A Little Older & Wiser

Mike Johnston applied his previous entrepreneurial expertise to help launch TeamSpace. He has since been named as a finalist for Entrepreneur of the Year. PHOTO: Riley Smith

TeamSpace’s Mike Johnston reflects back on his first short-lived entrepreneurial effort, with more experience under his belt

Twenty years ago, Nova Scotia native Mike Johnston was a biochem student at Harvard University, with a future in medicine. But a brief pause and change of career path—a winding road with more than a few un­expected twists and turns—led him to becoming president and CEO of TeamSpace Canada Inc., a custom software developer.

“I was trying to decide what to do with my life, and med school seemed to be the right path,” Johnston explains. “[A friend at Dartmouth University] gave me a bit of advice that rang true: ‘If you’re not absolutely sure that medicine is the only thing you can ever see yourself doing, stop and think hard about it.’ I thought that’s what I wanted to do, but I wasn’t 100 percent convinced.” He had spent his summers programming office automation software for a government entity and soon realized that it was the work he loved to do.

Johnston landed a job at boutique software developer The Jacobson Group, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Shortly after he joined the team, the company landed a major client in IBM. Johnston led a team of developers, managed a number of projects, and built strong working relationships. “I loved the work, the consulting angle, building something tangible with software,” he says. “It was a logical process, which is why I like medicine. I found software gratifying.”

TeamSpace by the Numbers

80+
TeamSpace went from 2 employees to more than 80 within 12 years

75%+
Percentage of clients returning for multiple projects

50%
Growth per year for 5 years, putting the company on the Fastest Growing Companies list for Atlantic Canada 5 times

95%
Percentage of business from outside Canada

Then, in late 1999, Johnston and another former Harvard biochem student got together and developed iCare, a dot-com start-up software company for the health-care field. “It was in response to the glut of information overload that was happening in the early dot-com era. There was a proliferation of medical sites, such as WebMD, where we created a generation of hypochondriacs who could Google everything and bring printouts into their appointments saying, ‘I think I’ve got X, Y, and Z.’ People were filling up appointments with meaningless hypochondria.”

iCare filtered this information, allowing patients and practitioners a clear line of communication. But when business started to grow and a secure infrastructure was needed for real patient data, the market crashed. “We were right in the thick of summer 2000, when the dot-com bubble burst,” he explains. “My wife was pregnant with our firstborn, and we were burning through our meager life savings, trying to run a start-up in the worst-possible business climate. A month after our daughter was born, we decided to fold up iCare, packed our lives up in a one-way moving van, sold our cars to the dealerships, and came back to Nova Scotia. It was a complete start over.”

After turning down a few job offers, Johnston realized that in order to be happy he needed his own business. “There was something about entrepreneurship that tickled my fancy,” he notes. It was then that he reconnected with a former IBMer he met through his work at The Jacobson Group. “I called him as a reference, and he said, ‘I’ve been itching to do something myself. Are you interested in trying to do another company?’ And we started TeamSpace.”

TeamSpace builds virtual worlds, corporate websites, mobile apps, games, and even has a hand in health care. “Looking back on the health-care start-up, I don’t think we knew enough up front,” says Johnston. “We couldn’t see the problems coming before they were upon us.”

Johnston was recently named an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist for Atlantic Canada in information technology, as well as in 2006, both for his work at TeamSpace.