Inspiration is something that fuels every entrepreneur’s journey — and few stories are as inspiring as John Ruffolo’s.

In this special LIVE episode of Disruptors, an RBC podcast, host John Stackhouse speaks with Canadian tech investing legend John Ruffolo at the ELEVATE Festival in downtown Toronto — the largest gathering of creative thought leaders in Canada.

Ruffolo is the founder and managing partner of Maverix Private Equity and previously founded OMERS Ventures, where he made several winning bets on Canadian tech powerhouses, including Hootsuite, Wattpad and Shopify. The two talk about Ruffolo’s amazing investing journey, as well as his inspiring “road to recovery” from a near-deadly cycling accident in 2020.

It’s an insight-filled conversation that will resonate with Canadian entrepreneurs everywhere — a story about resilience, bold risks and hard work.

Show notes:

To learn more about John Ruffolo and Mavrix Private Equity, follow this link.

Ruffolo is also the co-founder and current vice-chair of the Council of Canadian Innovators. You can find out more about their work here.

Speaker 1 [00:00:01] Hi. It’s John here. Today we’ve got a special live edition of Disruptors to share with you. It’s a conversation I had with the investing legend, John Ruffolo. I met with John recently at the Elevate Festival in downtown Toronto, the largest gathering of creative thought leaders in Canada. John, as you may know, is the former founding CEO of OMERS Ventures and made a bunch of early winning bets on Canadian tech powerhouses. Hootsuite, Wattpad and Shopify were all part of his portfolio. But more recently, John has been fighting his way back from a near deadly cycling accident, which left him paralyzed from the waist down. We talk about John’s road to recovery. His new firm, Mavericks Private Equity, as well as what Canadian entrepreneurs can learn about resilience from his inspiring life story. Have a listen. John, it is so amazing to be with you in person for a bunch of reasons that we’re going to talk about today. But thank you for your for your inspiration. It’s great to have you. Great to be in person.

Speaker 2 [00:01:02] Thank you.

Speaker 1 [00:01:02] John. We’re going to talk today about resilience, resilience as an individual, resilience for entrepreneurs. How do you be a resilient entrepreneur and resilience for an economy? If you don’t know the John Ruffolo story this year, you’ll probably cringe from me saying this, John, in many ways, the godfather of what we have today in tech, if you believe Toronto is a global tech center, which it is, John, deserves a huge amount of credit for that. When he started OMERS Ventures a little over a decade ago, people really didn’t know what you would do with it. But Shopify, Wipeout, Wave, Hootsuite are all or became the companies they became in part because of John’s investment, but also his mentorship of entrepreneurs. So I want John for you to share some of the insights you’ve had about resilience through the past decade. But let’s start with your own personal story. You were in a horrific accident. Yes. And I hope you can share a bit of that with the audience today. Take us back to that that moment, if you don’t mind.

Speaker 2 [00:02:04] Sure. Thank you, John. Thank you, everyone. Yeah. So almost two years to the day, right in the peak of the pandemic. And at the time, I was trying to fundraise for our new firm, Mavericks Private Equity. And we’re now getting into the glimmers of the pandemic. The world’s not going to. And in our lead, investors had said, okay, you know what? Let’s start the closing process in October. And so now we’re starting to gear up and I’m excited and I’m a big cyclist. And every Wednesday, when I would stay at home, I would take a nice, long ride out. I live in the East End and go out to north of the city. And on this particular gorgeous day, I was run over from behind by a tractor trailer going at 80 to 90 kilometers an hour. And just I hit me with such massive force that it took me clean off of the stem of the bike. My bike was unrecognizable, but not only did it obliterate my my vertebrae and obviously damage my my spinal cord, but the force of the impact gave me another damage in that it just broke the rest of the bones of my body. And the worse was probably like my pelvis was split into six pieces, a bunch of my organs were damaged and I was losing 50% of the blood in my body.

Speaker 1 [00:03:37] And I said, I’ve read that a doctor said to you, you’ve got one in a million chance.

Speaker 2 [00:03:41] Yes.

Speaker 1 [00:03:42] What’s what made you the one, two?

