Tech entrepreneur always on the move, sometimes in a flame-shooting rocket car

Source: The Globe and Mail
Author: Shannon Moneo

In late August, Dan Gunn and his posse are expected to go to the Burning Man festival in the “Gunn Ship,” his large motorhome, which will be towing a custom-made rocket car.

“I can’t wait to talk to the border guards,” says Mr. Gunn, chief executive officer of Victoria Innovation, Advanced Technology and Entrepreneurship Council, better known as VIATEC.

Burning Man is a nine-day gathering where the temporary Black Rock City rises in the Nevada desert. In its 30th year, Burning Man draws more than 60,000 people to a showcase for out-of-the-box art and in-your-face experiences. During Mr. Gunn’s 2016 visit, his fifth in a row, he and two cousins plan to set up a well-provisioned camp for those in need. “We’ll have lots of coconut water, lots of electrolytes. We know what to cook, how to stay in good shape.”

The flame-shooting rocket car he invented will be one more piece of Burning Man handiwork in a field of hundreds.

When he’s not partaking in the searing mash-up of counterculture and creativity, Mr. Gunn, 44, is masterminding the expansion of Greater Victoria’s technology sector from VIATEC’s headquarters downtown. “Our job is to grow companies, facilitate networking, find investors,” he says. “My job is to have really big ideas and a team that can execute them.”

Mr. Gunn grew up in Keswick, Ont. In 1994, at 22, he was elected to nearby Georgina town council, where he served for three years. After a 1998 visit to Victoria, Mr. Gunn returned in 1999 to attend Royal Roads University, from which he graduated with a bachelor of commerce degree in entrepreneurial management in 2000. A few weeks later, his VIATEC vocation began with a seven-month contract as an e-commerce co-ordinator. That job soon morphed into e-business co-ordinator. Mr. Gunn next became VIATEC’s director of IT and communications, then chief operating officer. “I found ways to make myself valuable to VIATEC,” he says.

In 2005, he became chair and CEO of VIATEC. At that time, Mr. Gunn managed two staff. Today, he oversees 12, with five more employees expected by year’s end.

Under his tenure, numbers have headed north in other domains. “The year I took over, VIATEC’s revenues were $400,000,” he recalls. Between 2001 and 2004, the organization lost $135,000. Lately, VIATEC has posted about $2-million annually in revenue, monies that come from various services and programs for VIATEC’s 300-plus members.

“I’m very lucky that I’ve found a job that I’m so passionate about. I’ve found the elusive place where you can do what you love and still make a living,” he says. A light workweek is 60 hours – a heavy one, 80 hours. For Mr. Gunn, it feels like 20 hours a week. “I might be helping a tech company in the evening, but it feels like I’m working with a friend.”

Since joining VIATEC’s 14-member board about 18 months ago, Jennifer Jacques has come know Mr. Gunn. “Dan has incredible energy. He is always working on something, has a terrific sense of humour and has a contagious enthusiasm that infects everyone around him. He keeps his colleagues, and the VIATEC community, motivated,” says Ms. Jacques, plant manager for Schneider Electric’s Victoria site. “When you lead an organization with the kind of passion that Dan does, there is an inevitable intersection of your job and your life.”

Married since 2005 to Jeanie, an events manager at the University of Victoria, and father to son Max, 5, Mr. Gunn’s job-life intersection includes his three-piece, alt-rock band, The Long Shadows, for which he’s vocalist and lead and rhythm guitarist. “We like loud distortion, loud guitars and we like to shout,” says Mr. Gunn, who began playing guitar at 10, and who at each childhood birthday was given a new instrument.

Heavy on Jack White and The Black Keys, The Long Shadows are maturing from a cover band to one that performs originals and is mulling over a name change. But it’s a careful evolution. “I want the band to be a point of creativity and not a point of pressure. We’re very protective of what we’ve created,” he says. “Our practices are three-hour experiences but we can spend 45 minutes talking about our lives.”

Colin How plays bass and sings with The Long Shadows. A vice-chair at VIATEC and managing partner at consulting company How Creative, Mr. How has been close friends with Mr. Gunn for five years. “Dan’s found his sweet spot that’s lined up with passion and purpose.”

He credits the seemingly bullet-proof Mr. Gunn, and his team, with VIATEC’s viability. “On just about every metric where we want to evaluate VIATEC, we’re meeting or exceeding benchmarks,” says Mr. How.

The pair, along with drummer Todd Hooge (owner of Metamend Search Marketing), would love to play more, beyond occasional company gigs and impromptu practices at Mr. How’s downtown office. “All of us are musicians who work. If we had a suitcase full of money, we’d just make music,” Mr. How says.

But for now, they’re a pretty good cover band, made better by Mr. Gunn’s creativity and ability to add on-the-spot, humorous commentary over the music. Yet, when the three strong personalities get together to write an original song, paralysis surfaces. “There’s that awkward moment, where we’re all standing in front of the canvas and wonder, what do we do,” Mr. How says.

His five words to describe Mr. Gunn: “Fun, passionate, purposeful, honest, quirky.” When asked what Mr. Gunn’s shortcomings may be, Mr. How’s response, which he says is true for everyone: “Any strength overused can become a weakness.”

Mr. Gunn’s abilities are being further tested with Rock It, the 4.7-metre-long rocket car designed and built by him, with help from a University of Victoria engineering student. A fan of classic cars, he got the idea for Rock It while watching parades and noticing that the floats had mostly devolved into dressed-up trucks.

With a $10,000 budget, a large golf cart is being stripped to its chassis, outfitted with a foam exterior, hard-coated with polyurethane, hollowed out for the light and sound system and painted a copper colour. A floor of glued pennies will add sense to the Steampunk influence. “It’ll all be worth it when you look at a 10-year-old kid and see his eyes get wide,” says Mr. Gunn, who also plans to parade Rock It at regional music festivals this summer.

If Mr. Gunn’s creation doesn’t trigger a veto from the border guard on the journey south to Burning Man, Rock It will be shooting fire out its top and lighting up the desert sky. “When you tell people that you want to build a giant rocket to take to parades, people get behind it,” he says.