5 Things You Should Do To Become a Thought Leader In Your Industry, With Mahi de Silva

The old adage, “If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door” is universally true. Often times, it’s not the physical design of something, but the process or workflow that needs to be reinvented. I personally believe that the process of breaking down a problem gets the creative juices […]

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The old adage, “If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door” is universally true. Often times, it’s not the physical design of something, but the process or workflow that needs to be reinvented. I personally believe that the process of breaking down a problem gets the creative juices flowing, allowing you to examine each part of the process and seeing where you can get the maximum gains.

As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mahi de Silva. Mahi is the co-founder and CEO of, the industry’s first enterprise-class conversational AI platform which enables brands to leverage AI to automate marketing engagement and extend them into conversations that are immersive and persistent — with tools to measure, optimize and manage the full lifecycle of a brand experience. Up-to-date has already handled over 2.5 billion engagements with over 175 million consumers around the world. Mah de Silvai has long been an influencer in how companies leverage technologies to showcase brand experience. He began his career with Apple in 1989, and prior to founding, he was a co-founder and CEO of AdMarvel Inc, a mobile ad platform that enables publishers and operators to source, manage and track advertising from any ad network. After Opera Software ASA acquired AdMarvel in 2010, Mahi served as CEO Opera Mediaworks, the world’s largest mobile advertising platform. Today, in addition to leading, Mahi de Silva serves as chairman of the board for Noventis, Inc., a digital payment-processing platform.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I’m a hard-core geek turned entrepreneur and CEO. My journey in Silicon Valley started at Apple, as part of the team that designed and implemented the graphics and multimedia systems — empowering developers to transform the way humans interact with computers. At VeriSign, I created the building blocks that secured the Internet and enabled e-commerce. At Opera Mediaworks, I assisted in building the platform and standards that redefined rich media advertising on mobile devices, and now at, I help brands leverage AI toy reinvent the way they interact with customers.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

I’ve had the good fortune of having a hand in building transformational technologies that positively impacted billions of people around the world — and having done that multiple times in very different industries.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I helped put a human in outer-space. Back in 1999, when I was at VeriSign, I drove an acquisition of a security company based in South Africa that we paid $550M for. The founder and CEO, then 27 years old, owned 100% of the company, which enabled him to buy a ticket to outer space via the Russian Space Program. He was named the first African in space and visited the International Space Station.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It really isn’t funny, but at VeriSign, we had an existential moment in the late 90’s when we issued a Digital ID to an Eastern-European hacker who purported to be a representative of Microsoft. It exposed a glaring problem in human workflow, that could wipe out the benefits of perfectly sound technology and that even today secures websites, code and mobile applications around the world. As soon as we found the problem, we went public telling the world of our mistake, instead of waiting to see if any harm could come from our mistakes. Though we took our lumps, that was absolutely the right thing to do. The hacker couldn’t exploit our mistake and the short-term toll on our reputation was quickly repaired by the long-term benefits of doing the right thing.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is. How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?

I think you earn the moniker of ‘thought leader’ by blazing a trail, doing something, attacking a problem, solving a pain-point, in a way that no one has done before. It’s also not just about having the idea, but being able to execute it as well, at scale in a transformative way. Apple didn’t invent the smartphone, but the execution of the iPhone, its form factor, the touch screen, the user-experience, the app store — the total package clearly made them a thought leader in the evolution of the smartphone.

There are many leaders, good CEOs, department heads, community leaders and coaches that are great at what they do because they understand that leadership is really about creating followership, coaching and getting people to rise up to the challenge of being a better version of themselves, or contributing to the greater good of a company, a community or cause. Thought leadership is different. Sometimes great thought leaders are lousy managers, but they have the power to inspire, not just a person or an organization, but they have a transformative impact on an industry.

