Surround Yourself with Other Thought Leaders — leading a company, staying ahead of developments and battling competition can be exhausting work. I rely on the insight, support and company of other thought leaders to keep me inspired. Whether it’s a peer group, your executive team or even your family members, find like-minded leaders who will be there for you when you need a reminder of why you get up every morning.
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dave Erickson Founder and CEO of FreeConferenceCall.com. Dave founded FreeConferenceCall.com on the simple principle that global connections should be available to everyone, both affordably and efficiently. He purchased a $10 URL and began offering free global conference calling sparking a viral movement averaging 100,000 new signups a month with services that have been used by two percent of the world’s population — millions and millions of people. In fact, the company has become the largest and most recognized conferencing brand on the planet — with roughly 40 million users across 160 countries each month. Since launching the company in 2001, Dave has stayed focused on technological development and change, founding a number of related companies including HDTandem, WydeVoice, StartMeeting and CarrierX. In addition to leading his companies, Dave has been actively involved in reforming and modernizing the telecommunications legislation. He has worked with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reform and modernize the universal service and intercarrier compensation systems. He was recently named Entrepreneur of the Year by the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. Under his leadership, FreeConferenceCall.com has won numerous awards, including the national “Best & Brightest Best Companies to Work For” and a Gold Stevie Award® for Customer Service. Dave is a frequent speaker at leadership conferences and has appeared on national radio and television and in business news publications including Entrepreneur, Inc., Forbes and USA Today. Dave is also an active community volunteer who sits on the Board at Memorial Medical Center Foundation and is involved in numerous local charitable organizations including Children Today, Goals for Life and the Long Beach Ronald McDonald House.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Dave! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I grew up in Southern California and caught the entrepreneurial bug early. I started my first company when I was 16 and went on to run landscaping, construction, insurance and investment companies. I learned so much during those years but I didn’t find my true calling until 1995 at a telecommunications convention where I saw a personal computer being used to make a video call. I was so inspired by the potential of this technology to connect people all over the world.
At that time, conference calling was really only available to executives at big businesses who could afford the hardware and fees for each call. I thought that technology should be available to everyone so I began learning everything I could about the technology and the industry and eventually I found a way to provide conference calling for free to my customers and still generate revenue. FreeConferenceCall.com was launched in 2001 with the purchase of a $10 URL. I was the only employee for nearly three years as I worked to add customers and build the network. I also took all the incoming customer calls during that time 24 hours a day seven days a week. It was hard work but I learned so much about what my customers wanted and how much the service meant to them.
Today we support more than 20 million conference calls per month and are the second largest conferencing company in the world by call volume.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
While I would never label myself as a thought leader, my companies’ success requires a very deep and complete knowledge of both the technology and regulations driving the telecommunications industry. My expertise has been requested numerous times by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and I have been actively involved in helping our government reform and modernize telecommunications legislation.
I have also created a successful company that supports 8 million customers across160 countries. FreeConferenceCall.com has grown consistently since its founding without debt or outside funding from banks, investors or venture capitalists. As a business leader, I believe in staying independent as you chart your company’s growth and development.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
One day shortly after I launched the service, I was sitting in my office and noticed a group of Mary Kay salespeople at the convention center outside my window. I grabbed a stack of business cards and went over to hand them out. It was a multi-day convention. I actually went and got more cards printed because the response and interest seemed overwhelming. That one decision resulted in 100 percent user growth for my company in just one month.
Two years later I attended the Mary Kay sales conference and one of their reps told me, “You know what you’ve done? You’ve changed the way Mary Kay does business.” That’s the first time I realized the power of the service and how it had the potential to profoundly change the way people connect and communicate. Shortly after that, we began identifying a host of new uses for the service we had never dreamed of when we launched.
For example, in 2008, we noticed the Obama campaign was using the platform to stay connected to volunteers in the field. That year the campaign logged five million minutes of calls and by 2012 candidates on both sides began using the service and the number of calls skyrocketed. We’ve seen the service used to keep globally dispersed families connected and it’s become a lifeline for non-profits who can now reach the people they are helping for free. The service has become a tool for global broadcasters including radio stations, prayer groups and multi-level marketers. Undercover police use the service so they can connect with fellow officers via cell phone rather than using the more conspicuous and scannable police radio. Truckers use the access to connect when they are out of reach of CB radios and we even saw an innovative taxi dispatch service use the service to share real-time tips on the best locations for business.
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?
