Some have called him the best thing that’s ever come across their business. He’s also been labeled the “resident Gordon Ramsay” of the FounderFuel program.
He’s forward, honest and full of experience. And for many entrepreneurs at Notman House, a great person just to be around.
“John is really direct. There’s no BS and there’s no sugarcoating,” says Richard Btaiche, who was part of FounderFuel’s latest cohort with his company Fastgrab. “Sometimes at the beginning it was a bit tough to swallow but most of the time it makes sense.”
The 44-year-old Stokes was born near Coventry, England, though he calls himself a “citizen of the world," holding both UK and New Zealand passports.
He has had a diverse career as an entrepreneur and investor having spent time building businesses in three different continents. Currently he serves as one of four partners at Montreal’s Real Ventures, a VC that recently grabbed headlines as a co-investor in Cinemagram’s massive $8.5 million cash injection.
As an ambitious young man he had the goal of being a millionaire by the time he was 30. It turned out to be a stepping-stone.
“When you get close to that thing you suddenly realize, ‘what was the point of that?'" said Stokes. "It was then that I began moving away from ‘how can I make money’ to ‘how can I build something great?'”
There have been several lessons along the way that have shaped who he is today. Take, for example, when he worked for Bell South (now Vodafone New Zealand) and forced himself to be the first one in the office every morning for six months straight. “It was unbelievable at how it changed everything about the way I worked,” he noted.
Then there's the story about how he was building a business in Japan called Vogue Planet. The company wasn’t making progress and Stokes decided that he simply had to work harder.
“So I decided that for the next year I would wear a suit to the office and if I wanted to take that suit off I had to earn it,” said Stokes. “It made a massive difference just for my mind set and we ended up selling that business to FremantleMedia.”
During what would be 10 years spent in Asia he also co-founded LiveDoor Group, Japan’s first free Internet service provider. Raising $30 million, it was the largest investment in a startup in Japan at the time. After a difference of opinion Stokes eventually left.
Two years later the owners tried to sell the company after having invested $80 million. The company was bought for $1.1 million (Stokes bid $650,000).
He moved to Montreal in 2007 where he knew no one and was “sitting around for five months wondering what to do.” Then he started a blog that turned into MontrealStartup.com, now a seed-level investor. The rest is history.
He now serves as a board member for several successful startups including Beyond The Rack, the company that is expecting to pull in over $200 million in revenue for 2013. Stokes recalls two co-founders who came to him with a PowerPoint presentation one day. They became the first company in MontrealStartup’s portfolio. In hindsight Stokes calls it a brilliant decision, "but I didn't know that at the time".
His most notable characteristic may be the way he interacts with his entrepreneurs. It’s not hard to see why he's been labelled a Ramsay. Just watch FounderFuel’s reality TV series, “Make It or Break It,” where Stokes is at his finest.
“John really cares,” adds Mike Schmidt, Founder of LISTN. “He’s a top notch mentor, a guy that makes things happen and he really makes the difference in your business.”
Some admire his blunt personality. “I think it’s his best trait, actually,” affirms Navied Shoushtarian, CTO at LISTN. “He’s straightforward and tells you what’s on his mind and that’s a very hard trait to come by in a lot of people now a days.”
For Conor Clarke, Stokes may be brutally honest at times, but it's all part of telling someone what they truly need to hear. “He gets down to the point and he can find out that one really important point while getting rid of the fluff,” explains the cofounder of Wavo.Me, one of the startups in FounderFuel’s first cohort. “We’ll get out of an hour-long meeting and he’ll of been able to see things [that we should focus on] that we didn’t catch.”
If you ask Stokes, he says it's about giving people a wake up call when nothing else has worked.
“Sometimes something needs to be said for impact because they’re just not realizing,” said Stokes. “In a way I want to piss them off because I’ve tried arm-around-the-shoulder and it’s not worked and nothing has changed, so maybe it’s a quick shock. I want them to say, ‘you know what John, I’ll show you that you’re wrong and I’m going to come back and do it,' and you know what? Great.”
What’s next for the accomplished investor? He wants to keep busy and continue to play his part in building an early-stage ecosystem for inspiring entrepreneurs.
“I’ve just got involved in a thing called the Forum for Arts and Business which is trying to instill some of the entrepreneurial mindset in some of the art companies in Montreal,” he said. “Maybe it becomes more relevant when I talk about that kind of stuff to other industries; it’s all about staying relevant.”