One should avoid putting the word “only” in front of any quantity of money or time. If someone comes to me and says something “only” costs some amount of money, they’ve lost me at the word “only.” On the other hand, if you tell me you’re going to create a large market and change the lives of customers and create significant value, and it’s going to take many millions of dollars and years of our lives, I’m all ears.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Daniel Neal. Daniel is the Chairman, CEO & Founder of Kajeet, a mission-driven company he first began dreaming about in 1996. Before launching Kajeet, Daniel served as CEO & Vice Chairman of VCampus Corporation, a public company that pioneered the delivery of e-learning applications and services for students, business people and government workers. Prior to VCampus, Daniel was part of the team that built — and successfully took public — USinternetworking, where he conceived of, launched, and led the AppHost™ business unit. USinternetworking was acquired by AT&T. Daniel previously built international commercial relationships for the delivery of communications technologies and services for Sprint and Global One Communications, Sprint’s joint venture with France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom. Daniel’s early career was in commercial banking, and public service. He has worked extensively in local government, and later served as a senior staff member with the National Performance Review of the office of the Vice President of the United States.
Daniel holds an AB in political science from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Daniel has raised over $120 million of investment capital and is a named inventor on 24 U.S. patents. He is active in many business, investment and technology circles, including Vistage and Mindshare. An avid bicyclist, runner and reader, Daniel most enjoys spending time with his wife and two children, whose names are incorporated in the word “Kajeet.”
Thank you for joining us Daniel! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve always been entrepreneurial. I was the ten-year-old paperboy out there doing my route, or, for a quarter, my brother’s route, mornings and evenings, making money. I see work as an essential and sacred component of our lives. Everyone benefits from having work they love, and from which they gain dignity and meaning.
When I reflect on my career, I’ve taken what looks to me like an odd and peripatetic path. But I truly enjoyed and learned valuable lessons from each stretch of work along the way. Perhaps it is a matter of temperament and attitude, but my glass was always half full, even when it was a tiny glass.
The first job I had with a suit and tie was as a bank teller. Because of many privileges, within eighteen months, I went from being a teller to making loans to processing mortgages. The result was that I learned about “credit.” Gaining first-hand experience in how banks operate has been invaluable to me in my career path.
In 1996, shortly after getting my MBA, I made a significant career shift into telecommunications, going to work for Sprint, Deutsche Telekom, and France Telecom. Before long, I was in Tel Aviv helping launch international services for a newly chartered telecom company, where I saw the world’s first “kiddie phone,” a GSM phone with four buttons: Mom, Dad, a caretaker, and the Israeli equivalent of 911.
When I saw that phone, I had three reactions: first, someday, that will be a supercomputer; second, eventually, every child will have one; and third, there does not yet exist a company that can handle all the implications of those first two things. A new company was necessary. I thought that somebody should start that new company and get ahead of those first two things. So I did.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When I started Kajeet, which built and sold the first cell phone for children with parental controls, I knew I had to raise a lot of venture capital, about $70–80 million dollars. Our first two financing rounds raised over $65 million. In 2008, we suffered a significant blow that nearly sunk the company. In the financial crisis of 2008, a large bank committed fraud against our company, and as a result of that, our cash was, overnight, made unavailable. Think about that: you’ve built a company up to about 100 employees, you’ve raised $60+ million, everything’s going great, your product is sold at Best Buy, Target, and Walmart. You get a phone call and learn that almost all of your funds in the bank are untouchable. We went from around 100 to 15 employees and spent four years fighting the bank in court: we had a just claim against the bank that had committed this act. All the while, we were at risk of losing everything. It was a long period of high drama and great anxiety. Our company went from a go-go rocket ship heading to the planet IPO, to one worrying daily about filing for bankruptcy.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Because I care deeply about customers and employers and investors, I had no choice but to devote whatever amount of my life — and all the paperboy-grit I could muster — to keep moving the company forward. After nearly four years, we won our case. As a result, we won a large settlement, and we got that rare second chance. I was able to pay off debt and repay patient and supportive investors. That occurred in 2010, and into 2011.
It was then we pivoted our business into delivering innovative mobile solutions for education, an area I always knew we would wind up working in because, well, all children attend school, and significant parts of schoolwork were being moved online. We could no longer be a consumer services company selling smartphones with parental controls because it takes a lot of capital to do that, which we no longer had. We were able to re-hire some of the employees we had to lay off. It was a terrible time, but the other founder, Ben Weintraub, and I bore down and persisted. We were going to prove that we were right, that we were a ‘good bet,’ and that we were the sort of entrepreneurs who would give it our all.
