Joel is scaling a profitable company in Toronto called Firmex, and has only spent $4 million in angel money to get to almost $10 million in revenue.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s start with the very beginning of your story. Where are you from? Where were you born, raised, and in what kind of background?
Joel Lessem: I was born in Israel but raised in Toronto from the age of three. I grew up in Toronto.
Sramana Mitra: Where did you do your schooling?
Joel Lessem: I did a pair of history degrees at McGill and a Master’s degree. I was actually in the Ph.D. program for History and Metaphysics.
Sramana Mitra: What did you do after your Ph.D.?
Joel Lessem: I got a job selling ladies’ underwear.
Sramana Mitra: Why did you do that?
Joel Lessem: I needed to pay the rent. I needed a job.
Sramana Mitra: Unfortunate.
Joel Lessem: You get out of Metaphysics and you got to get a job.
Sramana Mitra: How long did that go on?
Joel Lessem: I did that for a year. I’ll give you a quick summary. I always had an entrepreneurial bent. When I was a kid, I got as many paper routes as I could and I sub-franchised them to other kids. I think I had that instinct. My dad was an academic. I had that too. I read a lot of books and I’m very analytical.
One of my biggest influences that led me to deciding I wanted to start my own business at some point in my life was when I was in my first year of undergrad. I met a fellow who was doing a Ph.D. in Philosophy and he had a really nice house, two kids, and a wife. He was a student. I said, “How do you do that?” He said, “I used to have a construction business. I sold it and now I have freedom.” I thought, “That sounds like a good plan.” I was always thoughtful of how things worked. My instincts were, “I should probably do that.”
After my first year of selling bras for a multinational Fortune 500 company, I wasn’t really happy working for a Fortune 500 company because I didn’t know what was going on. I got a job working for an entrepreneur who was smuggling Apple computers into Canada and gray marketing them in Canada.
I spent the next seven years working for various entrepreneurs’ businesses that were all bootstrapped and not venture-funded. It was the early 1990s. There wasn’t really much venture funding around. There was no infrastructure. Here’s the phone. There’s the phonebook. Make some sales. It’s funny. I’ve done two startups. Firmex is the second one. People say, “It must be hard doing a startup.” I say, “Every job of my life has been a startup.” You work for a 6 to 10 person company. There’s no infrastructure and there’s no funding. You learn to do many different things. I think that was certainly helpful in the success that I’ve had at Firmex. My business education wasn’t formal.