A Q&A with Andy Nulman, 2016 Quebec region Adam Chowaniec Lifetime Achievement Award winner

7 December 2016
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Andy Nulman, Co-Founder of the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival, is Quebec’s funny-man, entrepreneur extraordinaire, and the 2016 Québec Region winner of the Adam Chowaniec Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by Wolf Blass Wines. Young in spirit and snappy in dress, Andy Nulman has been creating and leading major media projects for four decades. Currently, he’s Co-Founder and CEO of Play The Future Inc., a forward-thinking digital platform/brand engagement tool that converts the big data points and events of major brands into consumer engagement and entertainment; a natural progression for a serial entrepreneur who believes that “Life’s A Game!”

In addition, in a part-time role as “Chief Attention Getter” of 375 MTL, he’s responsible for audacious, head-turning projects to set the stage for Montreal’s spirit-renewing 375 Anniversary celebrations in 2017.

Read our conversation on starting up, entrepreneurship, and the future of business with Quebec’s comedy king.

Q: What was your ‘ah-ha!’ moment in becoming an entrepreneur?

I was a very happy man until I got in a fight with a man who was going to become my boss. I didn’t know that. He cut my tie at a function I put together as promotion manager at the newspaper….. He said on the scale of jocularity, what equals a cut tie? I said a glass of red wine on a white lacoste sweater, and I did that. Two weeks later he became my boss and fired me. That’s how I learned to become an entrepreneur… he changed my life.

Q: Do you keep in touch?

For about a year I hated him, but I have to give him.. I owe him my life. If he hadn’t done that, who knows where I would be now?

Q: How have you kept all this success from going to your head? What keeps you grounded?

The reality of life. What you think is a sure thing can be eliminated in one minute by the competition… It’s like the quote, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. That’s what keeps you grounded. If you think you’re in control, you’re not. You’re just reacting to what goes on… So little of it has to do with you, and instead has to do with your place in the overall scheme of things.

Q: Have you always thought this way?

I learned this pretty quick. I learned this when I got my tie cut. I thought I’d get away with anything. You just think you’re in control, but you’re not.

Q: Tell us about the International Startup Fest.

I’m on the board of [Startup Fest]. I’ll tell you a great story about that. Phil Telio is the president and who runs startup festival. Five years ago, it was a freezing cold day and Phil…called me and said ‘I have a new idea I want to run by you.’ We went to a restaurant and sat down. He told me about this event, Startup Festival, that he wanted to do with a focus on startup businesses, pitching to grandmas, and the elevator pitch… and I said, I think this is really good. It has legs and the timing is right.

Q: What are the people like at Startup Fest?

It’s a gathering of very, very, very optimistic, upbeat, future thinking, positive people who you want to hang out with because they see the future with a smile on their face.

Q: What differs from a startup and a more mature organization?

Let’s look at the [Steve] Jobs comparison for a second. If I knew then what I knew now, I would have perhaps done it a different way the second time around. Jobs did it from scratch with [Steve] Wozniak from the very beginning. They were playing Sim City, they were creating a world, they were gods.

When we started the comedy festival, there was no comedy festival; it did not exist. We were playing god – yes let’s do this, let’s try that, we’ll go here, we’ll do that.

When you come back to a company that’s established, it’s the difference between being a father and a stepfather. In the original iteration, you go in and say okay, you are my child. I brought you into the world and this is what happens. When you come to an established company it’s: hey who are you, screw you? You’re my step-father, you’re not my dad, I’ve been here for 11 years and you were off with another company, I don’t have to listen to you.’ There was that underlying feeling of ‘we were here while you were off galavanting.’

Q: While at the Startup Canada Awards last year, you spoke fondly of Beyond The Rack’s co-founder, Yona Shtern. What is the startup community in Montreal like? Is it tight-knit?

I think so. That’s the thing I love about the startup business in general. People all know they’re doing the impossible. They all know what they’re doing is probably not going to work out. You have to root for the other guy. If you’re not rooting for the other guy, you’re really not rooting for yourself. Knowing that a lot of these businesses are not going to exist, the people are still great. So why kill the people when you can say, hey, you know, if it doesn’t work, out, I can work with you or you can work with me, depending on whose business does what or we can work with someone else together. It has that positive nature of – what can we do for the betterment of all?

Q: It’s all about entrepreneurship. What’s the future of entrepreneurship in Montreal, in Quebec, in Canada? Where do you see where we’re going?

I can tell you the next 10, the next two, or the next five. I’m in the business called Play the Future, but this is the future. The big companies, as many dollars as they can put into research, a lot of companies have stock prices and investors to deal with, so sometimes they have to cut R&D, and the point of the matter is a big company is still a big company. Startups and entrepreneurs are the ones who are going to come up with the ideas that everyone thinks are nuts. It’ll never work, it can’t happen. They’ll find a way to do it so inexpensively and cheaply and they’ll take it to the next level… the end result is this is the future.

The future comes from two guys in their basement or the two kids sitting in their room at night or the kids doing Vines or learning different things… the future goes to the young, [to the] gutsy. The rule breakers, the ones who are going to take the shot. These are the ones who are going to drive the future.

*This interview was adapted from The Humour Business, an episode of the Startup Canada Podcast featuring Andy Nulman.