, excitement. And Desire2Learn came from that passion of ours to really spark that type of activity within, not only students, but also, employees all over the world.
GOLDY HYDER:John, tell us a little bit about D2L today. I know you’re based in Kitchener, Waterloo. What are your operations like? How global are you? How many people do you employ?
JOHN BAKER: So, we operate in 13 different countries around the world. We have clients in over 50. We have learned that are using our platform in pretty much every country of the world. And today, we have — approaching 800 employees globally and growing quite quickly. And then, if you look at our client base, we tend to span almost every sector. So, we have folks that are using us in schools, universities, companies all over the world.
GOLDY HYDER:So, you’ve got 800 employees, you’re in 13 countries, you know, a very diverse clientele. How did it all start?
JOHN BAKER: So, it started off small, with me knocking on doors of individual faculty members, literally, walking from door-to-door on various different companies that were in town, and asking them if they wanted to put courses online. And after, you know, explaining to them how to use the internet —
GOLDY HYDER:And what was the reaction?
JOHN BAKER: It was not — it was not easy. First of all, you had to get over the fact that I was 22 at the time and try to help them understand how to modernize their business or their learning practices was a bit of a stretch. And it took a number of different attempts at trying to find the right clients to be able to find folks that believed enough to give me a shot and go off and build something for them. And that referential business just kept snowballing from that point forward.
GOLDY HYDER:And this was all happening in ’99. Of course, the dot-com boom was at its peak and investors were literally throwing money at tech start-ups. How was it for you and did you find it easy to raise money?
JOHN BAKER: It was hard. So, here I was not chasing the traditional dot-com path, where, as a software developer, you would have been $100,000 in a — you know, some of my classmates were getting a bonus of a car to start. It was, you know, a crazy time. I decided to go off and do something that was — I felt, had more meaning.
So, what did it mean? It meant that as I started in Waterloo, literally, every building in the entire city was leased out for technology companies and others that were just building. And so, I had to setup shop in Kitchener, which is now, sort of, the epicentre for a lot of the entrepreneurship in the community. But at the time, I was one of two technology companies in the entire area.
And then, trying to convince folks to come join this start-up that had not raised money was also hard. You know, we had people here that came on board as volunteers in the very early days just because they believed in what we were doing.
GOLDY HYDER:And tell us who the “we” was. It’s just basically some classmates and your sister?
JOHN BAKER: At the time, it was co-op students and my sister. And then, it was my brother and my other brother. And then, eventually, we managed to be able to afford our first full-time employee. And then, it just kept going from there. And so, to me, the idea of being able to go out and raise money on this idea of, you know, transforming traditional classrooms or, you know, helping to go from face-to-face training in boardrooms to online learning was something that I remember investors saying, “This is not a fundable idea. This is not an idea that will take off.”
I even remember going to grant agency, saying, you know, “I think there’s folks that learn on phones in the future,” and they laughed me out of the room.
GOLDY HYDER:Hang on a minute here, John. You — you literally had a crystal ball, you were able to look into it, and see that people would be learning on these phones that they’re holding in their hands. No doubt that was meant with a lot of cynicism, but I’m not going to meet you with any cynicism now when I ask you: what is the crystal ball telling you for the next 20 years?
JOHN BAKER: The first 20 years were fairly straightforward, at least in my head, was take the traditional classroom, digitize it, what would that look like, and how would that fit on anything that you had access to, whether it’s a phone, or a laptop, or a desktop. The next 20 years, I think is going to be even more exciting because we actually get to transform the actual experience. Now, that it’s gone digital, we can actually change how we actually learn.
Good examples would be things like competency-based learning. So, instead of saying, “Hey, all these students need to sit in this class for 110 hours out of the year to be able to pass,” we could say, “Here are our expectations for competencies. Here’s the level of mastery you need to have. And if you can do that in five days, great. If it takes you five years, that’s fine. Just be able to work through and progress at the pace that you need to be able to progress.”
