Bob Young is the founder and Chairman of Lulu.com, a premier international marketplace for self-publishing digital content on the Internet, with more than 300,000 recently published titles and more than 15,000 new creators from 80 different countries joining each week. Lulu.com, founded in 2002, is just one of Young’s multiple endeavors.
In 1993, Young co-founded Red Hat with Marc Ewing. The open-source software company gives hardware and software vendors a standard platform on which to certify their technology. Raleigh-based Red Hat was acquired by IBM in 2019 for $34B.
In 2003, Young purchased his hometown Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League and currently serves as the league’s vice chairman. In 2016 he helped found the Canadian Premier League, Canada’s top-tier professional soccer league, and owns the two-time champion Hamilton Forge.
He is also actively involved with his wife Nancy in Needlepoint.com, a leading supplier of needlepoint kits, supplies, and services to the passionate needlepoint stitching community.
When asked what all these projects have in common, Young’s only explanation is to say he enjoys businesses that aim to make the world a better place and that cater to enthusiastic communities of users. Young also collects calculators and antique typewriters—a nod to his beginnings as a typewriter salesman—and can usually be found sporting a pair of red socks.
- What is in your pockets?
I try and have as little as possible—just some lint in my pockets—and there’s two reasons for that. One is I’m disorganized and forgetful. If I put things in my pocket, in theory, I’m the only person who knows what’s there. So being disorganized and forgetful, but ambitious, ‘I need all the help I can get’ is my success model. So, I try and leave things in the open.
And that’s also the second reason—because I’m not that smart, I don’t hide stuff. So open-source fits with who I am as a human, [rather than] trying to keep secrets whether they are trade secrets or business secrets.
2. What exciting thing has happened recently for you or your organization?
Lulu is a self-publishing platform. Big publishers all turn away nine out of 10 books that are submitted to them. And they will tell you they do so because these books aren’t very good, but there are other reasons. They’ll turn away a book if they already have one. For example, one of the six textbook publishers in America is not incentivized to publish a second Economics textbook, no matter how much better it might be than the existing six in the marketplace.
And the other reason is the publishers think the market is too small for the books and they will only sell a few thousand copies. But in that market, the people who need that book really need that book. These are our specialist markets. They don’t have to be very big, and they need the knowledge that the publishing industry is good at disseminating when there’s a large audience. But they are very bad at disseminating when it’s a small marketplace, so Lulu was set up to enable authors and businesses to publish their own books to their own audience without the gatekeeper of the publishing industry. Lulu is going to hit $50 million worth of revenue and celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, which in technology is an accomplishment all by itself.
There are way too many other fun things happening. I’m blessed to be involved in a whole bunch of different projects. The single best thing that’s happened to our family is we’ve had two additional grandchildren in the last six months. My eldest daughter had a little girl and my middle daughter just had a little boy, so we’re very blessed with that.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats signed an all-star quarterback so we’re going to win the Grey Cup Championship this year.
Also, our needlepoint business is doing very well. I joke that needlepoint is the world’s smallest uniquely identifiable industry, but it’s a lovely industry. So, a whole bunch of fun outcomes in my world.
3. What is your favorite coffee spot?
I love Cup A Joe and this goes back to my earliest days at Red Hat when I first moved to town in the summer of ’96, just in time for Hurricane Fran. One of our first potential customers was Cup A Joe, and they were doing an internet cafe. They bought a bunch of computers running Red Hat Linux and we were giving them a hand with it. When we tried to send them a bill, they explained that there isn’t much money in the coffee business so they offered us free coffee instead of money. And of course, I like a “cup a joe,” so we were happy to take a couple of cups of free coffee for our help.
4. What keeps you up at night?
So again, a two-part answer. Literally nothing keeps me up. In our family, we refer to each other’s superpowers in a very tongue-in-cheek way, but my superpower is that I can sleep. I can sleep anywhere. So, nothing keeps me up.
But if the question is what worries me, it’s been the same thing for 40-something years of my career–it’s people. At the end of the day, success in business or anywhere is surrounding yourself with good people who care about the mission and your attempt to make the world a better place. And they have to be smarter than you are, at least that’s my model because I’m not very smart. If they’re not smarter than me, my project is not going anywhere. I’m not good at it, and I don’t think there’s anyone on the planet who is good enough or as good as they would like to be at identifying, developing and motivating the team that they need to be successful.
I’m still making rookie mistakes and I’m still having to fix the mistakes. But that is what I worry about. Almost all the time. Everything else is easy and this is hard only because it’s so important.
5. What is your favorite restaurant or happy hour?
Well, I have a cute story and again, it comes back to the people. When I’m hiring I don’t like sending want ads, because the people who respond typically are unemployed. All the really good people are employed, and if their job comes to an end, they have three people who were trying to get them before they ever hit the job market. So good people never show up on an unemployment line.
There was a restaurant in Westport, Connecticut, called Pompano Grill. I don’t think it’s there anymore, but I’m fond of it because I hired one of their servers. And she was brilliant. She was as shocked that I would be out there for dinner with my family and offer her a job as I was pleased that she was as talented an employee for Red Hat. She would have been Employee No. 2 at Red Hat had she stayed with us when we merged the business down here. That’s why I feel this warm connection to the Pompano Grill, because the trick of finding good people before they hit the job market is one of the great techniques to building strong teams.
6. What is next for you or your organization?
My problem is most of my friends who are my age have retired out of the technology business, because technology moves so fast that it’s hard to keep up. And as you get older, your learning skills just are not as sharp as they were when you were in your 20s. So that pressure to keep up is really tough.
But those of us who are still in technology, it’s because we all had bad cases of ADHD when we were kids. And that rate of change is what makes technology so addictive. So, pick a technology: Web3, blockchain, the latest one is the WebAssembly programming platform. They look really interesting and are doing incredibly clever things. There are just too many fun things to learn about. There’s not much that worries me but there is a lot I want to learn.