It is important to monitor the ROI of everything you do. As a founder everything you do is an investment. You start by investing your time and money and eventually you are spending your employee’s time and investor’s money. As such, you need to relentlessly monitor how time and money are spent. There always will be tasks, goals and objectives you don’t reach, but if you identify the things that will make the biggest difference and give those sufficient resources you will eventually reach a level of profitability where there is a lot more flexibility for experimenting with different growth strategies.
Daniel Todd is currently the CEO and founder of Influence Mobile. He has been a Disney TechStars mentor and adviser to several start-ups, and co-founded the online media company Zango in 1999. While there, he was the driving force behind Zango’s Targeted Visitor product and Time Shifted Advertising model. Also during his tenure, Zango was named to the Inc. 500 Fastest Growing Companies list twice ranking as high as #7.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Heading into college, I wanted to be a medical missionary where I would travel to help people around the world with their physical and spiritual needs. An accident I suffered quickly after starting college, resulting in short term amnesia, completely changed the course of my life. I remember laying in a hospital bed thinking I can’t do this my whole life, only interacting with people on their worst days.
After graduating college, I continued my education taking night classes to become a certified software engineer. After a total of six years of advanced education, I took a job in a startup that exposed me to the burgeoning field of internet marketing. After nearly two years at that company, I took a leap of faith and co-founded an internet marketing company.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
My first small, but successful advertising business was turned upside down by the devastating 9/11 terrorist attacks.
It all started in September of 1999, when I took a leap of faith and co-founded an internet marketing company just months before the first internet bubble burst. Determined to survive these challenging times, my team and I pressed on through the rocky year of 2000 and built a successful advertising business.
After maneuvering through 2000, our small team simply could not prepare for the terror that would occur on September 11, 2001 and the economic hardship that would soon ripple through the globe.
Like many companies across America, our business struggled to overcome the significant economic damage caused by the attacks. The company nearly went out of business and we had to lay off all but a few employees. I’m thankful for the small team that jumped in and worked hard for our partners. While challenging, this time period is when I really gained a deep understanding of the core metrics that drive internet advertising. Those efforts led to sustainable revenue growth and by late 2002 we were growing and even reaching profitability again.
From there our company went on to add one new employee every other business day for 18 months. We grew from under 10 to nearly 300 employees and almost 70M dollars annually. The lessons I learned during these experiences created the foundation and confidence I needed to start Influence Mobile in 2012, the company I run today.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
By nature I am a very optimistic person, I wake up thinking things are going to work out. This is supported by my faith where I believe all things are possible and that by trusting in God he will lead me in the right direction.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
After nine years of running Influence Mobile, I can easily say that the past two have been the best yet. We have high employee retention rates and are already on our way to meeting exceptionally high growth metrics this year. Recently Influence Mobile was recognized by Appsflyer as a top global app marketer competing and winning against companies with 100–300X the number of employees and resources. We have gone from 3,032,968 dollars in revenue in 2017 to 21,314,120 dollars in 2020 and are on track to see revenue over 50 million dollars this year. The company has also gone from seven employees in 2017 to close to 50 employees today.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?
This is only the “funniest” mistake in hindsight, because as I was experiencing it there was nothing funny about it. Early in my first startup, we were all technically trained and we didn’t view ourselves as sales people. We felt we needed trained sales people to help us sell the product. So, we set out to hire a sales group. We hired three former TV advertising sales people who were straight out of Glengarry Glen Ross. With this group leading our sales the company went into a steep decline. We learned that the sales team lied about revenue production, processed fake orders, and more. Eventually the sales team suggested that the only chance for success was to keep them on and lay others within the company off. That was the really funny part.
Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
That is when I learned that you shouldn’t hire people that don’t fit the type of culture you want to create. These people may have succeeded selling TV ads, but at a new company who is struggling to define itself, we needed humble, hard working individuals who could admit they didn’t know everything and work to collaborate with other employees and clients to create a product that worked for everyone.
This very hard lesson is only funny now because it seems so obvious to me after 20+ years. If you want to build a successful business, you want to create a great place to work and you do that by finding hard working, intelligent, innovative and humble employees.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
One of the foundational elements of Influence Mobile is our transparency and honesty — something that has been especially critical during the pandemic. Employees are kept informed about the state of the business on a regular basis, including revenue and profit. The company has recently hired new employees from companies that were negatively impacted by COVID-19, so it’s even more crucial to make sure the staff knows if the company is growing or struggling. Allowing flexibility amongst the staff when needed, letting them thrive and recognizing their contributions to the success of the company — something that is equally as important during these unprecedented times.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Relationships — having strong relationships is very important, these can be friends, relatives, spouses or children. Investing time in others is a great way to keep perspective and maintain a strong foundation for support when times are tough.