That’s a gamechanger. And all of our studies that we’ve seen, we’re seeing students learning twice as fast, retaining the knowledge for longer, scoring higher on exams. But that’s not why you do it. Why you do it is to free up time. And why you free up time is to get back to, interestingly, the old definition of study, so you can pursue a passion, pursue a dream, be a better entrepreneur, solve problems in your community, solve problems in our companies, be a better artist, musician, whatever it is that you want to go off and do in your life. By leveraging technology today, we can free time, so that we can go off and help people reach a better potential than their reaching today.
And so, I think in the next 20 years, you’re going to see us apply technology to make that educational experience more human. You’re going to see us be able to leverage technology in ways that are going to spark creativity, and imagination, and help people reach heights that we have never seen before. So, I’m very excited about the next 20 years. And if we can do this quickly, that’s the key, so that we can tackle making sure that people are ready for this future work that’s coming a lot faster than it used to in the past.
GOLDY HYDER:What strikes me as interesting is, you know, when I think of entrepreneurs, you know, they’re portrayed as being driven by growth and driven by profit. And yet, in your story, it sure screams just doing good.
JOHN BAKER: Well, you know, I’ve always talked about growth and — well, and the money that comes through revenue in terms of building a business is a means to an end, not the end. You know, you are trying to create something. You’re trying to go off and do something in the world to create real value. That’s what you’re trying to accomplish.
The money that’s coming in to support that is a critical component. And don’t get me wrong, I — I really value our customers. I really value them paying for the services that we’re providing because it enables us to go off and do something even bigger. And to me, that was always a factor. And I’m — you’re right. I remember having debates with early D2L’ers (sic) around, you know, “What was the purpose of our company?” And we had these conversations, and it wasn’t about the money. It was about going off and really having an impact on the world. And we’ve been very fortune to have people that came in that believed in that.
GOLDY HYDER:Right. And I want to explore what you just said in terms of how. Because how do you raise money from investors if your goal is to do good? You know, you — you’ve, obviously, had to raise money, you talked about bootstrapping it out of the gate. But you’ve had several different rounds in which you were able to raise capital. What’s the narrative? Why are they jumping in on this?
JOHN BAKER: Well, I think we had investors jump in because they saw lots of growth. And so, you know, even though we were bootstrapping it in the early days, we were doubling in size every year for many years, and that’s attractive for investors as well.
Now, what we tried to do when we went to take money is, we tried to do it in a way where, you know, we didn’t give up control. We took folks that came onboard as minority investors and believed in the longterm vision that we were trying to go after. Which was nothing short of changing the way the world learns.
And you’re right. There’s definitely a need for them to have an economic outcome. You know, in our case, you know, we want to get to a point where we have an IPO. But, again, that’s just not a — that’s not an end. That’s just, sort of, the next stop along the way of us going off and achieving our dream.
GOLDY HYDER:Now, is there pedigree in the family of educators?
JOHN BAKER: You know, there are. My two parents are educators. My dad, my mom, and my grandfather. And in my family, most of my cousins, you know, went on to either be engineers or doctors or, in some cases, educators.
GOLDY HYDER:So, you’re the third generation then, I guess?
JOHN BAKER: So, yeah. You could say I’m the third generation. You know, and I come from a very small town and I definitely saw the power of education impacting the people that my parents taught. We grew up in a small fishing village on the east coast of Newfoundland. And there, many of the students still stay in touch with my folks. I remember them coming to visit the house all the time, even years after they graduated.
Some went on and became doctors, some were in the hospitals, some teach in various different universities around the world, some are CEOs of companies today. And they still stay in touch with my parents, even from that small community, even though they moved on to other places around the world. And it’s not hard to see the impact that education can have in terms of transforming lives.
And so, there probably was an element of that, but I can tell you, following my parents into the profession was not the thing that was weighing in my head at the time. You know, it was really to apply my engineering skills that I’d picked up at the University of Waterloo, to really have an impact on the world. And I really hadn’t put two and two together with me falling back into the family business, if you will —
JOHN BAKER: — until, you know, a few years later.
