7 Questions with Daniel Gouldman
Name: Daniel Gouldman
Current title: CEO/Founder
Current organisation: Ternio
Daniel Gouldman is the Founder and CEO of a blockchain technology company - Ternio. He has co-founded several successful multimillion-dollar digital companies over the past several years ranging in everything from media to ad tech to digital advertising. Based out of Atlanta - he has assisted the digital efforts of the ACLU, political and non-political organizations. Prior to that – he was a Vice President for a 40 billion company where he was responsible for over $55 million in annual revenues.
1. What have you found most challenging as a leader of a small or medium enterprise?
When you start a company - the company is most vulnerable in the earliest months/years of formation. The biggest challenge we have faced thus far is in starting the company based on an idea, building a product off of that idea and then building a sustainable business based on that product. That process was very challenging because you don't really know the demand for your product until it's available to the marketplace and we found ourselves having to iterate and adapt frequently. We were always preparing as if we had made our last dollar and what if all of our plans were going to fail. That was a very long and arduous gauntlet we had to run through ... building a sustainable company validated by the marketplace with real customers willing to pay for our product.
2. How did you become a leader of an SME? Can you please briefly tell the story?
I have confounded a few digital startups after leaving corporate life. When we started Ternio - we were trying to solve a problem using blockchain technology. We started the company based on the premise of trying to solve that problem. You can't really be a leader unless you have a team and you can't have a team unless you can afford to pay them. This means you've either got to raise capital or build a sustainable business; we raised a little capital but mostly we funded ourselves through our customers. And we're growing like wildfire.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
Jeff Bezos talks about work/life harmony as compared to the concept of work/life balance, and I think his philosophy is correct ... at least for me. I don't really view the world through the prism of work days vs. weekends; I enjoy working and basically work all the time. We all have to manage personal priorities and if I'm doing something with my family then I block that off on my calendar and I spend time with the fam. I do calls with Europe and the middle east in the morning and I do calls with China late at night. Running a company takes a lot of energy and focus; a person better enjoy what they do given how much work is involved. And if you love what you are doing then it's not really work anyway; it's just building something you're passionate about. I do try to dedicate 7 to 9 pm est every day for my family, but other than that - it's not uncommon for me to take calls or to respond to emails at any other time including weekends.
4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
I'm 43 now and I've been managing people and businesses since I was 18 years old; 25 years or experience definitely starts to harden and - at this point in my life - who I am as a leader for better or worse is pretty much who I am. I've read a lot of leadership books over the years and you start to really hone in on your own governing and managing principles. It's hard to find mentors who open up new worldviews to you especially if you feel like you've gotten it mostly right over the years. The most recent leadership lesson that I've added to my toolkit has been from Ray Dalio several years ago; he talks about this concept of radical transparency in business. This concept is important because it creates an equal intellectual playing field among leaders of an organization and those who report to them. It creates an environment of self-accountability and is very much a cultural element that I believe in wholeheartedly. It's important to be able to give honest feedback even when it's critical, but most importantly - it's important to be able to listen to critical feedback. That's not always easy, but it's those moments in time that allow us to actually zero in on our blind spots and to be our better selves.
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
The Oz Principle is a book I read when I was in my formidable management years and I'll never forget it. The book's premise is about personal accountability. I once did presentations to discuss the principles of the book to 200+ people in a room. The leadership of my company liked it so much. There were many concepts but probably the most important concept was about not living below the line. The concept is that there's a line that separates success and failure that's driven by our own thoughts and actions. We can choose to live below the line where we complain about other people, focus on the bad things that happen to us or other non-constructive and toxic emotional states ... and when you're below the line it's a choice we all make. Now obviously - everyone has those kinds of feelings but the challenge is to force ourselves to go above the line as quickly as possible and not to succumb to self-destructive thinking or actions. Living above the line is about focusing on solutions and channeling our energies into positive thinking. I think this concept overlaps my natural tendencies to take positive action and that's why it really resonated with me.
The most important concept I have learned over the years as a young man came from Franklin Covey. The Circle of Influence vs. the Circle of Concern. I've used that with my wife mostly unsuccessfully to discuss the things that were impacting us in our life. The core concept is that there are many things that worry us, but if we can't influence something then it's a complete waste of time to worry about it. Instead - we need to focus our time and energy on the things that we can actually influence in our lives.
6. How do you build leadership capacity in an SME?
For me - I learned these skill sets over the past 20+ years prior to when we started Ternio. Who I am today on year 3 is the same as who I was on day 1 of starting the company. It was those experiences that have prepared me for all of the challenges of running a company. I learned from experience how to start a company and some of the things that do and do not do well. I've hired over 500 people in my life and coached/mentored large teams of people. I learned how to run a business built on the P&L. I learned about growing revenues and cutting costs and I've learned how to adapt to tremendous adversity.
But the most important thing I think is to just be committed to being your best self, to treat your customers and your employees with respect and to have personal relationships with people built off of trust. Sometimes I'll tell a customer or an employee something they don't want to hear, but I work really hard to be intellectually honest and I think that shows and people appreciate that. I really do like to find solutions so if there's a possible solution - I work really hard to find it.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader of an SME so far?
Starting a company from scratch isn't easy. We spent a lot of time trying to raise capital through a lot of folks, but either the terms we received were predatory or we found ourselves meeting with people who didn't really get what we were doing. We wasted a lot of time talking to people trying to explain why what we were doing was such a great thing and how it was an investable opportunity. This can be perfectly summed up by the story of the founders of RXBAR. The founders were planning for all the things they would need to have a successful company and all the money they would need to raise in order to build this successful company. The father of one of the founders gets tired of listening to these conversations and says "You need to shut up and sell a thousand bars." And that is exactly right. Can you sell your product once and then ten times and then 100 times and then 1,000 times and if you can do it organically like that then you can build a sustainable business model. The founders of RXBAR sold their business for $600 million because they just decided to shut up and sell 1k bars. This is probably the most important worldview I've picked up since starting Ternio and I hope it helps other founders as well.