Speaker 2 [00:03:45] Well, when he said that I was asleep in a coma, but he said that as being nice. So two of my partners called and this was the CEO of Sunnybrook and is a friend. And they just said, Can you tell us what is your friend’s going to die in 48 hours? And they were in shock and they said, What do you mean, die? And the response was, okay, maybe he’s got one in a million chance of survival. And part of the problem that I’m facing right now is that no one knows what sort of expectations there are for me because no one survived that sort of trauma on their body. And so right now, even today, as I continue to make great progress, there is no one to really understand what’s really happening. And the only thing that I do attribute it to is really mind over matter. And this is the whole resilience comment. I know that sounds kind of hokey, but I literally was constantly dreaming of walking and knew what was going to happen. And you know, one sort of funny story wasn’t funny then, but so here I am, miraculously don’t die. And it was 36 hours that they finally decided to do surgery on me. Surgery would have killed me immediately. I get through it. I get out of the coma. They removed the intubation. Six days later and I finally wake up in a hotel room and it’s like, Wow, you’re alive. Oh, by the way, you’ll never walk again. And I was with my wife at the time, and my jaw dropped again as I was like. And then the doctor left the room and almost simultaneously I said, Go yourself. And you know, no one’s going to tell me that I’m not going to walk. And yet I’m thinking about my dad. I’m not going to walk again. And but it was that me trying to convince myself and, you know, my walking’s pretty strong right now. And the one thing I did do 11 months later, I did go back to Sunnybrook in the exact same intensive care ward, had a walker, and I walked right down the hall. And what I said to the doctor who was there and they’re all crying. And I said, Don’t you ever tell anybody they’re not going to walk because you don’t know. And don’t take away hope from someone. And it’s all about hope.

Speaker 1 [00:06:30] Resilience is about hope.

Speaker 2 [00:06:31] It’s about hope.

Unidentified [00:06:32] You know? And.

Speaker 1 [00:06:36] So it is mind over matter, but there’s a lot of hard work and a lot of sweat that connects mind to matter. And John said to me off stage, a year from now, he’s going to walk onto the stage. So that’s that’s mind over matter. I will. And tell us a bit about the sweat, literally, that you’re putting into this, because your daily regimen is, you know, worthy of of an Olympic competitor.

Speaker 2 [00:07:01] Yeah, it’s it’s it’s grueling. One of my teammates, Vivian O’Leary, is here and she like she manages my calendar. I basically have two full time jobs. And part of this is the unfortunate thing. It really is a product of privilege. I actually think it’s wrong fundamentally. I have a team of approximately ten doctors, four physios, a masseuse, a chiro, a physical trainer, a neurosurgeon, and a physical interest, and a Pilates ten. I pay for all ten. But what I’ve learned is there’s a bit of a fiction here in terms of our health care system, in that we have a very good acute health care system. They saved my life, no question. But when I went to hospital for four months, a physio again, Vivian will tell you the story. I literally broke out there. There are, I’m sure, posters of never have this guy come back because I called out everything. And where I found the unfairness is you shouldn’t have to have money to recover. This is part of our society is what we pay our taxes for. And so I will do that. And if you see me funding a lot of start ups that are in the disability post-acute space, that’s why I’m doing that, because I just think it’s unfair. So just to give you a sense to the I’ll just give you today. So from 1030 to 12, my physio comes in with another physio assistant. I’m walking with two poles now up to about 400 feet is the maximum I could do practicing the walking in it. You know, they’re there in case I kill myself and took 15 minutes for lunch. Had another at a business call on the by the way, I did 3 hours of work before they came. My driver came to bring me here. After I’m going, driving and bring me right back home. I have my missus physio ready for another 90 minutes and then once I’m done that I am cycling quite a bit again and I go back on to my peloton. I’ll do that for 45 minutes, have a little bit of dinner, and then do another three or four hour shift. So it is a killer to do that, but and yet say, why would I? Other than being stupid and a glutton for punishment, it’s if I didn’t do that, I’m not sure my mind would be in the right frame of mind in order to help the physical recovery of my body.

Speaker 1 [00:09:44] So I remember hearing me resilience. It involves a team. It’s not a solo. It’s not a sport. It’s a lot of work. What if, John, what have you learned about yourself through this?

