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It’s time to reconsider Jim Balsillie’s legacy

Jim Balsillie
Jim Balsillie
The cartoonish buffoon caricature of Jim Balsillie portrayed in the media since BlackBerry began to slide simply doesn’t jive with the actual facts of what happened. Over time, I think we will have a more balanced view of one of Canada’s most important entrepreneurs, a guy who successfully envisioned both the rise of the smartphone and what his company should do when the market became inevitably commoditized.

Former BlackBerry co-CEO Jim Balsillie no longer has anything to do with the Ontario-based company he helped turn into a household name.

Unlike founder Mike Lazardis, Balsillie reportedly now owns not a single BlackBerry share, his requirement to report his activity no longer necessary after his interest in the company dipped below 5% late last year.

Balsillie, these days maintains a much lower public profile than in his RIM heyday, when the Financial Post called him “Canada’s most famous business executive”. He sits on the advisory board of OMERS Ventures, as well as numerous charities. He doesn’t show up in the local paper as much.

Balsillie has become as invisible as he has been in the more than two decades since Mike Lazardis hired the thirty-one year old Harvard MBA as vice-president of business development.

That is, unless he is being publicly mocked as an example of incompetence, as he was when a recent piece about Apple’s sagging fortunes compared beleaguered CEO Tim Cook to Balsillie, who lacked, said the author “fifth grade comprehension skills you could have sniffed out the trouble at RIM.”

Lazardis, meanwhile is finding a measure of redemption. Forbes-regular Eric Jackson, in a recent piece for The Street entitled “Some Respect for Mike Lazaridis of BlackBerry” praised the Turkish-born engineer.

“For 10 years, the wise VCs wouldn’t even deign to meet this guy. He might as well have been building his company in Antarctica. Yet, he changed the world.” Jackson continued: “I have huge respect for Mike Lazaridis’ impact on the world through RIM and the remaining chapters to be written in his career through the exciting new bet he’s making in quantum computing. Any entrepreneur should study his life to inspire their own choices.”

After the early days of RIM, when it struggled to stay afloat by designing film editing equipment, giant LED signs for GM, even high tech toothbrushes, the company settled in with an unusual co-CEO arrangement that turned out to be spectacularly successful.

Rod McQueen, author of the bestselling book “Blackberry: The Inside Story of Research in Motion” talked to Cantech Letter a few years ago about RIM’s leadership arrangement.

“I know of no other company that has made such a joint relationship work for so long,” he said. “The duties are divided right down the middle so that Mike looks after engineering, research and development; Jim handles business, sales and finance. As Jim says, “I raise the money and Mike spends it.” The two don’t second-guess each other or look over each other’s shoulder.”

With this relationship at the top, RIM shot like a rocket. The company’s revenue soared from next-to-nothing to nearly $20-billion. RIM essentially invented the smartphone. Webster’s New World College Dictionary named “crackberry” the “New Word of the Year.” for 2006.

But as the company, now known as BlackBerry, has been rescued from the precipice with the launch of its long overdue BlackBerry 10 OS, Balsillie is getting none of the rebooted, reconsidered, reassessed praise. He should.

Recall the tiff that led to his resignation from the board in March of last year. Balsillie wanted RIM to pursue licensing strategies; allowing other platforms to use BlackBerry’s network and products. Incoming CEO Thorsten Heins was adamant that the company should not do this. Flash forward to last month at BlackBerry’s annual BlackBerry Live conference, where Heins announced that BBM would go cross platform.

No one would argue that Thorsten Hein’s tenure to date hasn’t been a success. While not blessed with Balsillie’s gift of gab and jocular affability, Heins has proved a more than capable operator, and he has guided BlackBerry to several surprising quarters.

But the portrayal of Balsillie of having his head in the sand doesn’t match with the fact. Art Mesher, the CEO of Waterloo-based Descartes Systems Group says opening up the BlackBerry network is not just a good business move, it will likely be essential to the company’s survival.

“History is just repeating itself” he told Cantech Letter last year. “Historically, since the advent of the microprocessor, hardware has become a commodity over time leading to a new world of open applications and content.” Mesher said one thing is clear: history demonstrates that integrators end up winning.

The real danger, historically, for a company at RIM’s point of evolution, said Mesher, has been that the corporate decisions were driven by “gadget geeks” who are in denial of systems evolution theory.

Jim Balsillie made mistakes. He underestimated the impact of the iPhone. He helped mess up the product cycle. He underestimated the importance of apps. He may have been distracted by extra-curricular activities, like trying to buy an NHL team.

But the buffoonish caricature of Jim Balsillie portrayed in the media since BlackBerry began to slide simply doesn’t jive with the actual facts of what happened. Over time, I think we will have a more balanced view of one of Canada’s most important entrepreneurs, a guy who successfully envisioned both the rise of the smartphone and what his company should do when the market became inevitably commoditized.

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About The Author /

Cantech Letter founder and editor Nick Waddell has lived in five Canadian provinces and is proud of his country's often overlooked contributions to the world of science and technology. Waddell takes a regular shift on the Canadian media circuit, making appearances on CTV, CBC and BNN, and contributing to publications such as Canadian Business and Business Insider.

Comment

  1. I have to commend the author for speaking out against the unjustified comments made about Jim Balsillie in the media. Arm-chair quarterbacking and hindsight pontifications are easy. How many of his critics built a business like BB?

  2. The benefit of hindsight, “underestimated the iPhone and the popularity of apps”. Plus the distraction of trying to buy a hockey team. I have all the faith in the world in Mr. Heins but he might be more of a soccer fan than hockey, just a WAG.

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