Duncan McCall


an interview | summer 2018

“It’s interesting, we usually associate artist or creator with art, writing, music or whatever, but I think you can apply that same mentality to building companies. I feel as though I have this spark in me and whatever interests me, I try and apply that to whatever it is I'm doing, building or creating.”

I first discovered Duncan in 2016, after enrolling in several courses at BrainStation. Being a member of the founding team, I stumbled on his LinkedIn profile while researching the company.
“If you think I can help you or make your life better in anyway, whether it’s a conversation, a cup of coffee or anything else, please reach out. I would love to connect with you.” was the note in the biography/summary box of his profile. Simply that and nothing more. Naturally, I was instantly intrigued. After several internal debates on whether or not to reach out, I decided against it (despite my strong desire to reply immediately and take him up on his offer). Almost two years and a rather awkwardly long transitional period later, Duncan and his distinctly memorable LinkedIn profile were called to mind and thus, that very same debate. Oddly enough and contrary to my assumptions, the note was still there. Thanks to the tail end of my lagging transitional phase and the ‘nothing to lose’ attitude it’s commonly paired with, I decided in favour of responding. It turned out to be one of the most valuable conversations of 2018.

Not only were his perspectives and insights helpful on a professional level, his passion, kindness and thoughtfulness were lessons in and of themselves. Initially, it was never my intention to share my conversation with Duncan. In fact, I recorded our conversation in hopes of returning to it from time to time when the occasion called for reminders, motivation or insight; much as one re-reads a profound book.

Holistically, my experience with Duncan solidified a lot for me. Some of the lessons I anticipated learning- concepts and principals of success, etc., but there were many lessons that I did not anticipate at all and those were the ones that proved to be most enlightening. I am incredibly grateful for my experience meeting and conversing with him and it is my hope that by reading this interview, you will share in a similar experience and that it may progress your life in some way, big or small, in a favourable direction.

CR. We’re human, we have emotions, changing circumstances, etc. and we’re not always ‘ON’, so what gets and keeps you going, consistently?

DM. That’s a tough one. I feel compelled to constantly be doing things, constantly creating. Whether it’s creating music, which I’ve spent a lot of time doing over the years, or the businesses I’m involved with, I need to be creating things and so that’s what gets me out of bed; the need to do and create stuff. It’s interesting, we usually associate artist or creator with art, writing, music or whatever, but I think you can apply that same mentality to building companies. I feel as though I have this spark in me and whatever interests me, I try and apply that to whatever it is I'm doing, building or creating. 

CR. You co-founded Bitmaker, BrainStation and most recently, GrowthGenius, all in partnership with other people. What have you found the difference is between creating and building something with others versus by one’s self?

DM. With music it’s usually always independent, at times I’ll collaborate with others, but company related business is harder- although it depends on what you want to build. Generally, I find there is so much to do, especially if you intend on building a big company and growing it to a significant size; to found that company solely by yourself would be pretty challenging. It’s such a rollercoaster, so I think it’s really important to have other people in that process with you or it can be very lonely and just extremely tough. There’s just so much going on at any given time. At GrowthGenius, we’re a team of four, at BrainStation, we were three and with Bitmaker, we were three and eventually five- we adde two more shortly after. So I think when you get down to one or two people, it gets pretty tough. 

CR. It seems as if we have so much time, when we’re engrossed in our lives and with what we’re doing, but often, there comes a moment when we pause and think, ‘I should have done this or I could have done that’, so do you think in a retrospective sense at all or take measures to set yourself up for the future? 

DM. I try to balance life as much as I can, eating well and taking care of myself. I believe that your physical age is detached from your chronological age. I think that’s something I neglected when I founded my previous companies. When I started Bitmaker, I was naive and inexperienced, it was the first time that I had ever done something like that and so I made a lot of mistakes and got wrapped up in this idea of the ‘start up lifestyle’. Your very much grinding away, working many hours and so I made a lot of sacrifices that, in hind sight, I shouldn’t have made; particularly around having a balanced life and relationships. Those things are tremendously important, taking care of yourself and the relationships around you. If you neglect those things, in 10 years you might be a millionaire but you’ll have no solid relationships that surround you. Beyond that, I try not to think too far in advance. I find that when I’m really busy, I can’t even think past a week. 

Also, I try and develop as many skills as possible, I’m addicted to learning, I read a lot. One of my co-founders actually- and it seems so obvious, but he turned me on to this- because he does it constantly, finding individuals who have solved problems that you are trying to solve or have overcome challenges which you are trying to overcome and borrow all the information you can from them. Find the smartest people, in whatever area it is and learn as much as you possibly can from what they are doing. 

