…Never replicate an existing technology unless you can make it substantially better. Otherwise you’re just contributing to the technological plateau in certain industries. If you can’t offer something that’s better than the last thing, why would somebody buy your product instead of the more established product?
In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing William (Bill) Macdonell.
Bill Macdonell is the President of Wiz-Tec Computing Technologies Inc. in Calgary, Alberta, Canada and has over 17 years of experience in the fuel retail industry and in the collaboration with First Nations groups. He has worked closely with various provincial Ministries of Finance, First Nations entities, and band councils on multiple projects and was the project manager for both the Ontario and Quebec tax exemption programs by Wiz-Tec. Throughout his 30 years of experience, Bill has started and nurtured several businesses in the telecom and wireless industries, but is currently working at Wiz-Tec to help bring technology to industries with equipment and technology that is decades behind current standards.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?
I grew up in an atypical household in Calgary. Western Canada doesn’t have a very large Francophone population so growing up in a French and English household was very out of the ordinary. Since my parents are direct descendants from French settlers from back in 1642 and 1776, I was raised a little differently than my classmates but growing up in Calgary meant that I was schooled in a more English setting and acclimated to those cultural differences.
In the late 80’s I got my first professional break and was employed by Ted Rogers at a little know company called Cantel, which was in 5billion dollars debt in 1992, and everyone said it was doomed to fail. You might recognize the same company today as Rogers Communications Corporation. It was a great foot in the door into the professional world and made me grow into a more skilled business professional.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Back in 1996, the telecom industry was deregulated. Since I’d already been involved in the wireless communications industry, a few business associates approached me to start up a fledging phone company to sell voice, wireless, and internet plans. I think this is my most interesting story since our company was the first company anywhere in the world to sign an agreement for reselling wireless services. I’ll always remember the contract negotiations for that with fondness and humour. My business partner, myself, a 24 pack of drinks, a pizza, an office floor (we hadn’t even purchased furniture yet), a 450 page contract we didn’t write, and about 18 lawyers on the other side of the conference call to negotiate the deal for the supplier. It really was a true entrepreneur experience. It took us 22 hours of work, but we managed to trim the final contract by over 100 pages. I really love that entrepreneurial drive and that memory always reminds me that nothing is impossible if you are willing to try. You really are only outclassed if you believe that you are outclassed.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Thinking back on everything, I think my father was the most important source of support for me. He unfortunately died when I was still very young, only 23 years old, so he wasn’t able to watch me grow and mature as an adult and a friend, which is something that I know both of us would have wished. That said, his friends and associates were always there for me when I had a question. No one really teaches you the nitty gritty on how to raise money, start a business, or even the value of a dollar. No one can teach you how to execute your vision and strive to perfect it, and no one will really stand there with you when you’re fighting for your life. Despite that, I think my father was able to give me that vision and the drive for improvement more so than anyone in my life. Even though he passed, his friends watched my back and guided me when he couldn’t. For that I’ll always be grateful.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Mark Twain’s quote “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect,” is my favourite ‘life lesson quote’. My father used to say something similar to me often, “If everyone is doing it, you’re already too late to the game.” A variation of Mark Twain’s quote if there ever was one. Both are right. Time and time again in my life I’ve found that swimming against the current, though difficult, is ultimately more rewarding. Innovation, drive, vision…none of these are achieved by ‘going with the flow’. If you don’t take risks, if you aren’t prepared to argue your point, respectfully debate a position, or just find a new way to do things, you aren’t going to succeed. The ‘teeming masses’ are rarely right and often easily led. I’d rather not be a lemming jumping off a cliff just because the others are. That’s not to say jumping isn’t the right choice, it’s just a choice I’d want to make for myself and not have it made for me by ‘groupthink’.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
The top quality I can think of is honesty. If you can’t be honest with yourself, your customers, or your co-workers you shouldn’t be in business, let alone leading one. If you lie, somehow it will always get found out. So just don’t. Even when people think you are being dishonest, don’t be. Even if you’re tempted because it benefits you and hurts no one, just don’t. Always remember that you have to wake up and look at yourself in the mirror every day. No one wants a liar looking back. I guess a good example is the simplest one; selling a product to a customer. You can make a sale that benefits the customer, or you can make a sale that benefits you. Remember that more often than not, your customer is relying on your professionalism and knowledge to help them meet their needs. If you are making a sale for your own sake, and not your clients’, then you are cheating and lying to your client because you don’t really care about what they need. The irony is that if you are completely honest and help a client buy a solution that actually meets their needs, they’ll end up selling your products to themselves in the future.
