Work Smarter Series #7 – Interview with Dave Morgan, CEO and founder of Simulmedia

Dave Morgan is the CEO and founder of Simulmedia. He also founded TACODA, Inc., an online advertising company that pioneered behavioral online marketing and was acquired by AOL in 2007 for $275 million, as well as Real Media, Inc., a predecessor to 24/7 Real Media (TFSM), which was later acquired by WPP for $649 million.

I started my career competing with Dave Morgan and he quickly became one of the media executives I learned the most from. I was recently lucky enough to sit down with Dave to ask him questions about his journey as an innovator and executive. Here’s what we discussed.

Building Companies

Q: You have a reputation for being in-tune with your customer’s needs before the rest of the industry. When others speak in generalities, you are more personal and specific. When you describe your businesses’ evolutions, you remember the names of those who asked for a feature or product you are working on. How deliberate is this level of attention to your customer’s needs?

 

 

Evangelism is all about the connection. You have to instigate the conversation with really smart people and then listen to them.

Dave: Companies don’t buy things people do. Companies don’t have visions – people have visions. Companies are simply collections of individuals. They may or may not have the capacity to get something done, and they need help. That is why I really embraced the enterprise sale. I understand how to deconstruct the company as a group of individuals who make decisions. I looked for a collection of individuals who I knew who had a vision that was consistent with my vision and then I really focused on how to enable them to be successful. My product vision is ultimately informed by their ideas. I have to give credit to Gil Beda who was my CTO in my first two companies. Gil forced that discipline in me. He forced me to think about product delivery cycles when we first worked in enterprise software and worked on 12-18 month release cycles. The version 1.0 ad server at Real Media was defined by The Chicago Sun Times; v2.0 by The Washington Post and v3.0 was aided by the New York Times. In each case, it was an individual person at each of those companies who helped collaborate on our vision. Version 2.0 was defined by Mike George. He later became a 20-year Amazon veteran who went on to drive Echo, Alexa, and Twitch. Version 3.0 was driven by Martin Nisenholz, who became the CEO of NYTimes Digital.

When we were selling against Netgravity we partnered with Netscape and it was Mike Micucci and Mike McCue who helped us. That is where the personal side of evangelism is helpful. It’s not the institutions that designed our products with us; it was the people.

Evangelism is all about the connection. You have to instigate the conversation with really smart people and then listen to them.

That is why Workfit and Eva is so exciting – because you can capture that listening skill at scale. That is game changing. If I could go back and recover the conversations I had with people in key positions in the past, that would be amazing.

Q. You created Real Media, Simulmedia, Tacoda which were all trend setters. How do you create companies that are early enough to set a trend but not too early?

Dave: I can’t say I always did this by design. When I began, I had no background in business. I wasn’t initially taught to be constrained by profitability. I was trained as a lawyer but had a love for science and a lot of exposure to technology. I coded and wrote games on a Radio Shack TRS 80. I saw that technology would change business, and I knew that I needed to pick the trends well. When you are ahead of a trend, this means you need a lot of evangelism. To do this effectively you need to identify those people that will latch on to your vision and help spread it. You have to refine the vision to be suitable to the market reality. And finally, you need to be an optimist so the cynics cannot dissuade you.

On meetings

Q: In my mind, a good team meeting is a balance of Navy seal fitness test, suspense thriller and cheerleading session. Do your staff meetings favor any one of these forms or others? What meeting styles do you prefer?

 

 

I think people come together in a meeting to confirm that what they are working on is being recognized.

Dave: I think if there was another piece to the puzzle: group validation. I think people come together in a meeting to confirm that what they are working on is being recognized. Especially if those meetings give them a sense of connectedness. A lot of the hardest work is accomplished alone, but we are social animals, and it is that validation we crave. The idea is that we are not alone. Someone has my back. It is like telling our hunting stories around the campfire. It isn’t about going back to a manager, it’s about me going back to my tribe.

On Productivity

Q: Prioritization, presence, responsiveness, and bias for action are all important productivity attributes. Pick the most important ones to you and tell us why it is important.

 

 

Great leaders take pattern recognition on their own and convert those patterns into doctrine to teach many others to process fast.

Dave: Presence is a critical attribute of an effective organization. You realize the difference between someone who is truly present and someone who is not. Someone who has the capacity to hear your thoughts and convey them back to you.

I once sat next to a stranger on a cross-country flight and that time was life changing. That person had presence that was better than anyone I had met before. Later in the flight, I learned that this person had been an astronaut and flew to space six times. He didn’t have a high school degree but acquired three PhDs. He had the capacity to draw you in and to stay engaged.

I am a believer in people and their capacity to get more out of others. Someone who has presence really focuses on interacting and respecting the other person. Doing this maximizes communication and it maximizes what 1 + 1 could equal.

I also believe in responsiveness. I once sent a note to Steve Ballmer after a talk he gave and he responded in 15 minutes. Some organizations are extraordinary at creating methods that help people become responsive. They create doctrines that help you process situations faster.

The US military is another example. One of their doctrines is that you move towards the fire. It is not natural. But the doctrine the US taught was you move towards fire. The doctrine of the English army used to be that at the moment you come under fire, you were to defend the position and then wait for instruction. The US strategy disrupts the person initiating the fire; the doctrine helps process a situation. Great leaders take pattern recognition on their own and convert those patterns into doctrine to teach many others to process fast.

Q: You have run several companies, invested and served as an advisor in many others, which means you have probably learned from other great executives. When you think about the most effective executives, what productivity attributes stick out the most?

Dave: I would say they are highly creative. They are trial and error people who are relentless but got smarter all the time. They don’t get tired of creating and iterating. In the journey to find the product-market fit, they know they are the test case every single time they pitch. They know how to listen and adjust. They are good at sharing what they learn because they love that part of the evolution.

Q: What have I not asked that would help us unlock your best secrets around being productive?

Dave: People need a chance to be inspired. A lot of people aren’t fulfilled or happy at work because they aren’t inspired. You and I have had the benefits of a great education, a chance to meet leaders that we can learn from, leaders that inspired us. A lot of people didn’t have that opportunity. People just need a chance to be inspired.

Think about that astronaut who never graduated from high school. Not only did he become a bio-physicist and a neurosurgeon he flew more missions on the T3 than any man alive and yet he had no high school degree. He inspired me.

*Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.