CR. Speaking of skills, which ones do you think have been the most valuable ones you have come to develop or master?

DM. I’m quite analytical and objective, especially in terms of decision making. When it comes to building companies, you’re constantly dealing with ambiguity, no one is going to give you any real answers; you are responsible and accountable for yourself. You’re constantly assessing the world around you, getting as much information as you can and making decisions quickly, so I’ve learned to do that pretty well. Also, empathy. When you are continually dealing with people, being empathetic is quite helpful. You have to remember, you are dealing with another human being, so you have to reflect on how you would want to be treated, talked to, dealt with. At the end of the day, it’s a relationship, I try and view every interaction with others as a relationship. 

CR. What are some things that you look out for when you’re analyzing a situation?

DM. I definitely try to take in and understand the perspectives of everybody involved in a process. When it comes to decisions, I try to understand each persons perspective while also removing my ego from the situation, I think I’m getting better at that. I’m still working on it but those are the things I try and do. Think more objectively and remove the ego. Listen as much as I can, talk less. 

CR . Do you have a process when it come to decision making or things that you consider?

DM. So I think it depends on the types of decisions we’re talking about, because they range from small, maybe somewhat insignificant, not necessarily going to move the needle. Then there are decisions such as, what are we going to spend the next month focused on building. So there is such a massive spectrum. 

CR. Right. The reason why I ask the question is because it seems to me that ones life- their circumstances or their situation, is an accumulation of all the decisions that they have made, big or small. So if you consider that, then it can also be said that different people, in certain circumstances, have, somewhere along the line, made better decisions. So I wonder- in general, when you are faced with a decision in life, what things do you consider or reflect on in order to make the most appropriate one?

DM. I think values are important. When you are young, you are naive and probably make decisions for the wrong reasons. As I’ve gotten older, it’s more a question of assessing my personal values and understanding what I care about. Decision making is really interesting. As humans, there are so many biases that we constantly carry around which impact the quality of the decisions we make. I have started to get very curious about decisions.
There is a book I recently read called “Thinking in Bets” which is by a woman named Annie Duke, she’s a professional poker player, it takes a look at decisions by assessing probabilities and removing emotion from decision making; being more objective. What happens is, you focus more on the actual quality of the decision making process as opposed to focusing on the outcome. What we often do is, we make a decision and then the outcome happens and we say, ‘well that was a stupid decision’ when really, what you should be thinking about is how you made that decision in the first place. Because there is the potential that you make a great decision but it doesn't go your way and so you have to learn how to separate those two pieces. The outcome is different than the quality of the decision making process, especially when you are making life decisions, you often get caught up in emotion. 

CR. What are some things that you do or practice daily, in order to achieve or help sustain your success and momentum?

DM. Exercise and eating well, definitely. That’s been huge. I try to journal everyday and that’s really helpful as well, especially in terms of solidifying learnings. Critical reflection is incredibly important for learning and growing. Taking the time to actually sit down and reflect on what things you did well yesterday, what things you maybe didn't do so well and what things you can change; even if you spend five or ten minutes doing that, it will help you take better advantage of your day. 

Most people tend to roll out of bed and think, ‘what am I going to do today?’ as opposed to saying to themselves, ‘I’m going to put a plan together for today, even if it’s just a rough plan, and that’s what I’m going to focus on and the other stuff, it doesn’t really matter’. Otherwise the world is going to dictate to you what you’re going to spend your time doing. You’re going to get a million emails, people are going to expect different things from you at various times, you’ll feel compelled to respond to them, keep up, etc. We are constantly getting bombarded, all day, so putting together a plan and having one or two focuses for the day has been really helpful. 

Success is really just about repetition and focus on certain things. Most people find it hard to focus on things long enough to do them well, that alone is really challenging, so journaling will help you to develop your ability to focus. 

Also, being proactive about removing distractions is another big one. We are now letting all of these tools into our lives and as a result, we are constantly distracted but in order to do really really good work, you have to be able to go deep and that requires building up your ability to concentrate and focus and so being proactive with removing everything in your life that is distracting you, will help. 

CR. What else do you do daily to help develop your ability to focus?

