The Thomas Edison of Canada, as Guelph’s Jim Estill was described on Tuesday, says the world isn’t short of ideas. What the world is short of, Estill says, is “implementers.”
Fortunately, the world has Jim Estill.
Canada’s Mr. Fix It – as in, serial entrepreneur; as in, sponsor of hundreds of Syrian refugees; as in, reducer of greenhouse gases; as in, maker of a porch-pirate-thwarting parcel drop box; as in, maker of medical ventilators; as in, CEO of appliance maker Danby – told an online audience Tuesday that “ideas are actually a dime a dozen. It’s the implementation [that matters].”
That, and a willingness to, as they say at the athletic apparel company Nike, “just do it.”
“I know so many people [who say] they want coaching and mentoring and then they have something to do and then a year from now they’re still doing market studies and they haven’t actually done it,” Estill said at Pizza with the Prez, the Communitech-sponsored lunchtime chat series with tech leaders. In pre-pandemic days, the talks would take place over pizza on the second floor of the Communitech Hub. During COVID-19 the series has moved online.
Estill has a knack for noticing problems and then inventing ways to fix them, sometimes for profit – hello, ShipperBee, the parcel delivery system that harnesses surplus space in the private automobiles of commuters – and sometimes because it’s the right thing to do. Ventilators being a case in point.
Estill has created an enviable Midas-touch reputation, one that began when he started selling computers and printers out of the trunk of his 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass during his university days. His companies – and his ideas – have a way of making money.
But he said Tuesday that he doesn’t always get things right. He makes mistakes. He misses opportunities.
“I mean, we had SARS,” said Estill, referring to the 2003 respiratory virus outbreak in China and, to a large extent, Toronto. “Why did I not think at that time we might have a COVID? If I thought at that time we might have a COVID, then my name [today] would be synonymous with hand sanitizer and masks, but it didn’t happen.
“I always say fail often, fail fast, fail cheap, and having a failure does not make you a failure.”
Estill said that his businesses have been impacted by COVID-19, requiring adjustments. At appliance maker Danby, for example, the demand for small refrigerators from hotels has plummeted. But the demand for apartment-sized freezers and large refrigerators for homes has soared. ShipperBee, meanwhile, has seen a spike in parcel delivery demand, but fewer commuters to move parcels.
And the pandemic has had an impact on supply chains, and has exposed the extent that the world, and in Estill’s case Danby, depends on parts and materials from China, a problem exacerbated by political tension. Estill is working to, as much as is feasible, build redundancy into his supply chain.
Meanwhile he has partnered with medical manufacturing companies to produce ventilators for hospitals; his employees do most of the assembly. And he has produced something called a Powered Air Purifying Respirator, or PAPR, a wearable face-shield-type device that mechanically filters air and protects the user from airborne infection.
“We’re negotiating to sell high quantities to meatpacking plants for instance,” he says. “And I think it’ll find a use for dentists, massage therapists and barbers and hairdressers” and the like.
As far as success goes, Estill says it helps to control costs. It helps to plan and to budget. It helps to be organized, and to be careful with time. And it helps to be lucky. Most of all, it helps to fail cheaply.
“I am pretty good at spotting trends and we’re pretty lucky,” he says. “At the same time a lot of stuff that I spot doesn’t come to fruition.
“But if you fail cheaply enough nobody ever thinks that that wasn’t very smart. They only think of your wins. Wins tend to far outweigh [the failures].
“You forget the failures and you remember the wins.”