Build positive habits. Reinforcing personal habits that calm and comfort you ahead of high-pressure situations will help you avoid stressful situations. Whether it’s walking around while you speak on a call, planning and rehearsing what you say, practicing a presentation with a friend, establishing positive habits and routines before high pressure moments and meetings will limit your stress, and help you attack the issues at hand.
As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High-Pressure Moments,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Daniel Saks.
Daniel Saks is President and Co-CEO of AppDirect. An expert in cloud technologies, he was named on the 2015 Forbes 30 Under 30 Enterprise Technology list and has spoken at numerous industry conferences (Web Summit, Collision, and more). He is an advocate for cloud-based delivery and frequently advises Fortune 500 executives on software distribution and cloud strategies. He previously worked in finance and funding banking and has pursued other entrepreneurial projects. He holds degrees from McGill and Harvard universities.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in Niagara, Ontario, in a family of entrepreneurs. My great grandparents started a furniture store in 1908 on Main Street in Niagara Falls, and that was very much a focal point of my upbringing as well as my families. In fact, my grandfather was actually born in the attic of the store. I grew up in a family business and that is a big reason behind who I am today.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as an entrepreneur or business leader? We’d love to hear the story.
My grandparents and my parents challenged me to think out of the box in an innovative way and let me apply critical thinking skills to their business decision-making. From the day I could speak, I wanted to be an entrepreneur or a CEO, and I was always entrepreneurial throughout my life. One business leader that I always admired was Izzy Sharp from the Four Seasons because he created such a prominent, global brand around customer service and values (and just so happened to be from Toronto). Interestingly, ten years after founding our business, I cold reached out to Izzy and was actually invited to his house to meet him.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
My parents are certainly a big part of what I do now, but McGill University was also a huge factor in shaping who I am today. I met my co-founder Nicolas Desmarais through my friendship with his brother Alexander during university. We also met one of AppDirect’s first investors through McGill, who introduced us to some of the board members, leaders and managing partners we work with today. McGill’s impact on my trajectory, with AppDirect becoming a top employer in Montreal, has led me to get involved further and now I have the great pleasure of being on the McGill Principal’s Advisory Board. I really admire the current principal of McGill, Suzanne Fortier, for the way she shows innovation, resilience, and strength in her leadership.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
When we were starting AppDirect, we spent pretty much a year and a half to two years running the business out of an apartment. We recruited the first seven people and worked insane hours in a small room with no windows. We launched with our first customer which was a major telco in Canada, and we anticipated that there would be thousands of people and then tens of thousands and millions and thought that maybe the site would break because there would be too much load. After 72 hours of work and a countdown complete with dramatic music, we launched — and there were crickets, no one showed up. We went to bed the next morning and when we woke up, still nothing and we were freaked out. A month later I got an email from Harley the COO of Shopify, who said that the client’s business app store had less traffic than his intern’s blog. That was an “aha!” moment where we’d worked for two years and then seemingly failed. We asked ourselves if the whole business was a failure, or if it was just the way we went to market, and then we iterated and we learned, and we applied Lean Startup methodology. Because of that first client, we got other clients and we launched with better best practices, which ultimately led to a lot of success.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
The piece of advice I have is to have conviction in your vision and personal values. You need to figure out ways to manifest this vision in your life, your goals, and your business. And if you can have conviction and manifest this vision, you will be successful.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. This book had a great impact on me, and it’s never left my bedside table. The biggest lesson I learned from reading this book was the importance of remembering people’s names and smiling. Even though the book was written decades ago, it is still relevant today. In such hard times, it is important to value people and greet them with a smile. So when I meet new people I always make sure to remember just that because as one of the leaders of our company, I want to be an example of grace.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
One of my favorite quotes is from Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” The way I would define entrepreneurship is looking out into the future and seeing an opportunity that doesn’t exist in the eyes of others today. If you see that opportunity very clearly and you can make the change to make that vision a reality then you go after it. I believe that Gandhi quote applies not only in business but also in everyday life. If you see something you want to change, you can fundamentally change it based on your own vision, tenacity and resilience.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
We just launched a new podcast series, Decoding Digital, where we feature transformation stories from innovative leaders navigating the digital economy. I’m super excited about it as a resource for anyone to learn about the challenges we face in our lives as leaders and innovators.
Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As a business leader, you likely often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to cope with the burden of stress?
I have evolved in a great number of ways, the first one is having a positive mental attitude. The next is to have intensity in everything I do, which requires speed and perseverance, and lastly is to have humility. These values allow me to ground myself if I am ever feeling burnt out, overworked, or developing a negative mindset. I take a stop and approach the situation in a positive manner, and reevaluate through my two other guiding principles. Meditation has also become extremely important for me. It has taken me a while to become good at, but after a few years, I have gotten a pretty good grasp of it. What I have learned through meditation is that it greatly calms me down, especially in a high-stress situation when people are relying on me. Controlling my breath and meditating for 10 minutes a day using the Calm app has helped me keep my focus. The third strategy that helps me is focusing on what I am passionate about, things that are fun to me. For example, I love to water ski, workout and go to concerts, or spend time with friends and family. This allows me to reset my brain by doing things I enjoy, giving me a boost of energy that I need to remain focused. If you notice that you are draining your own energy, you need to recognize that and find something to help you gain energy. Do something you’re passionate about, find that balance so that you can keep up with your work at a high level. And lastly is focusing on habits. In order to have large successes, you need to focus on the smaller ones. It is all about objectives, and building habits help you achieve these objectives. Being successful in business means building habits in my personal life such as flossing, putting sunscreen on, or meditating. Building and holding on to these habits roll over into your business and help you become more effective.
