Clark Murray had hardly entered Facebook headquarters when he saw Mark Zuckerberg in a conference room. Murray was in San Francisco attending YouNoodle, a five-week bootcamp for burgeoning startups. Attendees had come for tech advice from YouTube, Instagram and now Facebook managers. But Murray was struck by the Zuck.
Murray texted a friend in Edmonton, who predictably replied: “Pics or it didn’t happen.” Should he? He’d taken many risks before – some of them, like helping to launch the bar Blue Chicago, ended badly. Others, like the Nation Network, became national companies. If 14 years in real estate, hospitality, tech and the record industry, and $6 million in annual revenue, have made the 34-year-old anything, it’s ballsy.
But prudent, too. He wasn’t going to blow the counselling of the people behind the world’s second-most-popular website. It was 2012, and in two years Murray was set to launch an ambitious point-of-sales system for independent businesses, Dub5.
Imagine a system that tracks sales, schedules, rushes, lags and that alerts business owners when they’re over-laboured or short on tomato sauce; they could use that data to boost quick sales, say $7 haircuts till noon, then announce them on social media and track customer retention. Imagine knowing that your burrito store was paying 11 per cent more on beans than all the other burrito stores. “It knows your industry,” he explains, “and any time you share information among industries, it helps everyone to make better decisions.”
Such a system could change the nature of small businesses by essentially giving them the intel of a corporation. He was sure of it, and the Silicon Valley mentors and prospective investors he met at YouNoodle further confirmed his hunch. But, as Murray sat in a large group of Facebook seniors and other fledgling founders, his attention was elsewhere.
“Pics or it didn’t happen.” The text was burning a hole in his pocket.
Murray excused himself for the washroom and made his way back to the courtyard by the conference room. Forbes‘s 21st-richest person was still there, his back turned toward a man who considers him his hero. Like Zuckerberg, Murray also started a tech company in university. It didn’t make a billion dollars, but the $5,000 cheque he got when he sold it sure felt like a lot at 19.
From there he co-created the Canadian Brewhouse chain, then sold his shares to “work a soul-crushing job crunching data all day long.” When his new business partners approached him to invest in an upscale sports lounge, he felt as if he’d been invited to the Playboy Mansion. They were so cocky that, beneath the name on the blueberry coloured exterior, they mounted “Est. 2004.”
And what a year it was: A young man in the Alberta Capital was living the dream, another at Harvard was about to change the world, and all the young men of the National Hockey League were miffed. The NHL lockout was like a puck to the mouth, but Murray kept on a toothless grin. “I was the undefeatable optimist,” he says. But not even $5 steak sandwiches could save Blue Chicago from closing before its second birthday.
The following season the Oilers went to game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals and every local bar was minting money. Murray vowed one day he’d profit off the Oilers.
The next year, he sat in an austere office with Adam Rozenhart, his childhood friend and an early social media expert, refreshing articles they’d just published on their new community blog, OilersNation, and hoping someone would comment. Today, a typical OilersNation article gets 100 comments, is written by high-profile sports journalists like Jason Gregor and Robin Brownlee, and is part of a national network of hockey sites, with offices in three cities, that together get 40 million annual visitors.
In 2009 after Murray started what’s now the Nation Network, he became a partner in pan-Asian fast-food restaurant Oodle Noodle, helping grow it to seven locations. He also launched an e-ticket company and got a $50,000 investment on an early iteration of Dub5, before the recession halted further funds. “I was trying to get my PhD in entrepreneurship,” he says. He and partners also tried to buy the company in the office next door, Nexopia. Once one of the most popular social media networks, it had 1.5 million users before Facebook even existed.
Now he had the man who’d upended it – and the world – in his phone’s viewfinder. “Seeing him with my own eyes opened them to fact that he’s just like us,” he says. “He breathes air, eats food, visual stimulus, has a skeletal structure.” So that’s what the founder of a pivotal startup looks like?
Could Murray be one too? He hates the culture of self-promotion that tech and social media have married (online and in hockey circles, he’s disguised as Wanye Gretz), but he gets a charge out of entrepreneurship. He is like countless others who’ve similarly sprinted to the modern day gold rush with what they think, hope, believe is the next big idea. Some will make history, others footnotes if they’re lucky. Murray hopes Dub5, which Oodle Noodle began testing this spring, can pick up where Nexopia left off, as a homegrown success story. “If Nexopia had been Facebook, imagine how different Edmonton would have been?” The only way to know is to risk failing.
Right about the time someone at Facebook headquarters started shouting at him, Murray snapped the photo. He feebly tried to convince the security guard that he worked there, but the visitor’s lanyard was a dead giveaway. So he booked it and, as he ran, tweeted a blurry, grainy photo of the unwitting CEO so that no one could delete it.
And all the while Zuckerberg, behind that glass wall, didn’t noticea thing.