For Patrick Spence, being the underdog isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Unlike his peers, who took more conventional routes into consulting or banking after graduating from Ivey Business School, Spence decided to go off the beaten path and join a small, Canadian wireless technology company.
In 1997, Waterloo-based Research In Motion (RIM) had just 150 employees and an annual revenue of approximately $30 million. With the launch of the BlackBerry in 1999, all of a sudden RIM wasn’t the underdog anymore. In a few short years, the mobile communications pioneer would become the most valuable company in Canada, growing to more than 17,000 employees and more than $20 billion in annual revenue at its peak. Spence’s career grew right along with it.
“There’s no better feeling than a really good team achieving things together that everybody else thinks is impossible. That’s really the story of my career,” said Spence, who spent 14 years at RIM, beginning with sales, marketing and IT positions to eventually becoming Senior Vice-President and Managing Director of Global Sales & Regional Marketing. “RIM afforded me some incredible opportunities. I had the chance to learn from two of Canada’s greatest entrepreneurs of all time and be part of a Canadian success story that I’m just so proud of.”
Spence, HBA’98, was there “through it all” – opening up a region in Asia-Pacific and heading up the North American, European, Middle Eastern and African divisions and, finally, global sales and marketing for RIM. In 2012, as RIM lost traction in the market, he decided to take a chance on another underdog: Sonos.
“I’ve always prided myself in joining companies trying to do hard things, which are great and exciting – kind of off the beaten path and going up against incumbents. At Sonos, I found an amazing group of people who were so focused on building great products and doing something special. It seemed like a natural next step,” Spence said.
At the time, the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based wireless speaker and home sound system company was just starting to make a name for itself in the home entertainment field, with 300 employees and a modest revenue.
“Something we did early on at Sonos – and could have done better at RIM – is clearly define the values that are important and stick with those. That helps guide every decision you make at the company and helps scale the culture. We’re now at 1,300 employees. When you scale like that, you have to have something that helps guide people, like a North Star.”
In January, after five years with the company whose ‘North Star’ is to “fill every home with music,” Spence was named CEO when the company’s founder, John MacFarlane, stepped down. It’s an honour, Spence said, to take over the reins of the growing tech company.
“I have another chance to build a company, take what I’ve learned and do something special while growing the business and my career. It’s a huge responsibility and I feel the weight of 1,300 people and their families. We have such an amazing product and customer base and making sure we live up to that and all the things we are known for is a huge responsibility.”
Some of the lessons Spence has learned over the past 20 years of his career he’s more than happy to share with recent graduates entering the work force, whom he feels are well-positioned to take risks.
“Make sure any choices you’re making are truly your own – and you’re not doing it because of the school, or your parents, or your peers. It has to be something you’re really connected to,” he said. “You can always go make money at a job, but the reality is if you’re connected to something that’s really important, you’ll do even better. Bigger rewards will follow in terms of your life fulfillment. If you can be excited and want to put your heart and soul into what you’re doing and the people you’re working with, you’re going to be so much better off – not only tomorrow, but 10 years from now.”
For Spence, what matters most is working for a brand he believes in, working with a team he respects and feels energized by and taking on opportunities that have the potential to be big.
“At RIM, I knew it was going to be big. And, at Sonos, after watching my own family interact with the technology in our home, I knew there was a huge opportunity there. To bring that to the world, that excites me – and you have to be excited about what you get up and put your heart and soul into every day.”