Excerpt from Gordon Pitts’ Unicorn in the Woods
In this excerpt from Unicorn in the Woods, acclaimed business journalist Gordon Pitts shares the story of how a billion dollars of value (USD) was created after a chance encounter between an entrepreneur and a tech innovator. Pitts’ book shows that economies outside major urban centres can develop and grow in a new economy, without relying exclusively on old-world, and increasingly unsustainable, resource extraction.
Chris Newton didn’t really expect much from the meeting. He would have been content to spend the day coding software in his tiny office along a dark corridor of the University of New Brunswick’s computer science building in Fredericton. But officials of the university—who, after all, were his employers—had insisted he go along to a gathering of alumni and potential investors in the hope of turning his little software idea into something commercial, something that might actually be sold.
He didn’t think he had a “product,” just a way of dealing with the denial-of-service attacks from mischief-makers that were wreaking havoc on the university’s ill-prepared computer networks in these early days of the internet and the wired university. Massive quantities of data would slam into the UNB network and shut it down, inciting a chorus of complaints. It created urgent calls for a cybersecurity tool that could give a real-time snapshot of the health and frailties of the system.
And that was what Newton was working on—this program he called Symon (short for System Monitor)—mostly at home at night as he wrote computer code well into the wee small hours.
But on that warm fall day in 2000, wearing shorts, sandals and a T-shirt, the 28-year-old part-time student and full-time UNB employee lugged his laptop up the hillside from his tiny office, through the cluster of UNB’s signature red brick buildings, toward the modernist Wu Conference Centre at the top of the hill. Below him lay the sleepy provincial capital with its 19th-century legislature, its sprawling frame mansions and the broad Saint John River as it curled downriver from its source in northern Maine.
A crowd of interested types—some local, some from as far away as Halifax—had gathered in a meeting room, creating the impression of a pilot for the future hit TV show Dragons’ Den. At his appointed time Newton flipped open his laptop screen and a chart appeared—a colour guide to the maze of computer networks that coursed through the university, where the emails went, where the downloads landed, where the trouble points were flaring up. There was a silence, and then a large dark-haired man moved closer to the front and fixed his attention on the screen, then started peppering Newton with a torrent of questions. What was this? Could it be sold? Who owned it? Can we talk?
Chris Newton was polite—he was the compactly built, baby-faced son of a police chief in the Miramichi, the rugged northeast New Brunswick region of salmon, forests and old mill sites. The only presenter under the age of 40, and the only non-academic, he projected boyish innocence and showed proper respect to people. He found the whole thing both unsettling and intriguing.
Newton finally managed to tear himself away and scrambled back down the hill to his office in the comfortable corridors of the UNB Computing Centre. But the big intensely energetic man would show up later, talking on about forming a company, creating a product and becoming an entrepreneur. Chris Newton didn’t know what an entrepreneur was—or a start-up or a business model or venture capital (VC). He just liked fixing stuff, figuring things out, solving problems for the people who employed him.
But his relentless pursuer was obsessed with all those entrepreneurial things. With the rangy build of an athlete, Brian Flood towered over Chris Newton. He was more than a decade older and 100 times more experienced in the ways of the world. Flood was like a man possessed, having spent the past four years preparing for this moment, when he could seize the chance for funding a technology breakthrough in his beleaguered home province.
He didn’t seem like a natural tech founder. He had been running a sports bar/restaurant down the road in Moncton, and later added another one in his hometown of Saint John—both cities about an hour or two’s drive from Fredericton. Then he got hooked on reading about this hot new thing called the internet. He embarked on a personal crash course to learn about this new pot of technology gold that had entranced everyone from tech titans Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to callow kids such as Mark Zuckerberg, still a student at a New England private school but about to burst on the world as a social-networking Harvard undergrad.
Flood was just back from one of his fact-finding expeditions to California’s Silicon Valley when he was invited to this showcase event by the sponsors at UNB. He had first met Newton in the “rubber room,” a session where the presenters were prepped for the show. Chris Newton seemed like the answer to his dreams—a whiff of game-changing innovation in the middle of his home province. As he chased Newton around the hillside university, he acted like a suddenly smitten suitor pursuing the reluctant target of his affections. He was not going to let this slip away. In the words of one friend, Brian Flood is the “weirdest, wackiest, hardest working, most tenacious son of a bitch.”
At one point in the courtship, Flood asked, almost as a throwaway line, what would IBM pay for this? Chris Newton pondered the thought: maybe the computer behemoth might cough up $25 a month for using the software or even as much as $500. Neither of them imagined that, a decade later, IBM would pay $600 million US for Chris’s little product and the company that grew out of it. And that by that time, Newton would have already gone on to cofound another company that he and his colleagues would have sold for about $330 million US. The bashful kid from the Miramichi would be New Brunswick’s billion-dollar man in value creation, putting him in the same rarified air as the Irvings, McCains, Olands, Sobeys and the other established business families whose names were synonymous with wealth, power and achievement on Canada’s East Coast.
–Excerpted from Unicorn in the Woods: How East Coast Geeks and Dreamers Are Changing the Game copyright ©2020 by Gordon Pitts. Reprinted by permission of Goose Lane Editions.
—Gordon Pitts is a former senior writer for the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business. He is the author of several books, including The Codfothers: Lessons from the Atlantic Business Elite and Stampede: The Rise of the West and Canada’s New Power Elite, winner of a National Business Book Award.