Influencers, on the other hand, earn the right to encourage others to do something because they have gained the admiration of a group of followers. Thought leaders can certainly influence others, but influencers are rarely thought leaders.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

There is no particular roadmap to becoming a thought leader, instead I would encourage people to think about being impactful at scale — which is often realized through the power of transformation — this includes understanding the problem you are attacking and finding a new path or process. It’s a journey of many risks and often many failures, but through iteration and discipline, there is always a path to success and when you achieve that success, you’ve become a thought leader.

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

The old adage, “If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door” is universally true. Often times, it’s not the physical design of something, but the process or workflow that needs to be reinvented. I personally believe that the process of breaking down a problem gets the creative juices flowing, allowing you to examine each part of the process and seeing where you can get the maximum gains.

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

  1. Never accept that a process should be simply followed because “it’s the way it’s always been done.” We have a customer whose CEO insisted that the only way to serve customers is through a mobile app, and that’s because that is what their larger, more successful competitor does. In working with their marketing team, we were able to show that you could acquire a customer via social media at 1/3 the cost and create a two-way messaging channel that would more efficiently drive repeat business. We initially saw a lot of resistance to this approach, but six months later, the company has completely shifted their customer acquisition approach and dramatically increased their profitability per customer.
  2. There’s no ‘I’ in ‘thought leadership,’ it’s teamwork. You have to include the people at the core of the problem or process. If you properly empower people, they will rise to the occasion in helping you build a better solution or process. We really strive to empower our employees to come up with ideas, solutions, and strategies that power our business. As a leader, it’s important to set a tone, but not micromanage the implementation. Because the smart people you hire are domain experts and properly empowered, they will pour their heart and soul into building a world-class solution.
  3. You have to attack the problem and prove your solution in a single instance. This can start with a single small business or community. For AI systems, you need large datasets for machine learning. When we started the company, we looked to clients in Southeast Asia with a huge customer base to test our systems and prove the efficiency of our platform. We literally gave away our platform to get this knowledge. We started with one medium-sized media company in a single market, and now we have seven out of the top 10 media companies in that market.
  4. Your solution has to be scaled and replicated to drive transformative gains. You can help a small business build a process to manage their inventory and order more efficiently, but replicating that solution and helping multiple small businesses is what makes you a thought leader. The above example (#3) also illustrates this point.
  5. Embrace failure as a necessary ingredient of iteration for driving transformation. With’s AI and Machine Learning, we started with the assumption that we were going to fail, and fail many times, at building a Natural Language Understanding system — knowing that through failure, we would learn and get better. We would never be where we are today without the mindset and the dedication to iteration, getting closer and closer to perfection.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.

Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple. His innovation of the iPhone was the embodiment of thought leadership, of re-inventing a product and making it accessible to millions of people around the world. Jobs pretty much bet the company on a vision that marshalled a ton of resources towards realizing that vision, with a steady hand on not compromising any key issues.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, for creating a company to mass produce electric vehicles that weren’t just utilitarian, but redefined style and performance.

Both had a vision of adapting technologies that they didn’t necessarily invent, but was about building a product that could be used by millions of consumers in a way that would transform the way they live.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

I do think it’s overused and I think it’s more important to focus on building a product or service that is scalable and transformative. Doing so makes you a thought leader.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Pour yourself into work that you are passionate about and surround yourself with people who share that passion.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Demand yourself and your team to strive to be the best at what you do in the world. Competition is unpredictable, so always create whitespace between you and your competition.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Good enough just isn’t good enough.” I’ve had the personal experience of building a company, taking it public, and resting on our laurels because we achieved everything we set out to achieve. If you feel like you’ve done just that, then you should celebrate and move on. Do something else, but don’t just kick back and rest, because your success will be brief and the downfall will be painful. Either continue to set new goals and strive to innovate and expand, or call it a day and move on to something else you can be passionate about.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Barack Obama, for inspiring the next generation of leaders.

How can our readers follow you on social media?’s Website:’s LinkedIn:’s Facebook:’s Twitter:

Mahi’s LinkedIn:

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