One of Atlantic Canada’s most prominent entrepreneurs and angel investors, Dan Martell has launched five tech companies, including his most ambitious startup yet, Clarity.fm, which provides real-time expert advice to entrepreneurs around the world.
Where did he get the idea for his latest venture? From lessons he learned in his teens, when it wasn’t clear whether he would live to graduate high school.
At a special Mastermind Talks entrepreneurial event in Toronto this May, Martell spoke publicly for the first time about his troubled childhood, and the bad decisions that saw him land in jail twice before age 18.
He later told PROFIT that he decided to speak up because he knows many entrepreneurs come from chaotic, unsettled backgrounds. He thinks they need to know that all their experiences, good and bad, can combine to make them stronger, more accomplished business leaders.
Martell began his story by noting that his childhood in Moncton, N.B., was difficult, with a mother who “battled the bottle,” and a salesman father who was rarely home. At age 12 he was placed in foster care, where, as constant cut-up, he was passed from one temporary home to another. After a year he returned to his family home, but there was no respite there: “My parents divorced, and I discovered drugs,” Martell said. “I stopped going to school. I spiraled out of control.”
Inevitably, the party crashed to a halt. “I got busted for selling drugs to the daughter of the chief of police,” Martell confessed. “It landed me two years in jail at the age of 16.”
Figuring he’d hit rock-bottom, Martell promised himself he would never fall so low again, a vow that was mocked by a cynical guard who said, “See ya again,” when Martell was released.
Martell has found the balance he lacked and is now working on his most ambitious startup yet: Clarity. ‘It’s the easiest way for entrepreneurs to get advice to grow their businesses.’
He came out of that experience changed. But not for the better. Martell resumed his addict lifestyle, but decided that he would never be caught. He kept a gun in his car to shoot himself if the police tried to stop him again.
Nine months later, driving while high on PCP, Martell heard the familiar siren. He tried to outrun the police car, but drove right into a house. Trapped, he reached for his gun. Dan Martell is alive today because he couldn’t grab the gun and fire before the police disarmed him.
After 16 months in an adult correctional facility, where he vowed once again to get straight, Martell got lucky. He was placed in a rehabilitation facility called Portage Atlantic. In a remote lakeside setting near Sussex, N.B., his anger was replaced by regret and a new sense of purpose. He was aided by Portage’s caring staff, all of whom were recovering addicts. Martell doubted that he would have changed if the caregivers had been idealistic college grads who had never done drugs; knowing these people had been in his shoes and fought the same demons made Martell willing to be reached.
When Martell finally returned home at the age of 19, he graduated from high school and started the first of his five companies, a Maritimes vacation website, which was followed by a web-hosting company.
Working seven days a week, Martell had no social life: “All that illegal stuff turned out to be good training for being an entrepreneur,” he said.
At age 24 Martell founded Spheric Technologies, a network-software firm that went to 30 employees and $3 million in revenues within three and a half years. Martell looked proud when he recalled, “My dad always said I would be a force to be reckoned with when I figured out something I wanted to do that was legal.”
With all his business success, however, Martell says he is most pleased with the impact he has had on his family. His two younger brothers, who earlier had shown signs of following Dan’s tortured path, straightened themselves out and became business owners themselves.
At 28, Martell sold Spheric and became a multimillionaire. But he had nothing to do next, and no relationship to fall back on. “Nobody cared if I got out of bed,” he said.
So, he wrote a strategic plan for reprioritizing his life and putting people first. With a new life partner and a son born in 2012, Martell has found the balance he lacked and is now working on his most ambitious startup yet: Clarity. “It’s the easiest way for entrepreneurs to get advice to grow their businesses.”
Martell’s whole life is a testament to the power of role models and learning from experience, if not your own, then someone else’s: “All the success I’ve had came from that.” That’s why Clarity is all about helping entrepreneurs reach out and connect with hands-on, done-it-all mentors. For a fee, startups and other eager-to-learn entrepreneurs can request phone conversations with entrepreneurs who have the industry experience or track records to shed new light on their most daunting business problems.
“I learned that lesson from Portage,” said Martell. Mentors and advisors shouldn’t just be people who’ve “read the manual,” he said. They need to have been through the fire themselves so they can help others learn from their mistakes.
According to Martell, Clarity now has 14,000 experts fielding 40,000 calls a month. Clarity’s mentors include such hard-to-reach luminaries as “lean startup” guru Eric Ries (his advice will cost you US$16.67 per minute) and entrepreneur/investor Mark Cuban ($166.67 per minute).
Successful entrepreneurs don’t need to have faced all the trials that Martell did, but he says it couldn’t hurt. “I believe that with great entrepreneurs, there’s usually something in their childhood that was chaos,” Martell told PROFIT in a subsequent interview. “It teaches you at a young age that you can deal with things that are seemingly real tough. I learned very young that I could create my own environment and take care of myself.”
Today Martell has high hopes for Clarity, which has raised $1.6 million in venture capital funding. He expects it to become the No. 1 connection tool for entrepreneurs all over the world. “It’s growing 30% a month,” he says. By enabling anyone to seek help from just about anybody they will to meet, he says, “Clarity is going to disrupt the consulting industry. We’re trying to index what’s in people’s brains the way Google is trying to classify all the printed information. I think it’s going to change the world.”
But Martell is also pursuing change closer to home. Three times a year he goes back to Portage Atlantic (where he is also a significant donor) to speak to the youth there and let them know there is life, and success, after addiction. “The experiences you’ve gone thru have taught you things that will make you stronger than a lot of other people in society,” he tells them. Knowing that troubled youth need all the encouragement they can get, Martell has set yet another goal: to build a Portage centre in every province in Canada.
Rick Spence is president of Canadian Entrepreneur Communications, a Toronto-based business writer, speaker and consultant dedicated to entrepreneurship and helping businesses grow.