GOLDY HYDER:When you were growing up, despite having, you know, parents who were in education, what did you — like what did you want to be?
JOHN BAKER: I had a dream of becoming a doctor, like many others in my family. And my parents thought, you know, instead of doing a traditional path of biology or some other program, that maybe I could go experiment with engineering and being able to apply that discipline to the field of healthcare in the future. And I loved it.
And when I started to go back and — you know, in my third year of universities, to take anatomy and some kinesiology programs to get ready for med school, it became apparent to me the impact that I could have using technology in this space. And that was one of the key reasons I started D2L.
GOLDY HYDER:Now, you started off, as you said, you know, “I’m out to change the world and have an impact.” And then, suddenly, you find yourself as president and CEO and you’re doing a start-up. And you’re growing the organization, you’re managing it. Surely, you’re a normal president and CEO, and all kinds of stuff was coming at you from, you know, HR to legal to finance to – you know, then contracts, decisions that you had to make.
Were you enjoying that — enjoying that role, given you had studied engineering and wanted to be a doctor, and suddenly, you’re basically president and CEO of a company?
JOHN BAKER: Did I relish every moment of that? Probably not. There was certainly hard things. There — you know, there was a number of books that I had to crack open to learn. There were a lot of advisors that I had to go reach out to to get advice on, but I was also very — really fortunate. We had a lot of other D2L’ers in the company in those early days, whether they be a student as a co-op or our early full-time employees that dug in and helped, I don’t think any of us really looked at it as our job to do one specific thing. We all, kind of, chipped in to help build the company to the point where it was.
All my co-op experiences that I had a student were ones where I got an opportunity to see leadership in action, and it really helped build a lot of the skills that I applied right out of the gate in terms of building D2L as a company.
One great example would be Claude Lamoureux. I don’t know if you know him, but he used to run Teachers’ Pension Plan Board. He and I would spend time together, even as I was a student, you know, because I was there late into the evenings working. And so, as he would do his walkabouts of the office, he would stop by and say hello because, you know, on most nights, I was probably the only one still there.
And those leaders over the years that help give you a little bit of confidence or a little bit of a boost certainly were an inspiration. And Waterloo is famous for helping other entrepreneurs being successful. You know, whether that’s through organizations, like Communitech, or the University of Waterloo, or Laurier, or others, it’s the ability to come together as a community to help solve challenges.
And I was really fortunate. You know, even as a small, little start-up, I was sitting in the same room with folks that founded OpenText and MKS, at the time, or Blackberry. And being able to work with them to get ideas on what I was going to need to tackle in the future. And me, a little start-up, sharing some of the ideas that I had for how to do business differently.
GOLDY HYDER:What’s something you wish somebody had told you when you were just starting all of this and it would have made a big difference to you?
JOHN BAKER: That’s an easy one for me. I really wish someone said, “Patent your ideas, protect your intellectual property right out of the gate.” In fact, I actually got the opposite advice. I was told, you know, “Software is not patentable. You shouldn’t pursue that path.” And that was a — probably the biggest mistake I ever — ever made.
GOLDY HYDER:Now, tell us more why you’re saying that. What happened?
JOHN BAKER: You know, as you’re a start-up and you’re successful and you’re going from one stage to the next and you’re — you know, you’re winning dozens of clients, and eventually, you know, hundreds of clients, your competitors sometimes use whatever weapon they have to, sort of, hold you back.
And in my case, when were 65 employees, a small, little company, and half of those were probably co-op students, we were sued by our major competitor in the Eastern District of Texas. And found ourselves, sort of, in a potential company ending situation through litigation over a patent that we thought was — was not novel. And we — we decided to fight and go through a big, expensive journey to protect our ability to do business and to allow others in the field to even be in the field.