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?
Keith Smith has been one of my closest friends since we were teenagers. In his early twenties Keith got into technology and started to develop his skills as a leader. Keith invited me to co-found a company and accepting that invite changed my life. During the years of working together I learned alot from Keith on what to do and not do while running a business and I am particularly grateful to him for all I learned.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I believe one of the core opportunities we have to make the world a better place is with generosity. You can be generous with your time, money and your emotions. As I prosper economically, I continue to support those in need and make a point of trying to get others to open their eyes to the opportunities around them.
Prior to the pandemic, Influence Mobile would go out once a month and support the local Union Gospel Mission’s efforts to help the homeless. For years, staff would bring in food and clothing donations to hand out in the Seattle community. Now with social distancing, the company still supports the organization through monetary donations. The staff has also been recently involved in mentoring with SuitUp and it has been a point of pride for the company to show underrepresented students opportunities for careers in the private sectors and help them with their career goals and ambitions.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1) When you need to have an uncomfortable conversation, run towards it.
In the past when I worked with someone that wasn’t meeting expectations, instead of addressing the issue head on, I tried to not hurt their feelings by focusing on their effort and hinting at the things they could improve upon. This method has always backfired. I quickly learned that the approach to deliver bad news with a “soft hand” was not only ineffective, it was destructive to relationships.
Now, I don’t view giving people constructive feedback as “hurting their feelings” I view it as helping them succeed. Much of this change occurred when I realized that as a leader their success was my responsibility.
2) Everything takes longer than you expect, as such you need to set aggressive expectations to counteract this axiom.
The concept of “lean startup” eventually put into words what many of us learned the hard way, which is you need to make slow iterative progress and learn as you release and test your products with clients in the real world. However, in my experience even with iterative development getting things built and live can feel like a sisyphean task. I still struggle today with finding the balance between moving quickly and getting products out fast (and probably breaking a lot of things) or moving more slowly with less collateral damage.
3) If someone is rude to your team before an interview don’t hire them, ever.
People that are “rude” typically won’t treat the CEO rudely during an interview. However, I have seen plenty of times where an interviewing senior exec is rude, demeaning or demanding to the company receptionist or an executive assistant. This is a clear sign that you should not hire them, that behaviour should not be tolerated in a culture of respect for all employees’ contributions.
4) Full transparency, especially when times are tough, is the best way to build trust.
Now this is probably the most controversial advice I might be giving and it can certainly be done in ways that create negative outcomes. However, in my experience I generally try to keep everyone involved in the company and fully up to speed with the forward 60–90 day plan. Now what is most dangerous and unpredictable is that you do not know the past experiences of the employees you are sharing this with. So, be smart and develop good trusting relationships with your employees, so that they will give you the benefit of the doubt and most importantly will have faith that you can execute the plan in front of you.
5) It is important to monitor the ROI of everything you do.
As a founder everything you do is an investment. You start by investing your time and money and eventually you are spending your employee’s time and investor’s money. As such, you need to relentlessly monitor how time and money are spent. There always will be tasks, goals and objectives you don’t reach, but if you identify the things that will make the biggest difference and give those sufficient resources you will eventually reach a level of profitability where there is a lot more flexibility for experimenting with different growth strategies.
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
As a serial entrepreneur, I’ve come to learn that “bad news” can often be used as a positive catalyst with the right perspective. In 2016, after unexpectedly losing our biggest partner, I had to make the difficult decision to lay off a significant number of staff.
At the time, we had enough cash to give everyone a large severance without compromising our ability to stay in business. I also brought in recruiters, career and resume counselors and offered to write recommendation letters so that I could reduce the fear and uncertainty for people as much as possible. Because I always follow the rule to treat others the way you want to be treated, I was able to make a difficult situation as positive as possible for those involved. Overall, I am proud of how we navigated the challenges and ultimately this period of time made me a stronger leader and led us to where we are today.
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. 🙂
Until last year I lived in Seattle where around 10,000 unsheltered people reside. Our company worked for years with the Union Gospel Mission rescue to help meet the needs of these individuals with food, water, clothing and a warm place to stay for the evening.
With around 600,000 people part of the broader tech community living in Seattle, my vision is that each person gets involved personally with one unsheltered person and works to help improve their life by supporting their recovery to a self-sustainable situation. That would end or massively reduce homelessness in Seattle and could be a model for around the world.
To that end, I have been working to support Samaritan.city which is a platform and app that empowers people without a home to move forward. The Samaritan app allows supporters to emotionally and financially connect with people in need. It is my hope and prayer that Samaritan continues to grow and that millions of people use the app so that we can reduce homelessness and increase support for some of the most vulnerable in our community.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!