‘You never want to slow down’. Meet extreme snowmobiler turned oil and gas data entrepreneur
The oil and gas industry has changed dramatically over the decades from more rudimentary tools, to super high tech solutions that are not only making the industry more efficient, but also changing technology’s role in the field.
Brett Chell, founder and president of Cold Bore Technology and an avid extreme snowmobiling sports practitioner, has proven not to be the typical oil executive as well as technology expert. But by combining his passion for both industries, he has become a beacon of what the new digital age is all about.
From the picturesque Canadian Rockies, Chell, who is also the cofounder of Energy Block Services, co-founder and director of Raptor Rig Drilling and owner and director of Capone&Co., speaks to João Marques Lima on his passion for one of the most dangerous sports out there and his successful and not so successful business ventures and the lessons he’s learnt.
Where did the passion for extreme snowmobiling come from?
I grew up in Canada, in the Canadian Rockies, so I have a love affair with the outdoors and more specifically the back country. I was an avid snowboarder as a kid, spending a lot of my weekends travelling to the mountains with my friends in an old beat up Astro Van filled to the brim. Snowmobiling is a natural progression for many riders as they outgrow the groomed tourist covered ski resorts.
A lot of us buy our first sled as a means of transportation to get deep into the untouched back country and do some snowboarding in waist deep powder all day, every day. Almost all of us start off buying a sled with ski racks on the back for this purpose and about 90% of these people end up leaving their skis or snowboard at home after the first few rides.
Once you experience the freedom of moving about the back country on a sled, you never want to slow down. We will cross mountain ranges, go up and down steep chutes and play in the trees alongside a snow-covered creek, laughing and yelling the whole time because we will never see another human.
We will be fighting our way through all this unforgiving terrain in snow that would be over our head at times. In the springtime we will ride up to the top of glaciers in our T-Shirts, bring a speaker and lawn chairs and drink a few beers while we build jumps. It really is the most fun you can have with your friends.
What runs through your mind while sledding on one of those machines?
That’s the best thing about this sport. Nothing. You are so immersed in the moment and your brain is so overloaded with sensory input and dopamine hits that you don’t think at all. I have had some pretty stressful points in my career where we were nearly bankrupt, the world energy economy was getting worse by the day but I would go snowmobiling and for two days I won’t even give it a second thought.
A lot like painting for me, this is my activity that I needed to find to help balance my life. I truly believe everyone needs to find their thing like this to be able to live a fully balanced life. I always encourage everyone I know to try anything once, because you don’t know what your thing is until you do it one day.
What attracts you to this sport that is deemed dangerous and potentially deadly?
It’s a lot of things. Obviously, anything ridiculously fast and powerful is a win right out of the gate for me. If it can be faster or there is a faster model out, just bring it and don’t mess around. One of the major attractions for me is that this is not for everyone, as it is so dangerous. I like that it takes a high level of training to do this sport safely because these are survival and common-sense skills that make any man or woman much more proficient in so many other situations.
This sport specifically requires that you learn about weather, terrain, physics and teamwork. There is a pretty high level of technical equipment skill that you must be trained on to be able to run GPS units and avalanche transceivers properly as well.
We all know people and have friends who have died and that certainly is what we want to avoid, but this is the sport we love, and we take staying alive very seriously.
In the end, you are very dependent on the people around you being trained properly and you really should move almost like a military team with good communication and with a plan. It’s a challenge and it is you verses the mountain every time you go out.
What advice have you got for those interested in trying out snowmobiling?
Rent and spend more time picking the right group to go with safely rather than worrying about where you are going. You are going to suck at first, but if you find the right properly trained group to go with, you will learn quickly and have way more fun.
What skills and lessons have you learned from this sport that you have transferred into your professional life?
Teamworking skills and learning to depend on others has been the biggest take away. When you do this, the people you are with are the only ones there to save your life if you need them. This is obviously a lot more extreme than the trust you have to put into people in an office to get things done, so it makes it easier to relax and trust those you work with.
One other thing that going really deep into the back country in the middle of winter does is it makes you have to trust and believe in yourself. It’s very real, there’s no getting around it in that situation. You know that if you mess up because you are unprepared, you can die. So you tend to get your act together and be more diligent and prepared than you normally might be.
What is the secret behind successfully raising over $65m?