So, if I look back, if I had protected some of our ideas in the early days, we would have found ourselves with a — you know, the ability to fight back with other weapons that we didn’t have when we — we were simply just going off there and being purely mission driven than doing everything for good.
GOLDY HYDER:A lot of financial resources would have been used up in that exercise with lawyers. How did you do that?
JOHN BAKER: Well, I don’t know if you — if you watch The Simpsons ever —
JOHN BAKER: — the cartoon? It’s — it’s a classic. Well, it was very much like that.
JOHN BAKER: You know, Mr. Burns walks in and he has like 22 lawyers behind him and filling a courtroom. Well, it was exactly that. We had — you know, the other side had 20 or 30 different lawyers tossing motions at us all the time. And we were using all of our resources to have an equivalent army of folks on our side to be able to fight.
But picture this, like you’re spending millions and millions and millions of dollars, and remember, you’re a start-up bootstrapped. And you had, at that time, like, I think there was 40 of us that were full-time employees, 65 total if you — if you count everybody. That was not an easy thing to do. So, we diverted all of our resources into litigation and, at the same time, being able to support ongoing R&D that allowed us to continue the — sort of, fight the fight.
And we took a very different approach in that — in that journey. We’re — we actually blogged about it, told people what we were going through —
JOHN BAKER: — shared our experiences, for better or for worse, all the way along. And I — I actually thing that part of it was probably the smartest thing we could have done from a communication perspective. Because I don’t — I don’t think if we — if we didn’t make that decision, I think we — we wouldn’t be here today because, you know, fear and uncertainty is something that kills a lot of companies, especially, as you go through that kind of a battle.
GOLDY HYDER:I mean, you’re lucky, right? It could have gone the other way. Did you ever, through this process, thing to yourself, “You know what? Good run. Why don’t we just sell to these guys?”
JOHN BAKER: Well, I think that was why they were doing it. And I don’t think I realized how bad of a spot we were in until we actually found out what they were looking for from us. And in that case, it was, you know, tens and tens of millions of dollars in damages and ongoing royalties, right?
JOHN BAKER: But we didn’t learn that until we got to trial.
JOHN BAKER: And so, why would I ever sell to them? Like, I think the same reason today, I — I have a vision for where learning needs to go in the future, and I don’t think they have it, and I certainly didn’t value their values, and would not want our clients to have to use their software or to work with them. And so, it was really just a principle fight, from that perspective. It was not an economic argument. And so, we — we took the principle approach and we went off and fought the battle at tremendous cost.
Could we have taken an easier route? Probably. Would the industry be what it is today? Probably not, if we did — did do that.
GOLDY HYDER:All right. So, the lesson, clearly, for those of you listening, entrepreneurs, patents, get yourself a patent. That or —
JOHN BAKER: Yes.
GOLDY HYDER:That or be ready to spend millions on — on lawyers. Look, you know, when I — when we’re looking at the trajectory of the company, I couldn’t help but get a feeling that you’re just really starting out. You know, the future must look really bright, given what’s going on in the world on, not just education in the traditional sense, in terms of classroom, but reskilling, relearning, the opportunities that are on the corporate side.
I mean, I — I feel like there’s going to be requirements for people to go back to school when they’re 50, so they can learn how to work for the rest of their life after that. Do you feel like there’s just nothing but growth ahead of you here and that that’s the landscape in which you’re operating or is it still a challenge?
JOHN BAKER: Well, you hit it, Goldy. Which is 20 years in, I’m actually more excited about the next 5 years that I was at any point in the past 20. I think the need for what we’re doing has just accelerated very quickly. As folks look at upscaling or reskilling to prepare themselves for the future of work, that is a critical job that we want to go off and accomplish.
Today, it’s really hard. So, if you see something come to an end, you know, whether it’s a — you know, a line in a factor or certain jobs going away, thanks to automation, that’s a big disruption for peoples’ lives. But I’m optimist. I actually think the studies are right. I think we’re going to create more jobs than we’re going to destroy.