The second quality is patience. A lot of people say that “if you’re not failing, you’re not learning.” That’s just not true. Learning doesn’t come from failure; it comes from patience after those failures. Patience is what makes or breaks a person when they’re learning, if you give up after failing then that failure didn’t teach you anything. Being patient with yourself and your process is what helps you learn. For example, in sales we get a lot of ‘go away’ and just straight up ‘no’. I don’t get a lot of ‘no’s anymore because I’ve learned to be patient with clients. More often than not, if you get a ‘no’ in sales, it means that you messed something up on your end and didn’t do your job properly because you didn’t get to know your client to see if what you’re selling is actually applicable. Like I mentioned, if you’re selling for your sake and not your clients’, then you’re more likely to get a ‘no’. When I hear that word it means that I need to go back and figure out where I went wrong. Why did the client say no? How is what I presented not meeting their needs? Did I not understand their needs in the first place? Patience lets you look back on those questions as a learning opportunity instead of a failure. People are willing to give you second chances, you just have to be patient and understand them.
The last quality is being open-minded. You never know what the situation is for the other person. To judge someone from the get go is essentially just stepping right in it. I remember once way back in my youth going to school, I sold books for a major publisher. It kind of sucked but the money was tremendous for a lad my age. My territory was everything between Toronto and Vancouver Island, up to the NWT. I once had to go to a small rural community in Northern Saskatchewan and meet with the superintendent of the school district. It was late, it was hot, I hadn’t eaten, and I was 3 hours from everywhere. Her house had a dirt floor, there were old saloon type ashtray’s everywhere, and all of them full to the brim with cigarette butts. She looked like she was about a million years old, and frankly her home smelled like stale milk. I was sure I’d wasted my time driving out to meet her. She bought over 300,000.00 dollars in text books from me and paid in cash. Moral of the story: never judge a book by it’s cover.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive social impact on our society. To begin, what problems are you aiming to solve?
We’re aiming to solve human error and all the other issues that come with it. To be honest, that’s what every technology in the world is meant for, to eliminate the human propensity for making mistakes. But every technology has a niche and ours is helping First Nation and Indigenous businesses on-reserve get their tax rebates for fuel and tobacco faster and more efficiently. Indigenous people in Canada aren’t in the best position, which is currently at the forefront of many social issues in Canada. Since many of the agreements between First Nations and Canada predate the country itself, there are a lot of barriers to how Indigenous communities can operate in a world that has advanced far more quickly than any legislation can keep up with. The issue that we’ve focused on at Wiz-Tec is the tax exemption process that Indigenous retailers have to deal with when they sell fuel and tobacco on-reserve to their communities. This fuel has taxes in it already so when an independent First Nations retailer purchases it from their wholesaler, they have to pay those taxes. However, Status holders purchasing that fuel from that retailer have the right to be exempt from those taxes so retailers have to submit refund claims for their provincial governments to get those pre-paid taxes back. This process can be very cumbersome and is prone to mistakes when done through manual means because of human error in writing down information. The administration of these programs has been the subject of many lawsuits and has contributed to a lot of the difficulties between governments and First Nations. Since each province has its own rules and systems, there is no easy way for retailers to get their tax rebates back through a standard procedure.
At Wiz-Tec, we’re trying to tear down those barriers to progress. We want to give Indigenous retailers the same technology and business tools that people outside reserves have easy access to. Tearing down these barriers is important so Indigenous owned and operated businesses can prosper and keep contributing to their communities. Getting rid of the tedious and time-consuming paperwork means that those retailers have a chance to use their time for other business operations, letting them improve their business rather than be bogged down by paperwork. Not only that, but the customers of these businesses also get the benefit of having a more efficient process whenever they purchase fuel. They still need to go into the store and show identification to verify their eligibility for the exemptions, but at least now they can just do it in half the time it used to take.
How do you think your technology can address this?