Early on I had a competitor that was working to grow the same kind of service. They had lots of funding so they could afford to buy servers and invest in technology bells and whistles. They offered tons of features like reservation systems and call scheduling tools. I was really jealous and would have invested in similar tools but I simply didn’t have the money. Then slowly as I talked to my customers who called the customer service line (that I answered myself for three years) I began hearing that those features seemed cool but ended up confusing or annoying the end-users. After a few months of being envious I realized my service was pulling customers away from his service and it was largely because I didn’t have the funding necessary to overcomplicate my offering. I learned early on that simplicity really is better and I’ve stuck to that approach ever since.
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?
To me a thought leader is more than someone with a deep expertise and knowledge in their specialized field. It has to be a person who has the passion to explore new technologies and ideas, to look at the norm and advance it with strong balanced ideas that may disrupt an industry but will ultimately benefit the end-user or consumer who uses it.
A leader is one who engages with their peers and works towards mutual benefit. Someone who invests the time necessary to continue learning and applies their perspective to be valuable to their industry as a whole. Thought leaders are often influential but I believe they are characterized by a more balanced perspective and a deeper level of knowledge — from study, analysis and daily on-the-job experience — than some of the people we consider to be influencers today.
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?
Sometimes the negative vibes from others or the resistance to change can be pretty dramatic and theatrical, at times this can be the most draining for me — I try not to dwell on the opposition. However, it is very important to not become complacent — striking that balance that allows me to know I’m being responsible in all ways considerable — that should be important to a thought leader and it is definitely worth investing the energy to consider other’s thoughts completely.
Being the tip of the spear has its moments when thrown carelessly. It is not only important to invest resources but to also invest in your resources. I have found over my career that people are by far the most valuable resource, and investing in them, their culture and allowing them to do the same is important.
Being a thought leader has been essential to my companies’ survival as a telecommunications business. As background, when I began offering my service I needed to work with other telecom carriers to grow. At the time all of the big carriers refused to partner with a small unknown company, so I worked out deals with smaller, rural phone companies who were in dire need of new business streams. As the volume of calls coming through these rural carriers took off, the big guys took notice and began looking into details around the new surge in call volume. When they realized the nature of the calls they saw a competitive threat and immediately began lobbying the FCC to change long-standing telecom regulations in their favor. Some carriers also filed suit and AT&T decided to block calls to rural areas — a tactic that had a drastic effect on phone service, including an inability for local residents to reach emergency services.
Armed with my complete knowledge of telecom rules and regulations and the knowledge I was providing a service that consumers loved and needed, I began four years of flying back and forth to Washington D.C. from California once a month to work out an equitable solution with the carriers and the FCC. I had little support in the government and found it impossible to hire a qualified lobbyist or lawyer who wasn’t immediately hired and paid more by the competition. I knew the FCC had levied fines for call blocking in the past and I expected similar action when I flew to DC to challenge AT&T’s move. Instead, the FCC responded by calling officials at Qwest, AT&T, Sprint Nextel and Verizon to warn them the blocking was “unacceptable”.
If I wasn’t an experienced and deeply knowledgeable thought leader going into this fight with big rivals and the government, I would have been put out of business immediately. I would not have had the knowledge or willpower to successfully fight what turned out to be just the first salvo in a 20-year-battle against the higher-priced competition. I won that battle and am still in business largely because I took the time to understand telecom regulation before I ever entered the business and I have invested the time necessary to stay on top of every change and update since that time so I can protect my freedom to operate and my customers’ access to free global conference calling.
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?
- Hiring the Best People. It’s no secret that people want to work for people on the move to make a difference, and I know that my investment in my business and the industry as a whole have been key factors in convincing some of the best talents in the world to come work alongside me and take up the charge. We are a small, privately-held company led by executives from some of the world’s biggest and most admired companies, and that kind of talent is key to growing the business and creating new opportunities.
- Building our Customer Base. Being a thought leader also helps establish the credibility necessary for building our customer base — particularly among business users. We have more than 800,000 business customers including users at 84 percent of the Fortune 500. They rely on their conferencing provider for mission-critical communications and our reputation is key to establishing and maintaining those relationships.
- International Expansion. Our reputation has also helped us establish the local connections and governmental cooperation necessary to expand our network globally. Twenty years ago we launched our service in the United States and today we are reaching nearly every part of the globe with service in 160 countries — each with their own telecom rules and regulations. It’s a highly complex system that requires a great deal of knowledge to build and maintain.
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.
- Be Authentic — the most important aspect of establishing thought leadership is a passion for the subject. Becoming an expert, building relationships and staying on top of evolving markets takes a great deal of time and energy and you simply won’t be successful if you’re not truly passionate about your area of work. You won’t have the drive and the people will work with will see through any attempt to build thought leadership purely for personal advancement.
- Schedule Time to Stay Informed — As the founder and CEO of multiple companies, my attention is pulled in many different directions and I have to be disciplined about staying up-to-date on evolving technology, competitive offerings and regulations. I have to find the time each month to take in tons of data and ensure I’m keeping abreast of developments that impact my business. Oftentimes, that reading has to be done outside the office so I can have the space I need to think and plan without distraction.