Aside from being able to deal with the burden of stress, can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high-stress situations?
As I mentioned before, having a positive mental attitude combined with having humility allows me to take a step back and ground myself. To better iterate things one can do before a high-pressure moment, here are a few steps I would recommend.
1. Take 10 minutes beforehand to clear your mind. Guided meditation is my go-to here. It always helps me to stay focused and get in the zone.
2. Be positive. It’s incredibly important to stay positive leading into high-pressure moments. You don’t want to join an important meeting or call in a negative headspace. People will notice and that will throw you off even more.
3. Build positive habits. Reinforcing personal habits that calm and comfort you ahead of high-pressure situations will help you avoid stressful situations. Whether it’s walking around while you speak on a call, planning and rehearsing what you say, practicing a presentation with a friend, establishing positive habits and routines before high-pressure moments and meetings will limit your stress, and help you attack the issues at hand.
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques, meditations or visualizations to help optimize yourself? If you do, we’d love to hear about it.
I found that some of the most effective meditation techniques are guided sound meditations. I find if I do guided meditation, and feel the energy of the sound, I’m easily able to activate my subconscious and really get into a meditative state. I also love binaural beats which activate different REM sleeping abilities and can be found on Spotify or other similar platforms.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
I find that it’s really important to have a defined vision, values, and objectives. These help me stay focused on the goal and be more effective. Personally, I struggle with distractions. Technology is a huge distraction for me, so I always try to keep myself away from technology if I need to be focused. Arianna Huffington gave me a tip at a conference a few years ago, which was to literally keep my phone in the other room when I need to stay focused. The same tip applies for when I am going to bed, I make sure to keep my phone in the other room and this has proved to be a huge benefit in my life.
We all know the importance of good habits. How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
I’ve actually already discussed habits, but they are very important if you want to be successful. But creating a habit of setting big goals every year, breaking it down to quarterly goals, then weekly goals, and lastly, daily goals is a good one to keep up with. Learning something new every 90 days is also a good habit. It takes 90 days to build a habit, so if you learn something new that is productive, you can create a habit of learning something new every 90 days that will help you become successful. For example, meditating was very hard when I started. I was so busy that I could never just stop and close my eyes, even for ten minutes. But I really made it a goal to learn how to meditate in a quarter. After those 90 days, meditation has become a habit of mine that’s become a natural part of my day. Another great habit to build is reflection. Freeing up an afternoon free of people and technology to just reflect and build new goals off those reflections hugely benefited me. These are just a few of the habits that have become a part of my journey with AppDirect.
What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
My best recommendation would be to find alternatives for your bad habits. One thing that I always find draining is looking at social media for too long, or consuming news for long periods of time. Even watching too much Netflix is something that will negatively affect me.
When I notice these starting to pile up, I take a step back and ask myself — what are things I can be doing instead? Instead of watching Netflix is there a live concert I can go to? Instead of looking at social media, I go for a walk or workout. Instead of consuming too much news, I write content, do a podcast, write an article, call a friend. It’s always hard kicking bad habits, giving yourself alternatives that you enjoy makes it a lot easier.
As a business leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?
Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman is an amazing book that talks about how you can unlock your full potential and why unlocking your subconscious mind is so important. When your neurons are firing, your conscious mind can only process a small fraction of what your overall brain power is at the capacity of. To think outside the box, you need to put yourself in a state of Zen where you can think subconsciously and your ideas freely flow to you through your mind in a new order. Breathing techniques, meditation, and energy clearing can allow you to be as focused as possible and people should try to optimize more of that in their life. For some people, activities that help them gain energy is big wave surfing or extreme skiing. I love to watch sunsets, waterski, or slalom as these activities pull me to be present in the moment and achieve a state of flow where ideas come easily to me. If you have 365 days in a year and there are 24 hours in a day, you must make the most of that time. Years ago when I was working like crazy, I’d maybe have 20 hours of flow throughout a year, so I really had to use those hours to my advantage. You really want to get everything you can out of those minutes and hours of flow.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
My business objective with AppDirect is to make business technology accessible globally, so that people can be their best selves at work, which I also believe is connected to my personal life’s mission. I want to help coach and educate those who want to develop and guide them on how they can achieve their best work. It’s funny because when my wife and I were planning our wedding, we thought, “What do we want our life to be about?” We defined three values: positivity, present, being grateful. Then we asked, “What are our objectives?” We decided they were to experience, grow, and inspire. We want to inspire other people to be their best selves. I think that there are certain pillars that enable people to achieve their best self. I’m super excited to share some of those ideas, and we actually just launched a podcast at AppDirect called Decoding Digital, where we hear these transformation stories. We also hear from business leaders who have transformed their companies and talk about how they’ve transformed themselves in order to do so.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this.
As I’ve already shared, I did get to meet my business hero Izzy Sharp and have been fortunate enough to meet many others throughout the years, which is incredibly humbling. One person who I really admire is Michelle Obama. She seems like such an authentic person. I would love to have lunch with her and ask how she has lived by her values and is so transparent. I’ve listened to some of her podcasts and they’re just phenomenal. I greatly admire her and her work.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
The best way to stay up to date on AppDirect is to check out our new podcast, Decoding Digital. With so many businesses scrambling to expand their digital footprint amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, we thought now was as good a time as any to launch a podcast focused on navigating the challenges and nuances digital transformations bring. If readers are interested, they can tune into the podcast to hear me connect with digital leaders at the forefront of the digital economy.