Ralph Dangelmaier: “Not just because they’re persuasive, but because they act on their perspective”

The problem is that “thought leader” has become marketing jargon. It’s the business version of terms like “guru” and “pundit.” I don’t think it needs to be avoided (yet), but I do think people should be skeptical of self-proclaimed thought leaders. Use the term only if you’re sharing and acting upon original ideas. Otherwise, you’ll […]

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The problem is that “thought leader” has become marketing jargon. It’s the business version of terms like “guru” and “pundit.”

I don’t think it needs to be avoided (yet), but I do think people should be skeptical of self-proclaimed thought leaders. Use the term only if you’re sharing and acting upon original ideas. Otherwise, you’ll disappoint the audience and help kill the term.

As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ralph Dangelmaier the CEO of BlueSnap, the All-in-One Payment Platform designed to increase sales and reduce costs for B2B and B2C companies. With more than 30 years of experience in the payments industry, Dangelmaier is at the forefront of ecommerce innovation, using his expert knowledge to grow public and private companies via innovative payment solutions. In addition to landing BlueSnap on Inc’s annual guide to the 5,000 fastest-growing privately held companies in the U.S., Dangelmaier is a sought-after public speaker, broadcast commentator, and thought leader having published numerous articles in Forbes, PaymentsSource, and more. Prior to BlueSnap, Dangelmaier served as the President of ACI Worldwide and is the former CEO of P&H Solutions, the pioneer of web-based cash management. He also has the honor of being named one of the Top 50 SaaS CEOs by The SaaS Report as well as a finalist in the Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year program.

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?

Sure, my career started in 1988 with a series of jobs that put me on the frontier of payment technology. I learned how ACH transactions, wire transfers, and credit cards actually work. That might sound boring, but these are things we interact with daily and largely take for granted. I found them fascinating.

Throughout the 90s and early 2000s, this unusual knowledge traveled with me to other roles. I worked on “data warehousing,” which everyone now calls “big data.” I help put the first cash management software on the web. We called it “dial-up Windows” back then. Now it’s “cloud” software.

When the iPhone and Braintree came out in 2007, I realized that the payments industry was about to be upended. Digital payments could make international ecommerce ridiculously easy. Everything I’d learned came together.

There was a relatively unknown startup in Israel called Plimus. They had some of the best payment technology around. I became CEO in 2013, reinvented the company as BlueSnap, and raised 50 million dollars to turn BlueSnap into an all-in-one payment platform for global ecommerce. Seven years later, we handle 100 currencies and 110 payment methods for companies in every industry.

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

Here’s my hypothesis: It’s easy to spot trends, but it’s hard to execute on them. If you manage to do both, people in your industry want to hear what you have to say.

For example, BlueSnap was way ahead of the curve on things like mobile payments. When I started talking about the digital “wallet wars” between Apple Pay, Google Pay, and Alipay, the opportunities to speak and write about it rolled in. BlueSnap started integrating all these mobile wallets while many people wondered if they were just fads. That combination of spotting the trends and executing opened a lot of doors for me.

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

When we celebrated my son’s 15th birthday in 2015, I wanted to give him some cash or deposit money in his checking account. But he wanted to deposit money in what he called the “Bank of Amazon” and “Bank of Apple.” I thought that was nuts.

To my son, having cash on Amazon or Apple was better than having it in a bank account. There’s no need to drive to a bank. He could buy whatever he wanted with a click or two. And best of all, he wouldn’t need my permission to withdraw money.

It was one of those holy s*** moments. The way millennials and Gen Z transact was going to be radically different. Now, there’s digital-only banks, lenders, investment services and insurers. They go after this generation that loved Amazon but didn’t ‘get’ the value of traditional banks. Most Millennials don’t seem to care whether their money is stored with Venmo or Bank of America.

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?

In 1996, I met with the CIO of what was then known as Chase Manhattan Bank. He was interested in the cash management technology we sold at P&H Solutions. But he asked, “If I deploy your software, am I going to have a problem with Y2K?”

For you young people reading — there was fear that a bug called Y2K was going to crash the internet and global computing in the year 2000. Didn’t happen.

Anyway, I told the CIO he could run all our software on a private server to protect it. And he asked, “Could we access that server with a browser like Mosaic or Netscape?”

“What’s a browser?” I asked.

It looks like a pretty stupid question from a tech CEO, but 1996 was a different time. When he explained browsers, I was amazed. I was all-in on everything internet.

If anything, the lesson was to never be afraid of admitting when you don’t know something.

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?

Some people are good at strategy, and some are good at execution. Thought leaders excel at both. They convince others to see the world the way they do — not just because they’re persuasive, but because they act on their perspective.

