Behind Our CEO: An Interview with Mike McDerment’s Mom
May 6, 2016
If you’ve followed the FreshBooks story, you’ve likely heard CEO Mike McDerment recount the early days of working in his parents’ basement. For Mother’s Day, we decided to hear the story straight from the source – Mike’s mother, Mrs. Claire McDerment – and also to learn what it’s like being the mother of an entrepreneur and what other parents could learn from her experience.
Tell me about yourself. Were you a working Mom?
My original background was nursing and I worked in mental health. I did classroom research in to find out stress management strategies for kids. I had worked with adults and thought it’s just so much better to start young: give people strategies, give them coping skills. Why is nobody doing this with children? But, in the ’80’s, stress wasn’t well-known.
Once I’d completed the research, I was asked to design courses for teachers called Kids Have Stress Too! It started as a little program in one school board and just grew. After 2-3 years, I was asked to join the Psychology Foundation board. My program went all across Toronto Public Health. Very few programs survive — certainly not volunteer-driven ones. But it’s still going strong!
Do you think it was important for your children that you were active and working? Do you think that shaped their idea of what women do, what mothers do?
No. I think they loved the fact I did it. But I don’t think it informed them. I never proselytized. I had no desire to jump on any bandwagon; I just said do your own thing — and that might mean staying at home with your kids. So, no, I wasn’t trying to set a prescribed model… I don’t think that would be great.
Tell me about striking the balance.
I was doing what I wanted. When you’re doing what you want, you seem to have the energy for it. I love being a mother and I love doing work.
So, let’s talk about Mike a little bit. What was he like as a child? Now with hindsight do you see that he was built for leadership?
Michael was a rebel without a cause. It was my way or the highway; not in a bad way, he just had his own path.
What were the report cards like?
They were generally positive because he was a positive child. He wasn’t sitting there with all A’s or anything [CEO note: Mike vigorously denies any less than perfect grade allegations]. But he had a great sense of justice – not that people had to behave a certain way – but he had ethics.
Did he have an idea of what he wanted to be when he grew up?
He wanted to be a hockey player [laughing]. I ruined his career by not letting him play competitive hockey because they were coming home at 11pm. It was crazy, so I just said no!
Between high school and university (he was accepted to Commerce at Queen’s University), he made the decision to take a gap year. I said, “well you can do what you like this year except half the year, you’ve got to go to some school.” So, interestingly enough, he took a course in Entrepreneurship, at which he excelled.
Was that entrepreneurship course a formative moment for him?
Well, it was certainly a flag for me. That was the first time I twigged that this could be a path. But when you go on to study Commerce, that’s not your path. The degree he was in couldn’t have cared less about entrepreneurs. I hope they do a little better now, but they were really preparing everybody for the towers downtown. That would have been the worst thing for him: Can you imagine him with bosses?
I can’t imagine him putting on a tie every day!
He was such a rebel at school. He had long hair and he’d tuck it into his shirt!
One other big thing in his life was camp. He’d go on canoe trips for 40 days, taking kids as a counsellor. The first time, he was only 14 and he sat us down and outlined his plan for the next year, including going on this long canoe trip. I think that life informed him or helped form him.
So: FreshBooks was founded in your basement: How did you feel about that?
When he graduated, he didn’t have a job or a clue what he wanted to do and I think that’s very typical of entrepreneurs. I knew that going out and looking for a job in an office just wasn’t for him so he said “well, I’d like to design websites.” He was very good at going out and getting clients and he always liked the people he worked with; he always befriended his clients.
But he had to do all this awful billing and stuff he didn’t like and he said “there’s got to be a better way! I can’t be doing all of this!” So he and his friend Joe [Sawada, Co-Founder] spent the summer plotting and that’s how FreshBooks got started.
He took over [our basement] — he’s great at creating space for himself! But he was happy so I felt positive about it.
Were you supportive up until a certain point, but then wanting him out of the basement?
No, I didn’t think like that right away. I wanted him to have a business. I didn’t understand the business, but I knew they were excited. And then Levi [Cooperman, Co-Founder & VP Operations] joined and was a steady rock. I really admire Levi because he had a very good job as an engineer and he gave it up to come and work on this project that was nowhere and could take years.
You seem like a very patient person
Possibly [laughing]… worn down!
That’s a great virtue — so many people would feel impatient for the pay-off!
There’s a man on my board and he was bemoaning the fact that his son was at home. And I said: Your son has got to be there until he completes what he needs to do and either it will “go” or it won’t but it doesn’t matter, you just hang in!
So your default state is positive and patient. You believe in people. And even when you don’t necessarily understand the product, you see their joy in the work.
Yes, I enjoyed each of them and could see it start it grow. I think you have to have a long perspective for entrepreneurs; it takes a long time to “catch”. And they put in an awful lot of work on the front end to make something happen. But by Year 3, I was asking Levi about their money situation because I wanted to renovate my kitchen and they didn’t like noise!
Did you let them fail fast, or intervene if you thought they were making a mistake?
I never thought of them as failing. I guess I don’t see failure; I see learning. You have to try lots of things. And entrepreneurs have to be prepared to not think of themselves as failures, but as learners.
It was fun having young people around. They’d come up to the kitchen to see what I was cooking, opening my pots. They were there — all my boys!
What do you think of the culture they’ve created here today?
I think it’s perfect. The whole thing is a perfect fit.
I wasn’t sure early on where he was headed. But I think you can tell when a baby’s in the playpen whether it’s got a little active brain. So I wasn’t the one to worry. Nowadays, the parents are just.. I can’t believe!… and I feel like saying… let them grow!
Michael had to learn a tremendous amount on the job because being an entrepreneur you’re used to doing for yourself: You’re not a manager, you don’t know how bigger business works. You just know what you’re doing. And little by little this thing grew and Michael had to grow with it and I think that’s been interesting to watch. He does a lot of reading. He listens to people and learns. He’s a quick study. He has always had the curiosity and drive. It just has to be directed.
One last question: If a mother came to you and said, I think my child has that same entrepreneurial spark, what would you advise them to do today?
Well, honour it. Find out as much as you can (I never did this, but I wish I had) about entrepreneurship. I used to give Mike books on business and other things I thought he’d be interested in. Find the things that are aligned with your child’s interests.
I think support it, because I don’t think there’s a lot of support out there for it. I don’t know what percentage of the world are entrepreneurs, but young people probably can’t say “that’s what I am” because they haven’t started anything yet. But as a kid they’re going to have “I’ll do it, I’ll do it myself” attitude.
And I would say entrepreneurs have to be risk takers. When they’re growing up as teenagers, you’re not thrilled with every risk. But that’s part of who they are. I didn’t tie them together at the time, because you don’t know who your child is going to emerge to be from their teens.
Mrs McDerment, it’s been lovely talking to you! Thank you for your time.
Thank you! You know one of the funniest things: One time, they were in the basement and I was coming down with some laundry. The boys used every room and they wore t-shirts and shorts. And I had to walk by the furnace room and I heard Mike’s voice with the furnace in the background: “Yes, you’re talking to the CEO of FreshBooks.”
Thanks to Jesse Read for creating the illustration based on this anecdote at the top of the piece!
And Happy Mother’s Day to all our moms!