Today Kajeet provides students and businesses all over the U.S. and Canada with safe and reliable Internet connectivity solutions, through our SmartSpot, SmartBus, and Kajeet LTE Chromebook products. We serve nearly 2,000 school districts, colleges, and libraries, as well as a growing number of commercial enterprises. Our decision to pivot and keep on trucking has worked out; mainly, I am proud to say, for the students and educators we serve, and who depend on us. During the current pandemic, we are able to help students do their schoolwork who might otherwise be left out of school entirely, falling behind their better-equipped and better-connected peers. At the core of our mission is the provision of a civil right: providing all students with equal access to the online portion of their schoolwork.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
As a team, we’ve been exceptionally inventive and innovative. I’m proud of our 36-patent portfolio. We’ve not only created our technology from scratch, but we built a patent portfolio which is foundational in the wireless world. In the spirit of sharing our technology with others, we’ve already licensed that portfolio to 8 other companies.
I’m most proud of our culture. Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” We’re good strategists, but we’re even bigger believers in our culture. We have a culture based on, among other things, innovation, entrepreneurship, respect, and the notion that ‘the best idea wins.’ My philosophy is that no matter how successful one has been, one must get up every day and earn it all over again. I work hard to make sure our culture embodies this notion.
When we originally founded the company, it was called Integrated Mobile, Inc. (IMI). Before too long, I was casting about for a different, more memorable name. One idea I had was to make an anagram of the names of the founders’ children’s names. That’s what I did. With Google on one screen and my domain registration site open on another, I played with various anagrams. If I had one that sounded half-way decent, I would Google it. When I searched on Kajeet, nothing came up, and I immediately registered it. The name ‘Kajeet’ keeps our end users — children, including our own — top-of-mind as we build the company. One of the first times someone asked me the name of our company and I told them, “Kajeet,” they replied, “Gesundheit!” No kidding.
Which tips would you recommend to colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Personally, what works for me is persistence, rapid and thoughtful experimentation, and a healthy blend of practical information and intuition. As I learned playing soccer throughout my childhood and into my collegiate years, you’ve got to pace yourself. People who can pace themselves can supply the right effort in the right amount and at the right time. By pacing yourself, you’re able to spread yourself across many different capabilities. One of soccer’s greatest players, Lionel Messi, says, “I start early, and I stay late, day after day, year after year; it took me 17 years and 114 days to become an overnight success.” That speaks to me. Kajeet will officially turn 17 this year.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I owe a lot to my wonderful parents. They gave me unconditional love and a very free-ranging upbringing — the independence, inquisitiveness, and willingness to experiment that this engendered has fueled me. And I came from a family where science and invention were highly valued. My grandfather invented a high-speed rotating-prism camera; he provided an aspirational model when I was young.
There are many people I look to as teachers. It is my family who inspires me day by day. Many entrepreneurs are solving a problem they experience themselves. My wife and I raised our children for the most part without TV or screens. When I saw mobile screens barreling toward us all, I thought to myself, “I can’t prevent their ubiquity, but I can contribute to making this phenomenon, I hope, better than it might be. In that sense, my children inspired me, too.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
There’s a confluence of crises now: there are economic and environmental ones, there are those related to systemic racism, there is the current pandemic. This confluence has laid bare immense inequities and the need for new intelligent education infrastructure. I don’t profess that the screen, the laptop, the Chromebook, are the end-all and be-all of education. These are but tools, albeit powerful ones that can bestow advantages on those fortunate enough to have them. But there are many children who have no access to these tools for use in their education. In my view, this is a violation of their civil rights. Everyone in business and government knows that to be effective, productive, and successful, you need modern tools. That doesn’t mean we should dispense with meeting people in person. This fact of modern life now applies to schools and students at almost every level. The work Kajeet does in developing and supporting intelligent mobile education broadband solutions for students brings some measure of goodness to the world, in the sense that we help many students who do not have Internet access for education get what affluent children take for granted.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Move even faster. We were ahead of the technology curve from the start, but we should have moved faster earlier. Speed is essential; it is a crucial advantage.
- Talk to customers more. You can’t talk with — and learn from — them enough.
- Hire faster. Some debate whether to hire faster or more slowly, more procedurally. I’m in the crowd that says you should hire more quickly. These are not mutually exclusive categories, but anyone can replicate what you do, and maybe do it better. In response, what you can do is move faster.
- One should avoid putting the word “only” in front of any quantity of money or time. If someone comes to me and says something “only” costs some amount of money, they’ve lost me at the word “only.” On the other hand, if you tell me you’re going to create a large market and change the lives of customers and create significant value, and it’s going to take many millions of dollars and years of our lives, I’m all ears.
- Communicate concisely, and frequently. Mark Twain captured the challenge: “If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.” I love long books. But in business, you’ve got to write many very short ‘letters.’ Doing this is worth the extra effort.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
As a society we must invest more in education; and we must raise the perceived status of the teaching profession. I believe this is true across almost every category and component of our educational systems. We must begin, of course, with doing more for early childhood development. There are few societal investments I can think of with a better return than education. Perhaps the most critical component of this is our teachers; we must invest in them. Technology and access to educational materials and tools are right up there in priority, but they are still lower on the list than teachers themselves.
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