Unlike the hordes of hopeful entrepreneurs who move to Silicon Valley and San Francisco, Jeff Philipp decided to set up his tech empire in his hometown of Fort Providence, a small hamlet in the Canadian sub-arctic.
To date, he's earned tens of millions of dollars in revenue. And his company’s motto?
Innovation doesn’t care where you live.
In this TGIM short, you'll...
- Learn how it's possible to start a business anywhere
- Discover why remote entrepreneurs shouldn't be fearful of established businesses
- Find out why solving your own problem is a great way to start a business
Check out the full short below:
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Speaker 1: "Every year, thousands of hopeful entrepreneurs decamp to tech hubs like Silicon Valley in San Francisco, searching for success. Kind of a modern day gold rush, this mass migration of talent heading south instead of north. The guy you're about to meet didn't head south. In fact, he stayed at home in the north, the far north, the remote Canadian Arctic in fact. It might seem like an unlikely place to start a tech company but Jeff Philips is using this remote location to his advantage. It is working. He has built a company with tens of millions of dollars in revenue literally in the middle of nowhere. If you're thinking of starting a tech company, listen up because Jeff has some really interesting advice about where you locate. His company's motto, "Innovation doesn't care where you live.""
Jeff: "It started in a very small town of 700 people with a few guys and an idea to sell computers in the north, that evolved to bringing Internet to all remote communities because my little community didn't have it and I wanted it."
Female: "That's Jeff Philips. He is 48. To understand his story, you have to understand where he comes from. Fort Providence, a tiny hamlet in the Canadian sub-arctic, home to about 700 people."
Jeff: "Two stores, small gas station, one coffee shop, one bar, one hotel."
Female: "In the winter time, the temperature drops to about minus 40. There is five hours of sunlight in a day. A trip to the nearest city when he was growing up meant driving across a frozen river. It's an unlikely place to start a tech company that's now making tens of millions of dollars a year, yes, tens of millions of dollars."
"Jeff learned some lessons from his parents who ran a local hotel and ferry. One was to see the world outside of where they lived. The only school in Fort Providence went up to grade 7. Jeff and his siblings enrolled in high school on Vancouver Island. It took three days to drive between the two places."
Jeff: "On one of these trips back and forth, I remember it because we were staying in the Green Brior Motor Hotel, downtown Edmonton. I was thumbing through the yellow pages looking at all the computer companies that were in the yellow pages looking for a new monitor. I wanted to buy a new monitor, maybe a new computer."
Female: "He saw an ad for NEC, a high end computer company, pricey, but he called them anyway."
Jeff: "The guy said, "Oh, are you a dealer?" I said, "Yeah, absolutely." He said, "Okay, great. I'll fax you our price list. We have a special, you can buy one and get one free." I thought you got to be kidding me. I was probably 15. He said, "What's your fax number?" I grabbed the matches out of the ash tray on the little table in between the two beds in the Green Brior Motor Hotel and read him the fax number off the back of the matches for the Green Brior. I ran to the front desk and said, "Hey, that net fax is for me.""
Female: "That's how Jeff started selling computers, a simple, yeah, absolutely, to the customer service rep on the other end of the phone. Jeff was now on a roll. Remember, he is only 15 years old."
Jeff: "That just set me on the path, I was like, "Well, that was easy. I should phone every other company." I phoned every other manufacturer and my story just got better and better and better. By the end of two days later, I was a reseller for three or four different companies, actual great brands and I was thinking, "Well, this is super." My dad thought, "This is crazy. Who are you going to sell to? You are going to sell one to the school and one to the adult education center, one to whatever hunters and trappers, and then you're done. They won't buy another one for three years.""
Female: "Jeff went after a bigger market, the thousands of people across the north without computers. He put ads on the radio and in newspapers. His own upbringing gave him that local advantage, he could relate to people, understand where they were coming from, where they lived. This was Jeff's first business lesson, know your customers."
Jeff: "In the north, if you knew where [Toyo-lu-ak 00:09:54] was, you just could communicate better with people."