But I also realize that we, in our company, need to step up to help make that transition easier for folks, to help them get the new skills that they’re going to need for those future jobs while they still are in their current job. And in the early days, we used to think we could have the biggest impact on peoples’ lives in education, which is why we started there. But today, I think we’re going to have just as big, if not bigger, of an impact in helping the current workforces that we have today reskill for the jobs of the future. That’s probably the — one of the biggest challenges that we, as a country, as a world, need to tackle over the next ten years.
GOLDY HYDER:Now, you’re doing a lot of things, the company is doing a lot of things around the future of work. It’s certainly an area that a lot of Business Council members and others are quite — quite focused on. How do you see this issue of the future of work impacting our education system?
JOHN BAKER: Well, I think there’s really two camps that are setting up. There’s a camp that says, “The education system, universities, colleges, schools are not going to be able to equip the future generation with the skills they’re going to need because they’re unable to change fast enough, and they’re certainly not going to be able to reskill the workforce for the future.”
And then, there’s a camp, by the way, that I’m in, which believes that with the right tooling and the right support and the right resources, we can actually make a change in the education system to really go off and tackle this challenge. And the reason being is, I don’t think we can afford to do it without their support. I don’t think any company has all the resources in the world to go off and help folks reskill into the areas that they need to get the skills for the future today.
So, it doesn’t matter if you’re a big bank and you can spend hundreds of millions on this challenge, it’s not enough. We, as a society, need to come together and tackle this. And there’s no better way to do it than taking the current folks, whether it’s the universities and colleges or others, and helping them modernize the experience, do things differently, retool, help speak the same language as business to be able to go off and tackle this challenge.
It’s not going to be easy, but I think it is a challenge that all of us want to go off and embrace, and now, it’s just a matter of execution through it. I am a bit of an optimist. I think, you know, we can do this, but I also know, at the same time, it’s not going to be easy.
GOLDY HYDER:Your big idea, as it’s described, is, you know, making education more human by using the power of technology.
JOHN BAKER: Yeah.
GOLDY HYDER:And now, you’re operating in many countries around the world. How does Canada fair? How do we stack up in terms of our system? What are the things that you’re seeing globally that maybe we can learn from?
JOHN BAKER: Well, we are very fortunate to work with countries all over the world, clients all over the world. And so, we have wonderful clients in spots like Finland, or we’re helping to teach professional developments in spots like Indonesia, or working with great companies, like Accenture, or Walmart, and many, many others all over the world.
So, we’re very fortunate to be able to see different education systems and different practices in the — in corporate or otherwise. I think Canada’s, by and large, doing really well. If you look at the K-12 system, depending on what measure you’re looking at, we’re in the top three; some would argue the top one, depending on which — which jurisdiction you are in Canada.
If you look at higher education, we’re graduating more students on time than any other country in the world. So, while other jurisdictions are really struggling here, the U.S. is falling very quickly to, now, I think they’re in the 30th spot and going down. Canada’s stayed very strong. Now, it’s got lots of competition. And if you look at younger generations going through post-secondary education, you know, there’s great spots like Korea or other jurisdictions, like Singapore and China, certainly, are, sort of, climbing the rankings. And so, we’ve got to continue to put more energy in making sure that more of our young people get that secondary and post-secondary education to get into the workforce to be able to really support the jobs of the future.
And then, for companies, what I see in Canada is a lot of CEOs and a lot of heads of learning that really care deeply about their employees. And so, I’m optimistic that this country has a strong foundation to build from and that we can be, if not the, or very close to being the leader in the world, when we go through this transformation of the future of work. But, again, I’m an optimist. It’s going to take a lot of work. It’s going to take a lot of energy from everyone across all sectors to be able to embrace this challenge.
GOLDY HYDER:Now, speaking of challenges, one of the things I hear a lot as I travel, but particularly, from our members at the Business Council is talent, the need for talent. Are you able to find the talent that you need as you grow your business?