Speaker 2 [00:09:57] Well, I learned that I was kind of foolish. And then let me explain why. So people have asked, what is it? When you look back at a career of making successful investments, what was the streak? And the string was finding that founder with resilience. And, you know, I could explain to you what I really mean very specifically, but it was resilience that was the single string. And it was easy for me to parrot that and explain and saying, you know, I pointing to these folks. Little did I know that I had to actually prove that to myself. And it’s one thing to build a business. And during when we were fundraising for mavericks, you know, with the pandemic, I ran over by a vehicle. Like, it’s like, okay, God, okay, I get it here. You’re testing me. That was enough now. And but I really realized what resilience really meant. And two things for me. One personal, one business personally. So and I didn’t realize this at the time when I was lying on the ground. So I was dying and I probably had 60 minutes to live and they got me to the hospital in 25 minutes, but 2 minutes post-impact. I woke up not knowing that I’m. I think and my sense is in the ground, it’s just shredded at this point and just in in bad shape. And I wake up and I say, oh, my God, I’m paralyzed. You know it, by the way, you just it’s a feeling of nothingness below your waist. And I felt that I had a choice. I really did. To live or die at that moment. And the two things that came to mind was my kids. My son would have been 14, my daughter 11. And I thought, oh, they’re too young not to be fatherless. So I started with my left forearm trying to get up, not knowing that everything’s broken all the way down my body. And so I couldn’t physically get up. I was trying and I remember this one woman witness. She said, Don’t get up, you’re in bad shape. And then they took up my phone, added my kit and phoned my wife had to even give my password, for God’s sakes, because they couldn’t do the face thing on there. And I’m like. And I and my wife’s like, What’s going on? Go, come and get me. It’s really bad. So. So the personal resilience on your family and the power of that is there’s nothing comparable. But at the same time, you know, when we were building Mavericks, it was really like, we’re not doing it to make more money. I don’t need to make any more money. But it was really about the future of this country and really building the scale up. And I really felt I could have I did that for a reason. And I remember when I’m in the hospital, so it’s about six weeks in and I’m lying on my back. I can’t actually even move. I couldn’t I couldn’t get up because all of the I, I broke all of my ribs in in multiple places. And I had what’s called the flail. My ribs actually stuck out. It was really gross. And so I couldn’t move and I’m bored out of my mind. And I started calling up the investors. And the first one gets this long pause and I go, Hey, how’s it going by? Say, John, like you’re basically you’re alive. And I go like, yeah. And I just yeah, I just following up, you know, we talked about October and there was a long pause. It was like with a bear you had said, oh, I’m, I’m, I’m, I’m at this trial. Rehab rehabs called lenders and now I’m the lenders. Because are you on your back in the medical. Yes, because why are you calling me? And I just said, like, what am I going to do? And this is what Canadians this is Canada for you and how we’re so relationship driven. This the response was universally, hey, why don’t you take care of yourself and when you get out of hospital will close the deal. They did it three months later from a hospital. That’s Cam. That’s Canada for you. So.

Speaker 1 [00:14:49] John, I want to shift a bit to learn more about mavericks. Tell us what the mission is, what the ambition is, and what you’re hoping to do with it in the next in the next short while.

Speaker 2 [00:14:58] Yeah. So, you know, it’s interesting, you know, for those of you who have followed a lot of our thought leadership, we were very concerned that the interest rate environment was going to trigger a massive resetting of valuations. And, you know, one of my colleagues, Peter Hodge, if you follow him, was even actually modeling out what the impact would be in anybody who was paying attention would have realized a very small move in interest rates was disproportionately going to impact valuations. So we were expecting a massive correction and we have a lot of great companies that have gone through the start up system and there was not going to be any capital available to them, really front end and a risk base capital. And we wanted to build a fund that would cut checks that were very significant, at least from a Canadian perspective and, you know, required checks. We cut on average, 50, $75 million in U.S. dollar checks, which was kind of the whole in the market place. And it was really designed to not only capture technology companies, but traditional businesses that were enabling the technologies. And it was to fill a hole. And the asset class is called technically a growth private equity asset class as distinguished from late stage venture. And no one really captured that asset class in Canada. So we thought that was the hole. And, you know, we closed the fund last year, but we did wait an entire year despite us screening a thousand deals. We just knew that the market was going to implode. And so now we’re so excited that, you know, yes, there is a valuation correction, but that’s not a business correction. Another could be a business correction if we fall into a deep recession. And, you know, that’s a bit of a different story. But we’re really looking for these great founders who want to build. And this is the key. You want to build a Canadian based business that you want to stay here. You want to grow it very, very big. You know, like a Shopify. You can hire employees all around the world. But this is what’s missing for this country. And this is what I believe. And our team believes it is the path for the future prosperity of our country.

Speaker 1 [00:17:31] We’re out. Please. Thank you. It’s been a really volatile year. Do you think we’re at or near the bottom?