- Engage Outside Your Comfort Zone — The first time I was asked to testify on Capitol Hill I was terrified but I believed in my mission and knew I had to take action or my ability to operate could be negatively impacted. Whether it’s networking with a new group of partners or giving a presentation to a packed house, find out where your audiences are gathering and get yourself out there.
- Be Persistent — For the last 20 years, I have been in constant battle defending my business. My competition has repeatedly blocked calls, refused to pay bills, filed lawsuits and complaints with the FCC. The company has been sued multiple times and I have gone before the FCC on more than 50 occasions. We are still waiting on payment for millions of dollars of contracted services and we’ve spent millions more on legal defense. In addition to the business attacks, my competition has also tried to impeach my personal character painting me in the media as unscrupulous and exploitative. I need to know it’s worth it and remind myself that anyone doing something truly disruptive will always face pushback from the entrenched companies they are looking to unseat. True thought leaders have to stand firm and continue pushing for the change they believe in despite opposition.
- Surround Yourself with Other Thought Leaders — leading a company, staying ahead of developments and battling competition can be exhausting work. I rely on the insight, support and company of other thought leaders to keep me inspired. Whether it’s a peer group, your executive team or even your family members, find like-minded leaders who will be there for you when you need a reminder of why you get up every morning.
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?
I’m sure there are more recent examples but my mind always goes back to Thomas Edison and his quote, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” I believe that anyone who is truly a leader is trying things no one else has tried and frequently failing and Edison’s approach reminds me that the real failure is not continuing to try. If you keep at it and stay positive, eventually you will end up with a workable solution.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
I agree that the term is overused but I believe people respond to true leadership with or without the title.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
The same three rules drive me as a thought leader and the leader of my organization:
Remember Who You Set Out to Serve
This company started with a simple plan: shift the power from big telecom companies to consumers by providing great quality conference calling for free. We have always focused on our customers first, and their best interest is at the heart of every decision we make — from investing in our network, to our refusal to sell customer information to protect privacy. This relentless focus on putting customers first creates an effective lens for priority setting for me and our organization.
Focus on the Long Term and Empower Your Team to Execute
A recent Harvard Business School study on traits that set successful CEOs apart revealed the highest performers spend significantly more of their time — as much as 50 percent — thinking about long term planning. I focus on creating the vision, hiring great leaders, inspiring employees, and getting out of the way. By investing at least half my time on long-term planning, I keep my creative spark alive and make room for my management team to ensure operations run smoothly and deadlines are met.
Encourage Dissent but Maintain Boundaries
Great leaders give everyone a voice but not a vote. I surround myself with people who challenge me and present me with new ideas but I am careful not to get sucked into making decisions by committee. Although getting input from lots of sources can be highly effective in clarifying new ideas, and I often change my mind based on employee input, the final decisions are mine alone and I find that clarity of process frees up a lot of cycles to focus the mission.
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. 🙂
FreeConferenceCall.com has already surpassed all of my expectations in terms of creating a viral movement. What started with a $10 URL has now touched a full two percent of the global population with free conferencing and collaboration available to anyone in 160 countries for free. I’m exceptionally proud of what we’ve accomplished and I consider my mission today to be twofold: 1) protect global access to free conferencing and 2) expand the benefits of our global network to connect people in new ways. I believe the future of all communications is going to be application-based and today’s telecom infrastructure cannot support rich, modern, voice communications. My next step is innovating an easy solution that will connect developers and carriers and create ubiquitous interoperability and integration between all of today’s application-based tools and services.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is found in an H. Jackson Brown, Jr. book of wisdom he received from his mother, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” I started dreaming early in life and any time I face a decision I remind myself to go for it — to never stop exploring, dreaming and discovering.
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 lunch or breakfast? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Donald Trump — here’s a man that has done amazing things and has a loyal team following him, obviously a thought leader himself, I think he might enjoy my small company start-up mentality, sure would like to talk to him about drama, theatrics and knee jerk ideas that seem outlandish and hard to understand — he is the President of the United States and thus a thought leader for this country maybe we could chat.
From a business standpoint, I’d love to sit down with John Legere the CEO of T-Mobile and Ajit Pai the head of the FCC. Right now T-Mobile has labeled a large portion of my companies’ calls as out-of-plan and is charging our customers an extra fee to access our services. They have claimed they need to do to defray the cost of carrying our calls and we have been offering to set up a system to carry that traffic without cost to them but so far haven’t been able to connect directly to reach a deal so I’d love to sit down and make that happen before T-Mobile merges with Sprint and further extends a policy that is hurting my customers.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.