A Winding Road

By Bruce Firestone | Uncategorized

Jun 06
[A version of this article first appeared in Ottawa Business Journal]

When you first meet Ottawa-based ProjectSpeaker founder, Pierre Bisaillon, you can be forgiven if you think you are in the presence of a charming French film actor. Fluent in English, French and German, Mr Bisaillon is a well-traveled, serial entrepreneur with an international focus. His winding path to get to Ottawa and to start building a new platform connecting keynote speakers, event planners and suppliers to that industry proves it.

Pierre Bisaillon, founder, ProjectSpeaker.com

Like most entrepreneurs, Pierre started early. As a kid growing up in North Bay, he was into skateboards in a big way but like most 15-year olds, his eyes were bigger than his wallet. One thing he noticed was that almost all the ads in skateboard magazines had small print somewhere that said, “Dealer enquiries welcome”. He asked his father what that meant who said, “It means if you own a store, you can become a dealer and get $300 boards for $150.”

That sounded promising to Pierre so he opened a store—in his parents’ garage—called “The Big Wheel Skateboard Shop”. How did he come up with that name? His dad kept asking him, “So you think you are a big wheel now?” and it stuck.

Pierre used $50 of his McDonald’s earnings to print Big Wheel letterhead and envelopes (with a logo designed for him for free by a highschool friend) and sent out 150 of them to dealers some of whom approved the new “store”. Next, Pierre created a Big Wheel catalogue (by gluing cool pictures from magazines into a scrapbook) and went from skater hangout to skater hangout selling boards for $300. He took cash deposits of 50% so he was never out of pocket any money even after paying COD to his suppliers.

It wasn’t long before Mr Bisaillon had to quit his McDonald’s job to work full time at Big Wheel despite being nominated in the lot and lobby cleanup event at McD’s Olympics where teams from across their network of stores compete for prizes and bragging rights. Pierre proudly recalls he was nominated for his innovation not speed—he was the first to close half an entrance or aisle for cleaning instead of the whole area…

Pierre studied computer science at York University spending two summers debugging COBOL which helped him decide that he would rather hang himself than spend his career as a coder. So he decided to apply to the RCMP, a move his father approved of.

At around the same time, the university kicked him out of residence for running another business from his dorm room—this time he was running a stock agency, an enterprise that indulged another of Pierre’s passions—a love for photography.

After leaving York, instead of heading to the RCMP, he headed to Toronto to open an office and work on his agency full time. Over the next seven years, he built relationships with magazines and publishers (who buy images) as well as with photographers, many of whom like most artists were poor. After seven years representing his stable of creatives, he sold the agency to Tony Stone Worldwide (now called Getty Images) for $250,000 and joined up with them on a three year contract.

Now Pierre finally had not only great relationships with buyers, but also a practically unlimited inventory of product courtesy of Tony Stone, who became an important influence in Pierre’s life.

Tony was so impressed with the work Mr Bisaillon had done with Tony Stone Canada that he asked Pierre to go to New York and open an office there. The only thing Pierre knew about NYC is he had watched a few episodes of NYPD Blue on TV. Nevertheless, under Pierre’s management, the office went from 0 to $10 million in sales in 18 months.

I asked Mr Bisaillon what the key to his repeatable sales success was. He said, “Look, we had the product—the most beautiful set of images ever created. But some of the staff in some of our offices felt that they were better than the clients. All I did was teach them to build relationships instead of sales.”

At his next stop working with a Tony Stone competitor (Pictor), a fateful intra-company newsletter (from their Munich office) came across his email. On its cover, Pierre saw a picture of woman; within minutes he was on the phone with their London office asking about her. Her name was Sylvie and she worked in the Munich office.

Synchronously, Sylvie came to NYC on vacation and decided to check out Pictor’s New York office about which she had heard good things. Pierre was only too happy to show her around. Next thing they did was drive 15 hours to North Bay to celebrate Christmas with his parents. Three months later they were married.

While living with Sylvie in Munich, Pierre started a tech business—this one a Frankfurt VC-backed venture creating and distributing PDF versions of newsstand magazines which went very well. After selling it to Media Professionals, Syvlie and Pierre decided to try living in Canada. Their first year was spent living on their sailboat (a Hughes Columbia 36) docked at Toronto Island Marina in the summer and Marina Quai West in winter. But the arrival of a baby daughter focused them on a more permanent lifestyle so Pierre took a job consulting for DNA13 and the family moved to Ottawa.

After leaving DNA13 and experimenting with other start-up ideas, Pierre launched ProjectSpeaker.com. He understands that you can create a great deal of value by creating useful platforms for industries where information is highly asymmetrical. He puts it this way, “When you bring transparency to an industry, top performers, some of whom may not be great marketers, can rise to the top.”

It’s free for event planners and keynote speakers to create a profile on ProjectSpeaker’s platform. Over 3,000 speakers have taken advantage of the opportunity so far (for the purposes of full disclosure, I have created a profile there) and more than 15,000 event planners and 17 speaker bureaus have as well. ProjectSpeaker will make money from suppliers for things like venues, AV, tech, travel, ground transportation, food and beverage, party rental, catering, hotels, media relations and marketing—they pay to get access to relevant RFPs generated by the system. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry and there are large players already in place but their differentiating value is that they are not building a directory like what their competitors already have, they are building a community.

“Tony Stone instilled in me that we are here to serve our clients. If we help them become more successful, we will become more successful. That’s our whole focus,” Pierre concludes.

Dr Bruce M Firestone, founder, Ottawa Senators; broker, Century 21 Explorer Realty, author, brucemfirestone.com. Follow him on Twitter @ProfBruce and@Quantum_Entity.

Posted in


Entrepreneur Skill Set



Product Management


Spread The Word

About the Author

Bruce is an entrepreneur/real estate broker/developer/coach/urban guru/keynote speaker/Sens founder/novelist/columnist/peerless husband/dad.