Speaker 2 [00:17:41] No. So. We are in the falling knife stage. So it goes through a few stages. And by the way, because I’m an old guy, this is the fourth time I seen it. It repeats itself all the time. John, you’ve been through a few of these as well. And so we go through the shock stage where people think that it will just revert back and then they start to realize, oh, it won’t end. Remember, the aberration was 2019 to 2021. We’re not in the aberration. We’re in the normal period. That’s the problem that people have to really understand that. So it’s really acknowledging that. Okay, I see where we are then it’s the falling knife stage and that’s where we’re in right now, where there’s lots of uncertainty. And the companies are starting to figure out, oh, there’s not an endless money supply. You know, their business models maybe where, where, where we’re terribly unproductive, etc.. And so you’re going to see I save for one more quarter. Right now, not a lot of activity. But remember, there is a historical amount of dry powder out there. I do believe in Q4 we’re going to start to see people choosing companies that have got their business models correct. So I think there’ll be capital for that. There’ll be a lot of acquisitions. You’re going to see privatizations in the in the in the public markets. But 2023, I think, is going to still be a period of volatility. And the second shoe is a recession. And while I personally believe I actually think we’re in one right now and in a little bit as a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I don’t know how deep it’s going to be. And if it’s deep, then there’s still further room to go down because the demand for a lot of the products or services are going to decrease. So the real message and if anyone wants to see, we kind of list of the kind of the top ten rules that you really should do right now. But the real message is watch your cash. Don’t change your strategy of panic. Businesses will still grow. And some of the greatest businesses that I’ve seen strengthen themselves during these recessionary times because they were getting kind of fat in the first place. So you’re going to see a lot of this stuff. And if you’re looking for talent, there is going to be talent going to be going to, you know, the perceived winners. So and they’re going to get stronger. So, you know, the real key is trying to figure out how to get through. And I’m going to guess around the next 18 months and getting through on the other side, leaner, meaner. But I am more excited now than I was when this happened. You know, whether it was 2008 and certainly in 2002, in 2002, they weren’t even businesses and we created eight years of a horrible wasteland. I don’t think we’re in that situation today.

Speaker 1 [00:20:51] You’ve had the fortune, good fortune of dealing with a few generations of entrepreneurs. Now, how are entrepreneurs today of this generation different?

Speaker 2 [00:21:03] I think that compared to 20 years ago, where the first question was how much money I’m going to make, you know, by virtue of the exit, etc.. I don’t see that very often anymore. And now I see far more passion based investors. I don’t know if he’s here today, but when we were sitting out there and in the speaker’s area is a gentleman here that talked about his young kid having a medical condition and now building the business based on that. And it’s a medical based business that’s passion. And this guy, he’s going to do everything he can to build this business. This guy is going to rocks are going to fall on you. Hopefully you don’t get hit by a tractor trailer, but 99% of the time, those massive obstacles come crashing on you in. This gentleman is going to do everything in his power because he wasn’t focused in on the money, but the money might come. That is a massive generational change that I just and thrilled about when a particularly when I’m speaking to younger individuals.

Speaker 1 [00:22:15] We’re unfortunately out of time. But I wonder, John, if I can wrap up with a question back to the original point about resilience and what entrepreneurs and founders need to see in themselves and building themselves to be resilient through these challenging times.

Speaker 2 [00:22:32] So a few things. You said it earlier. It took an entire community to get me where I am right now. And it’s not only my doctors, it’s my team at Mavericks, my cycling team, etc. It takes a community. Well, I just so happen to surround myself with folks that are positive and give me hope and telling me, you know, you’re going to crush it, even though I know they know. Hold that this guy is in bad, bad shape. It’s the same thing with you in here. Surround yourself with folks that give you hope and you know when you’re going out and getting advice to folks from folks and seek as much as you can, you know, don’t surround yourself with sycophants either, making sure that you’re really asking people, how can I fix things, etc.? But at the end of the day, it is that hope no. One. Don’t let anyone take it away from you and you’ll just be surprised what you can achieve when you maintain that hope.

Speaker 1 [00:23:40] Don’t let anyone take away your hope. What a what a great message for us all. John, thank.

Speaker 2 [00:23:44] You so much. Thank you.

Speaker 1 [00:23:49] That was John Ruffolo, managing partner of Toronto based private equity firm Maverix Private Equity. Thanks to John for sharing his inspiring story with our listeners. I’m John Stackhouse, and this is Disruptors, an RBC podcast. Talk to you soon.

Speaker 3 [00:24:07] Disruptors, an RBC podcast is created by the RBC Thought Leadership Group and does not constitute a recommendation for any organization, product or service. It’s produced and recorded by Jar Audio. For more disruptors content, like or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and visit rbc dot com slash disruptors.

Jennifer Marron produces "Disruptors, an RBC podcast". Prior to joining RBC, Jennifer spent five years as Community Manager at MaRS Discovery District and cultivated a large network of industry leaders, entrepreneurs and partners to support the Canadian startup ecosystem. Her writing has appeared in The National Post, Financial Post, Techvibes, IT Business, CWTA Magazine and Procter & Gamble’s magazine, Rouge. Follow her on Twitter @J_Marron.

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