Lessons From the Valley – An interview With Daniel Saks, Co-founder Of Unicorn Appdirect by Forbes – Entrepreneurs

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Daniel Saks

Courtesy of AppDirect

In 2009, Daniel Saks co-founded AppDirect, a marketplace for selling cloud services to companies. AppDirect is now valued at $1 billion, with distribution to more than 35 million businesses around the world, including IBM, Deutsche Telekom and Lacoste. In 2015, following his success, Saks was named one of Forbes’ Top 30 Under 30. The son of entrepreneurs, Saks displayed an entrepreneurial spirit from a young age.

“I always wanted to start a business. Whether it was a lemonade stand or a tour company, I always thought about ways to create value and start businesses.”

But rather than pursuing a business degree, his mom encouraged him to study political science at McGill University. He attributes this to shaping his career and success.

“When I got into McGill Commerce my mom encouraged me to go into the Arts program, and I never really could figure out why. I said ‘Mom, I got into McGill Management, I should take the program.’ But she said, ‘You’re so much of a business person, you really have to be more well-rounded.’”

For Saks, balance is everything, and he has carried this lesson with him throughout his career. He believes that his BA degree did indeed help him become a well-rounded entrepreneur. He credits his psychology course with opening up his mind, and his urban geography class with forcing him to question norms.

However, he does think there are lessons to be learned in business school, but perhaps not the way they are being taught.

“You can learn a lot about how to raise capital, or how to market, or how to sell. What you don’t learn is how to fire a friend, or how to deal with stress when multiple customers are calling you when something goes wrong. Textbook learning may not effectively prepare you for what’s going to happen.”

What he suggests is case studies, with a focus on failure.

“If people had opportunities to hear from others, not only about successes, but specifically about the challenges, it would be tremendously valuable. I think that there is a mantra of celebrating success, so you only hear about success stories. It’s interesting, no one really asks about the hardest thing you had to go through. It doesn’t get deep enough.”

Saks is no stranger to failure. Three years into AppDirect, he recalls that they had few visitors to the platform. As he thinks back, Saks says he could have easily given up. Yet, he believes that failure can create balance. What’s more, failure can create drive.

Saks had complete conviction of his vision and believed he would have success. Perhaps his well-rounded education had prepared him, or maybe it was his young, blissful naïveté. What cannot be discounted is the importance of what Saks learned by studying other founders. Understanding how Gates, Brin, Page or Bezos created enduring companies has allowed AppDirect to grow into its own success. He considers three elements necessary to create successful, endurable companies.

Firstly, founders need to define their vision from Day One. This vision drives “True North,” AppDirect’s term for owning customer focus by executing business in such a way that, not unlike a compass needle, it is always moving the company and the product in one direction.

Secondly, founders need to have very clearly defined values. This will unite the company as a whole, and make decision-making easier. However, this doesn’t mean making everyone happy, which is an important lesson Saks learned.

“I think when you grow up, you watch all these leaders and you assume that they are so impressive. But what you realize over time is that good leadership doesn’t mean making everyone happy. One of the things I struggled with in the early days is that I really wanted to make everyone happy. You have to learn over time to really put your values and the long-term mission ahead of any one person. That causes you to make difficult decisions. For me, the challenges never had to do with the businesses issues themselves, it’s always issues of perception, communication and managing people’s expectations.”

Thirdly, there must be an innovation framework implemented within the business. Finding a balance between these three elements can help founders persevere in the face of failure.

“What we find is that the combination of a stated vision, values and an innovation framework; with a long-term approach; helps be your North Star to guide you through the challenges.”

What’s clear is that there isn’t one path to success. But Saks urges people to step out of their comfort zone and open their minds.

“What the world needs is more people who are well-rounded. People who don’t say I’m an engineer first, or a salesperson first, or a business person first; but say I understand deeply how to question things.”

Earlier this week we asked Daniel a few more questions, here are his thoughts on some current topics.

We asked him about 5G, Daniel told us, “AppDirect’s mission is to make technology accessible globally and 5G internet will help us accelerate through better connectivity for cloud and IoT consumption.”  They partners with telecom providers around the world to enable connectivity, cloud, and IoT services to be monetized. 5G Networks launched by our partners will also enable them to drive more demand for these digital services.

There seems to be an increasing focus on incubators like Next36 in Canada and Endeavor around the world. Earlier Daniel told us how us mother encouraged him study something other than business.  His view is that entrepreneurs can emerge from any type of academic discipline. What will define the entrepreneurs of tomorrow is the ability to understand many disciplines and cultivate that knowledge to bring new types of services to market. Incubators are another avenue for people to test ideas and learn from others, but I don’t think it’s a substitute for a degree. Universities play a critical role in developing the way we learn and enabling people to collaborate on ideas.

One of the current topics I am researching is the idea of authentic leaders, so we asked Daniel, what does being an authentic leader mean to you?  Daniels reply, “An authentic leader to me is someone who has defined values and strives to cultivate a team based on these values.  An authenthts ic leader should make decisions that may be unpopular at times, but do so without violating the stated values.”

A question I ask every CEO that comes to my CEO Insights class for the MBAs at McGill, “what is the most important strategic issue facing your firm, your industry?”  In Daniel’s view,  the most important strategic issue facing our industry is the ability to attract, train, and retain the appropriate talent.  Since they are in the San Francisco Silicon Valley area, not a surpise here. But I hear the same concern expressed this year from CEOs in Toronto, New York, London, Tokyo and Montreal as well.

Daniel is relatively young but as an older person I think about how do you keep uptodate with important trends in your industry and the world in general? His thoughts that in today’s world, you can be inundated with endless alerts, news, feeds, push notifications, leading to constant distraction. Therefore, I consume little to no news through social media. I focus on learning through reading books, going to conferences, and speaking to customers, employees, thought leaders & investors.  As some who writes book, this was good to hear!

We are in a war for talent, we hear that in Montreal too, the first time a while and from my students view point nice to to hear but from a CEO viewpoint not so good so I asked Daniel, how does your firm appeal to younger talent?  His take, “Younger talent is demanding a new type of workplace culture than ever before. One that is socially conscious, mission driven, and respects work life harmony. We have a wellness initiative to drive “Peak Performance” for our team members in and out of the workplace. This includes learning and development modules, mindfulness and meditation training, and nutritious food offerings.”

Finally in my new book on Millennials, I have a chapter on purpose at work,  so I asked Daniel, how does your firm provide purpose at work? ”AppDirect’s mission is to make technology accessible globally.   We enable millions of users in over 100 countries have access to the digital services that make them more productive at work. We ultimately believe that we can level the playing field for people everywhere to have access to the tools, people, and information required to thrive at work.”

Hope you enjoyed this update from the Silicon Valley. I go there generally twice a year because it has for a number of years taught about the future of management. Some of the more outlandish ideas burn off but a surprising number end up in other parts of the Western world in a few years.

Eric Schwartz, a recent McGill Graduate, contributed  to this article.

May 8, 2019 at 08:32AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs