Feature Life

How Dan Martell Went From Troubled Youth To Big Time Entrepreneur

Image: Dan Martell website

MONCTON – Dan Martell is better known in the business community for his successes in life: a husband and father of two boys, the founder of multiple tech startups who has sold three of them, an investor in 38 companies and a millionaire by age 27. But life wasn’t always that great.

He grew up in a challenging environment. By age 13, he was introduced to drugs. By age 15, he was jailed for the first time. And by 17, he was incarcerated a second time. One of the moments that led him to jail involved Martell driving a stolen car at top speed, high on drugs and with a handgun next to him.

“I got mixed up with the wrong group of guys and introduced to drugs when I was 13 and kind of spiralled out of control,” he said.

After getting out of jail the second time, he was admitted to Portage Atlantic, a youth rehabilitation centre at Cassidy Lake, NB. He says this moment was “pivotal” in his life.

“It was there that I really discovered personal development and who I was at my core, what beliefs I have and values, and behaviours that weren’t supporting me, and better ways to cope with my addiction and my anger issues. All that stuff,” he said.

Martell will be a guest speaker at Portage Atlantic’s fundraising dinner at the Delta Hotel on Friday night, which will include speeches from a Portage graduate and their parent, an auction, and a performance by Troiselles.

At Portage, Martell also stumbled upon a computer and a book on programming. He began creating software, leading him to tech entrepreneurship years later.

“I always thought I wasn’t an intelligent kid, that I was bad, that there was something wrong with me,” said Martell. “All of a sudden, here was this thing called a computer that I never really touched before and I got it to say, ‘Hello, World.’ ”

“So there was this new belief that maybe I am good at stuff – math and computers. I discovered this thing called the Internet and my life transformed because I just started building things for myself that other people wanted. And honestly, the way I think about it, writing code and software and the Internet became my new addiction and entrepreneurship the ultimate personal development program.”

He was also able to learn from the lived experiences of ex-addicts who worked there. He values that knowledge sharing and have brought that to the way he approaches entrepreneurship.

When he enters a new venture or industry, he makes a list of 100 people who have the experience he can learn from and contacts them.

“When I started as an entrepreneur, I didn’t do that and I had two failed companies. And finally, in desperation, I cold-emailed Frank McKenna and he introduced me to three guys. One of them was Gerry Pond,” he said. “Gerry makes me feel lazy.”

Gerry Pond, one of New Brunswick’s top investors and entrepreneurs, met with him “without expectations,” he said. Martell was inspired to give back in the same way to the startup ecosystem in New Brunswick. He shares business tips through his Youtube channel and meets with local Moncton entrepreneurs for lunch once every two weeks.

“I tell people this all the time, business issues are personal issues that just show up in your business. If you want to grow your business, look in the mirror because it has nothing to do with the market, it has nothing to do with your team or your employees. It has 100 per cent to do with the individual running the business,” he said.

“You can only keep what you give away. I learned that at Portage at 17. It’s been a North Star in me that’s driven every decision I’ve ever made. If you want more anything, you got to give it first.”

Martell also brings the lessons he’s learned back to Portage, and the Moncton Youth Residences, by mentoring and speaking to the youth there, in addition to donating supplies and money, and helping with fundraising efforts. He has committed to helping realize the “dream life” of those he has spoken to who can stay sober for at least a year after finishing their rehabilitation program. Helping at-risk youth get back on their feet has become his passion, too.

“They’re risk takers…They know how to take care of themselves,” says Martell. “Uncertainty is what they’re comfortable with. There are all these things that make entrepreneurs great and turns out that kids that grow up in challenging environments, they’re best ready for that if they can only find something that they’re passionate about that isn’t illegal.

“I want to let them know that not only can your life be incredible, but it can also be more than you can ever imagine, and sober, and give back and contribute.”

Portage’s director of development Carol Tracey hopes the Friday night dinner will create awareness about the organization.

The rehabilitation centre admits approximately 150 youth struggling with substance abuse each year. Many are from the Greater Moncton area. They typically stay in the residence for around six months and receive follow-up services like after-care meetings and family groups for up to two years after they leave the facility.

“Many are alienated from family and friends, they’re without a stable home, some are involved in the criminal justice system, most are not attending school regularly,” she said. “I think that a lot of youth look up to Dan and other graduates like Dan who have done well for themselves and are able to contribute positively to the communities that they live in.”

Martell says he’s grateful for the whirlwind life journey he’s had. Since he became an entrepreneur, that has included having American business magnate Mark Cuban invest in one of his companies and hanging out with British conglomerate Richard Branson in Switzerland.

“I pinch myself every day, grateful that I get to do what I do,” Martell said. “It’s just crazy. It’s weird. I don’t forget for a moment that I was that 13-year-old boy just trying to figure out how to not get in trouble.”