JOHN BAKER: Well, I think that’s one of the edges that we have in Waterloo and our other centres all over the country, whether it’s Toronto, or Winnipeg, or Vancouver, or other spots that we’re — we’ve got offices, we’re finding great talent. You know, whether it’s new grads coming from the universities or folks with the experience. But we’ve also tapped into a global network. We’ve got some of our executives in Silicon Valley. We’ve got leadership in far off locations, like the U.K., or in Brazil, or in Singapore, or Australia.
So, we’re trying to tap into that global network. And I think the challenges that we used to have in the past, where everyone had to be in the same office, have kind of disappeared, thanks to technology. Where we have gaps in talent, we can now pull them from all these different global locations, and we’re doing a pretty job of that here at this company.
And then, at the same time, we do need to develop our talent. The jobs of the future are going to demand different skills. And so, we need to help our people go through those transitions. Technology, we’re not immune. We go through this all the time. We’ve rebuilt our technology stacks multiple times over multiple years. And so, every time we go through those evolutions, we have to reskill, reenergize, re-excite our teams to make that leap each time.
And so, it doesn’t matter what field or industry you’re in, finding talent’s going to be a continual challenge. But I think if we can develop the talent that we have within our companies, that’s a far less expensive way to do it, it’s fair less disruptive, and it’s a great way for us to really be able to carry that institutional knowledge forward as we move from one evolution to the next.
GOLDY HYDER:Great point. Now, you mentioned you’re doing these things pretty well. You have a very diverse team, from what I’ve read, and the value of diversity, but also a gender balanced leadership team; is that true?
JOHN BAKER: Yeah. More than half of my senior leadership team are women. And if you look at diversity across the organization, it’s very strong. We’ve done that, based upon, sort of, a merit-based approach. There’s no — no quotas or things like that that we’ve established. That’s just been making sure that we invest heavily to find the best candidate pools and — and really find the right talent for the right job.
And I’ve been very fortunate to have a great team across the organization that — that reflects that diversity. I think you also got to create the right environment that gives folks the psychological safety and the — and the feeling like they can express themselves and their identity here in the organization as strong as they can. And that certainly helps as a magnet to attract others.
GOLDY HYDER:You know, as I listen to you speak, obviously, with great pride about your culture and the things that you’ve been able to do, part of the reason you’ve been able to do it is the — sort of, the control that you have over the organization. And you mentioned, perhaps, one day you’ll do a full-born IPO. Does that make you think, “Uh-oh (sic), you know, how am I going to keep this culture? How am I going to keep building this company the way we’ve built it?” or are you mindful that, “You know what? Someday, I need to do an IPO to scale up?”
JOHN BAKER: Well, yeah. I think building for the future has always been a priority for me. There’s no question about that. I think as you — as you grow in terms of the development of the company, you realize you can’t control everything. There’s no issue with that for me. I think the quicker that we can delegate responsibilities as a start-up founder to others in the team, the faster you learn that, “Wow. They’re doing a really good job; way better than I would have ever done that.” And it actually gives you great enthusiasm to go off and expand that and help empower others to go off and achieve the best that they can with their career and their jobs within the company.
My hope is that we instil a great culture here that lives well beyond me, that, you know, is focused on this mission. A great example, Goldy, is, you know, in the early days, no one had any trouble establishing what were the barriers to getting a great educational experience, or to learning, or to work. A good example would be one that came up all the time was if you were blind. If you were blind in the early days, if you wanted to get an education, that was almost impossible, if not impossible, depending on where you were.
And so, our team said, “Well, that’s an interesting challenge,” and they went off and broke down the barrier. You know, today, if you’re blind, you can participate equally with every other student in the same class, in the same learning system, with everybody and not be held back because of a print disability. Because you can learn; there’s no question.
