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Monkey see, monkey do

August 19, 2014

First published in Renegade Collective, issue 13, August 2014

In Silicon Valley, success is a byword for sacrifice.  The Northern Californian postcode might be home to technology companies that have toppled entire industries but it owes its mythical status to the way it fosters an extreme brand of ambition, where achieving an entrepreneurial vision comes at the expense of everything else in your life.

For those who don’t buy into Silicon Valley fables, there’s always David Goldberg. The CEO of SurveyMonkey – an online survey tool that anticipated the role data would play in shaping businesses back in 1999 that Forbes values at $US1.35 billion – is proof that investing in the world outside work may see you hurtle faster towards your professional dreams.

“When I was running my first startup, I never took a day off but found that you’re not necessarily that productive when you’re going to spend all that time at work,” laughs David, with a warmth that speaks more of his Minnesota upbringing than the steely corridors of high technology. We’re in a plush Sydney hotel, where David, who insists I take an elaborate crab sandwich, decamped a few hours earlier to launch SurveyMonkey’s first Asia Pacific office. “A lot of people think that I’ll just eat and sleep when I get to my destination but we evaluate performance on what our staff members actually do, not how many hours they work and let them take as much vacation as possible as long as they deliver.  Our company is nearly 15 and we’ve been really successful but it’s a marathon. We’re growing really nicely but we need to pace ourselves.”

When David says his entrepreneurial instincts came late, it’s clear that humility is reframing his life story. He has openly credited his mother, a Minneapolis kindergarten teacher who established a centre for children with disabilities, with opening his eyes to the ways in which entrepreneurship could change the course of people’s lives.

“I was really motivated by having a big impact,” says David, who studied at Harvard and briefly worked on Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign before becoming disenchanted with politics. “For my first business, I was working with my best friend from high school and we started the company in my apartment, borrowed money on credit and ran out of funds several times. It wasn’t easy but we were having fun and changing the way people discovered and listened to music. When we started out, no one thought anyone would ever listen to music on a computer but as an entrepreneur you have to say ‘nope – I hear these people and they’re much smarter than I am but they’re wrong and I’m going to keep going anyway’.”

The business David is referring to is Launch Media, a digital music trailblazer that paved the way for current spinoffs such as Rdio and Spotify, and was acquired by Yahoo Music for US$12 million when he was just 26. But although David, who grew Yahoo Music into the world’s most visited music destination and was ranked one of Billboard magazine’s top digital music power players, it was his 2009 acquisition of SurveyMonkey, a humble web survey development tool designed by software engineer Ryan Finley, that would define his future path.

“You make better arguments with data,” David explains. “We had fifth-graders who wanted to improve their lunches at school run a survey telling teachers what they liked and didn’t like and they ended up changing the menu. When Ryan founded SurveyMonkey, he made the product really easy to use and he didn’t have any money for marketing so he had to make the product do the marketing – it became a viral tool. The more people take surveys, the more they learn about SurveyMonkey and they come back to create their own. That’s how we’ve always grown.”

SurveyMonkey might appeal to fifth-graders but it’s also revolutionised the way businesses gather and analyse information, creating an entire market in the process. The online platform, which receives 2 million survey responses a day, boasts a client base that includes 99 per cent of Fortune 500 companies, a list that includes the likes of General Motors, Apple and Chevron, as well as academic institutions and small businesses around the world. And in Australia, SurveyMonkey’s third-largest market, the tool is embraced by everyone from Qantas to BHP Billiton –  a user base that explains why establishing a local office is the company’s largest investment outside the US and Europe.

“I think in terms of the technology sector, Australia has seen more success on a relative basis than a lot of other countries,” says David, who spent a short stint living in Sydney’s Paddington in his twenties. “There are a lot of Australian companies that have done really well on a global level. The country is our best market on a per capita basis and as we add new products and services, it made a lot of sense to be here. It’s a great place.”

David, who raised US$800 million in debt and equity for SurveyMonkey in 2013, is slow to attribute the company’s success to his own talent and experience. Instead, he says that the company’s unusual model – where the benefits of big business collide with the scalability promised by startups – allowed him to hire the right people and create the perfect conditions for swift growth. “I’m more of a generalist than I’m good at one specific thing,” he laughs. “When I’m building a team, I want to find people who are better than me at certain things – everyone’s happier and doing a better job when they’re doing things that they’re good at. SurveyMonkey offered me the opportunity to act like a startup but with the resources of an existing business – so I could hire great people and build a team that would allow us to scale.”

Missing from David’s official bio is the fact that marrying Sheryl Sandberg – Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer and author of feminist bible Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead – rates among his formative career decisions. David met Sheryl, who was voted one of the most powerful women in business by Forbes this year, when they were both working in Los Angeles in 1996, and has admitted to falling for her when she fell asleep on his shoulder during a movie. Unsurprisingly, Lean In’s idea that career success stems from the ability to articulate your needs is the blueprint for David’s own business, sparking a company culture that sees employees thrive.

“I think my wife says it best – men and women need to speak out about what they want and what works for them,” says David, who famously hired Selina Tobaccowala, SurveyMonkey’s Chief Technology Officer when she was four months pregnant. “We don’t expect men to take time off to take their kids to the doctor or spend time with their family and we need to change our perceptions. It’s still too far out of balance.”

I quiz David about how SurveyMonkey’s clients can use data to empower themselves but his response equally applies to decoding messy businesses of juggling career and relationships. “Information itself doesn’t make great decisions. It’s all about learning to ask the right questions.”


Posted on August 19, 2014

Tags: technology, business, journalism