I think typical leaders are good at execution but too consumed with managing to focus on strategy. Influencers are good at strategy but don’t execute. Their job is to harvest and monetize attention.

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?

The benefit of thought leadership is to become a trusted advisor in your space. People will come to you to solve problems. And although you probably can’t quantify the “ROI” of this, you will get rare opportunities and shape the conversations taking place across your industry.

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?

Not long ago, the head of a top consulting firm contacted me. He had recommended that a vice chairman at Bank of America talk to me about the payments industry. He felt that I understand where the market is going. Would I be interested in having dinner with the two of them?

At dinner, I laid out my view of the industry. The vice chairman asked the consulting firm to validate these ideas in a formal study, which confirmed everything I was saying. Now, Bank of America refers its merchants to BlueSnap. It took years of thought leadership to even have a shot at that partnership.

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.

First, focus on the customer in your space. What’s their problem? What do they need to be able to do? Answering those questions gives you solid material to write and talk about.

Second, pick a few of your most admired competitors and follow them. What are they talking about? What can you learn from them?

Third, follow your market. For me, that means keeping tabs on what companies like Visa and Mastercard are doing. I read about 20 articles a day before doing anything else.

Fourth, develop a culture where colleagues are excited to share their ideas with you. Maybe you agree with their perspective and 1+1 = 3. Or, maybe not. Then it’s your responsibility to figure out why they are wrong and have a conversation about it. This will fill your quiver with new thought leadership ideas.

Fifth, don’t chase a reputation. Most “thought leaders” don’t have original thoughts and don’t demonstrate leadership. They do it because their marketers told them to. Genuine thought leaders are fascinated by their industry. They are so curious and so eager to talk about it they can’t help but share original ideas that change the conversation.

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.

Tien Tzuo, the founder and CEO of Zuora, is a true thought leader. He spotted the rise of subscription-based businesses back in 2007 and founded Zuora to offer subscription billing as a service. He coined the term “subscription economy.”

Thirteen years later, we take it for granted that we can buy subscriptions for music, meal delivery, electric bikes, digital fitness equipment and so on. That didn’t exist until Zuora made it possible for businesses to digitally run those models.

Tzuo has written a book and many articles about this topic and spoken on various news shows. To me, he’s a fantastic thought leader because he has never let up on spotting new trends and executing. He continues to build upon the subscription economy.

The lesson is to never settle with one insight. It’ll become obsolete soon enough, so keep moving. I’m excited to see what Tzuo will come up with next.

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

The problem is that “thought leader” has become marketing jargon. It’s the business version of terms like “guru” and “pundit.”

I don’t think it needs to be avoided (yet), but I do think people should be skeptical of self-proclaimed thought leaders. Use the term only if you’re sharing and acting upon original ideas. Otherwise, you’ll disappoint the audience and help kill the term.

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

If you like what you do 70 to 80 percent of the time, you won’t burn out. Recently, I was with one of my kids and their college friends who were talking about job offers. One of them wanted to take a job that offered 80,000 dollars per year instead of one that offered 70,000 dollars.

I jumped in and said to take the one that is more enjoyable! That extra 10,000 dollars won’t make a difference if you hate the work. That 10,000 dollars definitely won’t matter in 10 years.

Decades after they graduate, some people keep chasing money. Leaders or not, those people don’t thrive, and they do burn out.

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. 🙂

I’d start a movement to teach financial literacy. It’s kind of like civics — you don’t have a choice about whether you’re going to have a relationship with a government. And the same is true of finance. At some point, you will have to manage money and make decisions about spending, saving, investing, etc.

I think every kid in America should learn enough to navigate the modern financial system. Let’s make it a required part of the high school curriculum. Teach kids financial literacy before they make bad decisions that they can’t easily undo.

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

My grandfather used to say, “People’s perceptions of things may not always be accurate.” He taught me to see the world for myself when I have to make big decisions.

It doesn’t mean that no one else can be trusted. It means that you need to get out into the field. Go to conferences around the world. Meet people in person, not online. Put down the phone and look for yourself. You can’t observe the world through Google.

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. 🙂

I’d like to have lunch with Bill Belichick. I happen to be a Boston guy and New England Patriots fan. But I want to learn how Belichick builds teams. He’s been to nine Super Bowls in the last 20 years and won more times than any other coach. He’s managed to do that with limitations, like a salary cap. I want to learn how he manages the Patriots.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Follow me on Twitter @RDangelmaier

You can also check out BlueSnap on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

Thank you so much for your insights. This was very insightful and meaningful.

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