Our technology is only a step forward in being able to achieve this. Things like this unfortunately take time and patience and a lot of companies don’t invest the necessary resources into researching these issues. However, through helping these retailers optimize their tax exemption processes, we can give them the resources to become more self-sufficient. Having the ability to easily manage your business because the point of sale you have is very comprehensive and gives you all the tools bigger corporations have is a step toward having independent retailers compete in a very saturated marketplace. Even when you look at larger gas retail chains that are on-reserve, those operators are at a slight disadvantage because the corporate point of sale systems they have aren’t capable of handling the tax exemptions efficiently. Our technology also allows First Nations retailers to get the rebates they’re entitled to faster and with more confidence since automating the process leads to less input errors and therefore less rejections of their claims. For example, the program we have in Ontario sends those claims right to the government in real-time during the transaction so the retailer doesn’t have to write, file, submit, and save a paper voucher for every transaction involving fuel or tobacco and a Status customer. This cuts their transaction time in half and lets them take care of other aspects of their business that can help them expand and grow within their community.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I love success, both for myself and others. I especially like seeing small businesses succeed and seeing their owners finding their personal success. It’s the most rewarding feeling when I hear from a satisfied customer since it means that their business is doing better than before. This is especially rewarding for me when it comes to First Nation and Indigenous owned businesses on-reserve. They often don’t get the same access to tools and resources as bigger gas stations or convenience stores would, so it gives me a sense of validation because I know that the technology we’re providing is enabling that success for their business. Not only because of the technology but because of the time those business owners save and invest back into their business and community to help others succeed as well. I’ve done big deals and I’ve done small deals, but the flavor is always the same… satisfaction. I ‘officially’ retired in 2003 after having taken my second company public. That lasted about as long as it took for my wife to tell me to get off the couch and get a job. She’d had enough of me, my golf clubs, and my friends hanging around. Wiz-Tec, and Jim Wang my employer, business partner, and friend, gave me a chance to start from the ground floor up in his company, and I love it. We make great products, Jim is visionary in his coding, and our customers are wonderful people.
How do you think this might change the world?
I don’t know if we’re actually changing the whole world with our technology so much as changing an area of it that has been overlooked quite often. I like to think that our technology is improving a corner of this world that would otherwise go unnoticed. The programs we have for First Nations people across Canada are a great example of that positive change. Through the technology we’ve created, we’re able to provide them with the tools they need to go toe to toe with the large gas retail and grocery chains that would otherwise dominate their market. We want the independent retailers to succeed and, in turn, contribute to the community that they were born in instead of having large chains take those profits elsewhere. Our technology can give these independent Indigenous retailers all the store management bells and whistles that they wouldn’t be able to have because of a lack of credit or access to traditional banks and other factors affecting their communities. We want our technology to bring those dollars back into the communities they serve so they can continue developing and improving their services independently. Another factor that’s very different from the rest of the industry is that our customers are often the only place where the citizens on-reserve can get supplies, and the quality and features of our technology must be rock solid because of that. If these retailers have their technology break down their store could be jeopardized, and people could have a difficult time accessing the things they need. That’s why we think out technology is changing the landscape in these communities; it’s allowing First Nations communities to be self-sufficient and remain independent to nurture the entrepreneurial spirit of their citizens.
I think this technology is great in terms of helping business owners make their operations more efficient, but the thing about efficiency is that it usually comes at the cost of labour. Automation has its place, and it improves a lot of businesses, don’t get me wrong, but implementing it can sometimes come at the cost of letting go of a few employees. I think that’s the case with any sort of operations-based technology, though, since a business will tend to choose what is best for their longevity and profitability. We don’t want people to lose jobs because of technology that does something more quickly and better due to coding and equipment, but I do take solace in the fact that the more money that independent First Nation owned store makes, the more they are contributing to their community’s economy and they’re funneling that money back into their community instead of having a large chain take those profits elsewhere. I think our technology allows these independent retailers to invest back into their people which means that in the long run, there will be more and better employment opportunities as their community grows and prospers from the investment by a local business.
Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)
First and foremost, never replicate an existing technology unless you can make it substantially better. Otherwise you’re just contributing to the technological plateau in certain industries. If you can’t offer something that’s better than the last thing, why would somebody buy your product instead of the more established product? Secondly, you should always seek to go where others haven’t bothered to look so that you’re the leader in that market. The whole reason we entered the tax exemption industry is because no one had really bothered to optimize the processes for the retailers. Since these exemptions are such a large part of the business model for many gas stations and tobacco shops on First Nations reserves, it was a market with untapped potential for improvement. The third thing is that you should always strive to be #1 in your market, and failing that, only settle for #2. Otherwise don’t even bother because third place isn’t great. Fourth is don’t try to achieve perfection, you will always, without a doubt, fail. Rather than driving yourself crazy that way, you should try to create something that is the minimum viable product (MVP) of your idea. Then you have to deploy it and let time and feedback improve it to the best version it can be. Lastly, if your product or technology doesn’t improve your customers’ experience, increase their ROI, and pay-out within 2 to 3 years maximum compared to their investment, what was the point of creating and selling the technology? Things develop so quickly nowadays so you need to be able to keep up with changes in your industry.
One of the very first sales I ever made for Wiz-Tec in our FNGTR program in Ontario was to a couple who ran a gas station, restaurant, cardlock and trucking company. This was a large and ungainly business, very disorganized, very manually laborious. At the time I met the couple, they were doing about 10 million dollars a year in sales, (that is a very respectable number for a gas bar, by the way) but the work to keep up with everything was killing the wife, and ruining their relationship. They had no life. She was working 18-hour days 7 days a week due to the paperwork that came with manual exemptions. The poor husband barely had time to look up as well. With the implementation of our technology 12 years ago, things got more organized, better managed, and over all just plain more efficient. The year after I sold our technology to the retailer and his wife, he sent me a bottle of Single Malt Scotch with a note that said “Thanks Bill, I really mean that. If it wasn’t for meeting you and Wiz-Tec, my wife and I would have ended up strangling each other… As it is, I wanted you to know everything is running so smoothly, we’ve already had two vacations this year, and we’re about to leave for Vegas. Wiz-Tec has changed the way we do business and it has been for the better.” It’s been 12 years and their business volume has increased 400% since I met them.
It was a good bottle of Scotch and I toasted them heartily knowing I’d done a good job for them. They are still one of our best customers to this very day.
The reason that is such a good story is that it follows all of the rules I mentioned above. The product was the result of graduating manual paper process’ into a digital format, which was a huge improvement, and it was developed for a market that no one was competing in, making us the only company selling the product, and to this day we are still the #1 provider of this product and the most popular. The technology wasn’t perfect when it was launched, but it was light years ahead of any other process that would replicate what it was doing. In the 12 years since it was launched it has only gotten better and better. Couple that with the amount of labour it saved our clients meant it paid for itself in under a year in most cases, allowing the customer to focus on growing their businesses.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Life is about living. Stop, listen, learn, and above all else, don’t judge until you truly see both side of a situation. People tend to be too quick to judge, get angry, and point fingers and I’m honestly just as guilty of it as anyone else, but that’s part of being human. What I would say to young people is that you have to try and remember that every day we are all in the thick of it together. None of us are getting out alive in the end so it serves us better to try and leave the room a little cleaner than it was when we got here. Making a positive change means listening to every perspective you can because sometimes voices get lost because they aren’t as loud as the next one. You need to be able to listen to those people in any situation because that’s the only way you’re going to make a positive change for everyone rather than only a few people. Don’t be antagonistic, be diplomatic. The art of negotiation is about making sure that everyone walks away from the table mostly satisfied, not necessarily completely satisfied, but mostly. This just doesn’t happen unless you learn to stay quiet and hear what other people have to say about their situations and positions. You can only reach consensus when you understand what issues your position could cause for others and you work together toward mitigating those issues for the benefit of everyone involved.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I think if I had to choose one person at this point in time, I’d love the chance to have lunch with Elon Musk. I’m a big fan of all his work and honestly think he’s funny as all get out. He’s one of the most dynamic individuals in modern times and I think his vision is amazing and he can convey it very well to everyone around him. I’d love the chance to spend a few minutes with him and ask him about his outlook on life. I’ve no doubt it’d be worth my while.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can follow our journey on our website and throughout our social media pages for updates on new tech we’re developing. We also generally have articles coming out about tips and trends in the markets we serve so our customers can have resources to look at when needed. We’re an open book so what you see is what we’re doing, we’d love to have you join us. I’m always available during business hours if you reach out to us as well.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.