Female: "Jeff also needed to learn from people already in the business. He reached out to computer companies, people selling computers to customers, just like him, to learn more. Jeff says "Approach is important, to be honest. Be open and walk away if they don't want to help." He would start by saying, "Hi, I'm from a little town in the middle of nowhere. I'm just getting started.""
Jeff: "Next thing you know, I'd show up at their office and they'd take me in the back and they'd give me hands fulls of screws and rails and all the stuff. I mean they were willing to help. I wasn't a threat to them. I was in Fort Providence, in the northwest territories."
Female: "Being the little guy far off the map can work in your favor. It turns out Jeff had a great idea."
Jeff: "We sold computers like crazy. We sold a lot of computers. After the first year, we were probably three quarters of a million dollars in sales."
Female: "He is about 22 years old at this point and operating a business in the sub-arctic. How was he going to fix those computers if they break down? Well, the company bought a four-seater single engine plane. Jeff, who had his pilot's license by then, learned to fly it. Here is where things get interesting, remember saying this earlier about his company?"
Jeff: "It evolved to becoming Internet to all remote communities because my little community didn't have it. I wanted it."
Female: "Just as wanting a computer led him into computer sales, Jeff now wanted the Internet. He wasn't exactly living on the grid. Trying to bring the Internet to places in one of the world's harshest climates isn't easy."
Jeff: "Flights are expensive. They're once a week. It's dark. It's cold. There is no local tech support. There are no hotels or very very few."
Female: "Customers are also spread out across millions of miles with no banks in many communities."
Jeff: "It's a cash economy, right. Even then, how do people pay their bill if they don't have a credit card and there is no bank. Those things software has to take care of, the ability to take a cash payment by the agent in the community, the ability to manage and reconcile all those transactions, getting the cash out of the community and into a bank account. Those are all actual logistic challenges in the arctic."
Female: "The model didn't serve his customers so they built a new one. Jeff and his team created their own software, one that lets them take cash among other things. Finding ways to get past challenges like this, to bring people online is paying off. The company now connects 29,000 people spread across millions of square miles. It brings in tens of millions of dollars each year, and still has headquarters in Yellow Knife, a 15-hour drive to the nearest city."
Jeff: "This is the secret, this is the secret of this whole thing, A: try not to have debt because debt means you're working for somebody else. Unless you really really really know your business and know what your outcome is going to be, having debt is a really bad idea because it causes a lot of stress and agitation. You've got to have a good idea and be passionate about it. Then you've just got to bust your ass with really good people to build it."
Female: "Jeff says staying out of debt is what allows the company to evolve quickly."
Jeff: "Don't run out of money because when you run out of money, you're not in control of that anymore. Somebody else is in control of what you are going to do."
Female: "That skill, the ability to adapt and evolve quickly has taken the company to some unexpected places because the ability to connect hard to reach places with the Internet is an exportable skill around the world. They've flown to Zambia to help an aid organization setup satellites and Wi-Fi. After the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004, their equipment was sent on one of the first planes in with military aid to setup phone and Internet connectivity. That software they wrote, the government-ran phone company is now using it in the Republic Kiribati, north of Fiji in the south pacific. Jeff now wants to help connect the billions of people around the world that will be brought online next from his same office, a quonset in the sub-arctic."
Jeff: "It's not in a big city. It's not in a tech hub, absolutely. But you know what? The big city and the tech hub don't have a solution for the next three billion people in rural areas of the world and we do."
Female: "All of this successful stemming from Jeff's own simple desire to get online in a place he grew up, Fort Providence, proving that you don't have to be in a big city or a tech hub to make big things happen."
Jeff: "Innovation doesn't care where you live. Innovation is everywhere and you have to do what you have to do to survive. That's innovation."
About TGIM: TGIM is a podcast for people who can’t wait for the week to start. In each episode we’ll be bringing you inspirational stories about entrepreneurs who have overcome obstacles, built incredible businesses, and are now living the life they want.