Having great partners. None of that money was just me and in fact big chunks of it were heavily attributed to partners of mine. It sounds cliché, but you really can’t raise any money unless you have a really experienced team with you. I mean technically you can, but I couldn’t. I am willing to take risks, but I need to know in my heart of hearts we have a real shot at pulling this off because we have the right people on the bus.
The secret is to surround yourself with the right people and take your time to properly prepare.
How did you get involved in the oil and gas field? How did the idea to found Cold Bore Technology come to you?
I have to give credit to my brother in law at the time, Kevin Johnson. Kevin is the quintessential hard working, salt of the earth, tough as nails and technically savvy rig worker. I really wanted to make some money when I was in my early 20’s and Kevin gave me my first job on the rigs as a lease hand. I would not be able to do what I do today without the years of field knowledge that Kevin gave me as he mentored me out there.
When I was in the field it was still very rough, a really hard place to work so having a brother as a boss running the rig made it a lot easier for me as well. If I am being completely honest, I am not sure how long I would have stayed out there without that factor.
The idea for Cold Bore came out of going bankrupt and having to pivot. Not exactly ideal or a Cinderella story, but we had no choice but to pivot. Our pivot was going from developing drilling tools to moving over to the frac world. It was a scary proposition and we lost founding partners, employees, board members etc. But it was that forced pivot that lead to our “ah ha” moment. We were drilling guys on a completions location for the first time and so we saw these new operations through a completely different lens than the guys who were used to being out there.
The genesis of the SmartPAD was a well-known drilling application that we repurposed for fracking. And that was it, just an out of the box perspective in a new environment. Something that was invisible to everyone else was blatantly obvious to us. So off we went to develop SmartPAD.
Why is it important for a fracking rig to have access to its data in real time?
It’s not so much a fracking rig as it is a frack operation. Unlike drilling, there is no rig in the traditional sense of the word. The proper way to describe a fracking operation is to talk about all the different service companies that are on location, working in unison to pull off a massively complicated operation.
Right now, there are five or six major services on location, all at the same time in some cases. They all have real time data, but that isn’t the issue. The issue is that they all have their own data, none of their systems are compatible and no one is using IIoT to capture the operational workflow itself. Company men for the oil company are writing in times for when they do certain operations in their notebooks manually, then the oil company is taking in five or six different sets of raw data and trying to understand how that affects this particular company man’s manually gathers time slots, for example. It’s a disaster. It’s super labour intensive, it’s very subjective and it’s mostly unusable data because it’s not organised in a normalized database.
They simply don’t have the time and manpower to sort out what all the raw data means, and because there is so much subjectivity, it’s very hard to understand if anomalies are because of the operation itself or the person gathering the data. This is the problem we solve, and it’s a big one.
What cloud(s) do you use in this process and where is the data stored?
What sort of extra capital do you expect to raise in the near future?
We are working on another $4m in scaling capital right now because we can’t keep up with demand. We have some of the best partners I have ever worked with in the Rice Investment Group and Toby Rice. They are our funding partners now, so we will continue to work with them.
Would you say snowmobiling has helped to shape the way you run the business?
In a small part yes. But to be honest, going from a green entrepreneur to dealing with independent boards, big money raises, scaling for some of the world’s largest companies and enduring two major downturns back to back that killed most small companies has taught me that humility is the ultimate teacher.
I really try to keep my mouth shut and have my ears open more while running my business now. Providing direction but realizing you are not the centre of the universe has been the best advice given to me on how to run my business. You end up with a collective intelligence that you are guiding instead of one person trying to make all the decisions. Inevitably you are going to be much more successful properly utilizing a collective intelligence approach.
What future projects are you working on?
Right now we are focused on the execution of the Cold Bore system. I have also co-founded a smart contracts company that is building these smart contracts to be used with the Cold Bore system between the large oil and gas companies and the service companies. It is headquartered in Venice Beach, California.
But there is an acceptance that has to happen in the market over the next 12 months to go from manual to digital. Once that happens, then the oil and gas companies will be ready to hear about and look at contracts that drastically change their whole business model.
We are laying the groundwork for those contracts to work right now and it will blow their socks off how fast and easy these implementations will bring about massive change. Relatively speaking of course.
What advice would you give to your younger self if you could go back?
Don’t chase money. Go do the stuff you love right out of the gate because passionate people can pour twice as much energy and work twice as long as people who don’t care.
So you will never outwork someone with passion, which means that inevitably if you are doing something you are passionate about, you will rise to the top, and the top guys in anything you can think of are making money.