And so, that culture, certainly, has grown, that seed of an idea that I planted with a few folks early on in the development of D2L. And they’ve taken it way further than I ever expected in terms of building technology to support, you know, that core value, if you will, of inclusion and make it easy for folks to participate in learning.
And so, as we go down this path, yeah, I really hope that we build a culture and a company that lives well beyond me. And part of that is making sure that you get comfortable with giving more and more people control over their destiny and over the company.
GOLDY HYDER:All right. Let’s talk a little bit about yourself. I know that’s hard for people to do, but I’m just curious, you know, like what — how do you learn? How do you learn?
JOHN BAKER: How do I learn?
GOLDY HYDER:How do you learn? You know, I mean, you’re in the business of teaching others, but how do you — how do you learn?
JOHN BAKER: Well, I — I read a lot, I listen to good podcasts, like this one here. No. No. Not — not joking. You know, many of the folks that have spoken on this podcast before, I’ve pulled lessons from. I’ve been very fortune to be welcomed into the Business Council, where I think it’s one of the best, if not the best scale up mentorship program that I’ve ever participate in. Where folks that are running these massive organizations, that have huge responsibilities are taking time during the day to coach or provide lessons or advice to me is incredible. I think it’s — it’s a very special program that was setup by the Business Council, and I’m very fortunate and very lucky to participate in that.
You know, I also grew up in Waterloo, where folks like OpenText founders, or Blackberry founders, or others have no trouble leaving a ladder down and helping the next generation figure out how to climb back up. And that community spirit, in terms of supporting entrepreneurship, has been a real pleasure to be part of. And, you know, there’s hundreds of different technology CEOs here in the community that get together and share ideas and tackle challenges together.
So, a lot of my learning is from peers. It’s from folks that have been in spots that are far more difficult than mine. And being able to talk to them about the challenges we’re going through has been a really big part of how I’ve gone from where — where we were, when we were small, to where we are today.
GOLDY HYDER:Are there leaders that you admire, past or present?
JOHN BAKER: Oh, there is a lot. So, you know, I — I think, in my case, when I first jointed the Business Council, it was Donald, who’s the former CEO of Manulife, provided, sort of, the early mentorship and helped me get connected then with other CEOs. There’s Don Walker, there’s Linda Hasenfratz. There’s so many leaders within the organization that have provided the advice and guidance. It’s been incredible. John McCain, you name it.
And then, if you look at the local community, folks like Jim Boselli, or Tom Jenkins, or Iain Klugman down at Communitech, or Dave Caputo, who ran Sandvine. There’s a long, long list, and I’m going to forget about half of the names. So, I’m going to stop there.
GOLDY HYDER:What’s leadership to you?
JOHN BAKER: Leadership, to me, is doing the hard things in the tough times. It’s not the easy times that define a leader. It’s what happens when hard things happen. And it’s not just leadership within the folks that hold the position. It’s leadership within every person in the entire company. You know, I have a belief that we all have leadership traits and capabilities. And so, it’s being able to bring that out in people all across the organization. That’s what makes a great leader. It’s not about you. It’s about what you help others accomplish.
GOLDY HYDER:And where are you getting your energy?
JOHN BAKER: Oh, everywhere I can. So, whether it’s, you know, attending events, like the Business Council events, or going to conferences, like True North here recently, visiting clients and hearing their stories, talking to folks that are using our technology and how it’s changed their lives. You know, I — I was just down in Georgia and I visited with a school there. And one of the students was picking up an award, and her story was so compelling.
At the age of eight, she lost her ability to see and she had to make a choice between giving up her dream of being an Olympic athlete in swimming or going to school. And, in her case, being able to compete in the Olympics meant you had to do a lot of training. And that was not going to be possible anymore, especially, given the fact that she had to travel three hours to the nearest school for the blind.
And so, in her case, she started taking courses online, using our technology, from the first day of high school onwards, and managed to make the Paralympic team in the U.S., and then, went on to win a gold medal. So, it’s those types of stories that you hear that just gives you goose bumps. It’s not the millions and millions of people that use the technology. It’s the impact that you have on the individual communities.