DM. It’s honestly just forcing myself to remove distractions. For example, past 7 pm- unless there is something going on where I need to be available, I’m just not going to be available. So anybody who is expecting to get a hold of me post 7 pm, they are going to get a message saying, ‘my phone’s going off right now. Talk tomorrow’. I now have that time, free from distraction, to do whatever it is I need to do. That’s been huge. Being purposeful about the blocks of time you have and what you’re focusing on- and this goes back to decision making, regarding prioritization, there are a million things that you could do, so now it becomes about figuring out how to prioritize. Taking the limited amount of time that you have and applying that time to the things that are going to move the needle for you. If you want to run a marathon then you are going to have to block off time to go and train in order to be able to do that. That seems like an obvious analogy but we don’t do that enough for all the other areas in our lives. If we want to improve our relationships, then we should probably block off time, remove other distractions from that time and ‘improving relationships’ is the only focus during that time. It seems so simple but our lives are getting crazy and we have a million distractions. 

CR. What do you do when you are demotivated? 

DM. I think a lot of self talk. 

CR. Conversations with yourself?

DM. Yep. I think reminding myself of all that I have already accomplished. Motivation is such an interesting thing because it comes and goes and so in order to push yourself along during these periods when you are not so motivated, you have to know that and then figure out a way to move through it. Self talk is extremely important but also allowing yourself to be human at times too. No one is motivated all the time, that’s for sure. Understanding that there’s a process there, you are going to feel a certain way at times and that’s totally fine, the question then becomes, what do you do to get yourself motivated again?

CR. You spoke earlier about learning new skills. How do you best accomplish that with all that you have going on at any given time?

DM. I think that learning in context helps. When you are doing things and coming across problems, that’s the best time to learn new information in order to try and solve them. I think most people pick up things because they have some sort of fleeting interest, ‘oh maybe I’ll explore that’ or whatever and that’s fine but in terms of retaining information and having those lessons stick, you need to be in it and experiencing it, otherwise, I mean there’s a million books and a million articles that you can read about x, y and z. However, when you really have to do or solve something, then that lesson or piece of information will become something that you’ll probably never forget. For me, it’s been constantly shifting, ‘what’s the issue that is needing to be solved?’ and then I’ll go and learn as much as I can about that topic. 

Also, the individuals who are currently on our team are all really great people and that makes a big difference. That’s a huge lesson as well, who are the people that you are surrounding yourself with? That’s really important. I have taken so much away from the people that I’m around on our team and I feel as though I have accelerated my personal growth, simply because I have been around really strong, motivated, intelligent people. 

CR. What book suggestions do you have for someone who is trying to pave a way for themselves, in any regard, towards success. Perhaps they may elaborate on some of the concepts we’ve been discussing and will help them implement change toward their goals. 

DM. I think if you focus on foundational concepts and principals, it will help you in many areas. There’s a book called ‘Deep Work’ which is essentially about removing distractions. I think building your ability to concentrate and focus on something for long periods of time is important. The limiting factor in acquiring new skills is the amount of time and energy you put into it and how quickly you are able to retain new information on the subject. So Deep Work, for sure. 

This is not a book, it’s actually a MOOC (massive open online course) called Coursera. It’s basically a platform for taking College and University level courses for free. So you can log in and take Stanford’s, ‘Intro To Computer Science’, for example. Coursera has a course called ‘Learning How To Learn’, it’s taught by an engineer and a neurobiologist. Very interesting course. It’s all about understanding our physiology, how our brain works and how we obtain and retain information- how we learn. I think understanding that is enlightening, because if you can understand that, you can better deal with the frustrations of learning new skills. That’s a frustrating process right, when you’re starting as a beginner in something, I think we all weigh into domains that we’re passionate about because we’ve been inspired by somebody who is at the pinnacle of their craft and that’s what you end up comparing yourself to as a beginner. You get discouraged very quickly and you say to yourself, ‘I’ll never be as good as that person’, but why? Because you studied for three weeks and you don’t have comparable skills? I mean it’s insane, but that’s how we work, right? So I think understanding how we work as people has been really helpful. 

Sometimes, I’ll read a book and I’ll get upset that I don’t remember anything from from what I read and I’ll think to myself, ‘what a waste of time’, but then I remind myself that reflecting on what you’ve learned on regular intervals, is how learning happens. So if you don’t do that, then yes, in a month you’re not going to remember much of whatever you read or a course that you took, etc.

One of the reasons why I love learning so much is because, once you start to learn and unlock this stuff, you realize that you are in complete control of all of this and that you can shape reality to the way you want it. 

We tend to think of our lives in either or’s but often times, our circumstances evolve over time and just because you are shutting one door now, doesn’t mean that it won’t re-open later. In stead, we need to think of our lives in steps. You take the first step, that will open some doors, you take the second step and that will open more doors and you just go from there. At least that’s how I have approached things.