I remember our first letter that I — we ever received — and it was literally a letter; it wasn’t an e-mail back then — was from a mom who was in one of the First Nation communities in Northern Ontario, who said, “Thank you. Normally, my daughter would have to go off to school and I would ship her off 600 miles from our home community to attend school. And now, because I’m able to take these courses online, she’s able to be here in our community and — and we’ve kept our family intact. So, thank you.” Those are the stores that I — that really give me a lot of energy.
GOLDY HYDER:Now, you must share some of what you do with your — I think you’ve got two girls, right?
JOHN BAKER: You have really done your research. I’ve — I’ve got two little girls; one just turned three and one’s one and a half. And you’re absolutely right, their mom says, “Dad’s going off to try to help improve the way the world learns.”
GOLDY HYDER:Well, that’s good. Now, how do you find the balance? I mean, this is a great struggle for so many in all walks of life, but how do you make sure that you’re a good dad at the same time as being a good leader of a company?
JOHN BAKER: Oh, that’s — that’s — it’s never easy and there’s no easy answer to that, no easy formula. You know, for me, it’s about being present. So, if I go home, I put down the phone as much as I can. I’m there, I sit at the table, have breakfast, and have dinner, and I do everything I can to make sure I keep those weekends open — as open as possible to be able to be there and play with them, and to — to help them, and to talk to them, and read them stories when they go to sleep.
It’s the little things, but, I’ll tell you, it’s — there’s nothing more impactful than walking in that door when you come home — at the end of a — you know, a hard day and seeing two little girls with their eyes just — you know, light up as you walk into the room. That gives you a lot of energy.
GOLDY HYDER:What are your hopes for those girls?
JOHN BAKER: Oh, I’m so excited. I — I’ve so much hope for this next generation. I see these little girls going so far and being able to do so much more than I could ever have accomplished in whatever they want to pursue. And so, my three-year-old is already saying, “Dad, you don’t have to read me this story anymore. Let me read this story to you.” And she literally reads the story word-for-word, clearly, have memorised it from the night before. So, you know, I’m — I — I think this next generation’s going to impress us. I’ve got a lot of confidence.
GOLDY HYDER:All right. As you know, because you’re a listener of the podcast, we like to end the podcast with
a little bit of a word game. But just to warm you up,
before we do, I’m going to ask you one specific question,
which is, what is the one word that describes you?
JOHN BAKER: Probably passion.
JOHN BAKER: Passionate.
GOLDY HYDER:Passionate. All right. Let’s move into
the word game. I say a word, you tell me the first thing
that comes to your mind.
JOHN BAKER: This is going to be a challenge.
JOHN BAKER: Hope.
JOHN BAKER: Pathway.
JOHN BAKER: Hardworking.
JOHN BAKER: In everybody.
JOHN BAKER: Must file.
JOHN BAKER: Nothing’s more important.
JOHN BAKER: A model for the world.
GOLDY HYDER:Thanks so much for doing this, John. It was great having you on.
JOHN BAKER: Thanks, Goldy. A real pleasure.
GOLDY HYDER:Thanks again to John Baker for being my guest on this episode of Speaking of Business. Subscribe now for more conversations with Canada’s top innovators, entrepreneurs, and business leaders. Search, “Speaking of Business,” wherever you find podcasts or visit speakingofbiz.ca to join our e-mail list and follow us on social media.
Until next time, I’m Goldy Hyder.
John Baker is the President and CEO of D2L, the world-leading education software company based in Kitchener, Ontario.
John was a 22-year-old student at the University of Waterloo when he started D2L.
Fast forward two decades and the technology he created is now helping millions of customers around the world – in schools, colleges, universities, government and business.
In this episode we’ll hear how a young man with a dream helped launch a learning revolution.
We’ll also talk about John’s biggest regret as a CEO – and the mistake that almost cost him the company.