Lars Dalgaard, the billionaire founder of SuccessFactors, was known for his innovation–and his tough leadership style. A former employee reflects.
The tech world was abuzz recently with news that Lars Dalgaard, notoriously insane innovator, was stepping down from his post as head of all things cloud at SAP and joining Andreessen Horowitz as General Partner. Lars was the founder of SuccessFactors, which makes cloud-based HR software and was one of the earliest and most successful cloud vendors. SAP acquired the company in 2011 for $3.4 billion.
I worked directly for Lars at SuccessFactors in the early days, building the marketing communication function from scratch and taking it through the IPO and to nearly $200 million in revenue before leaving in 2009.
When I say Lars was “insane” I’m not using hyperbole. Many an article has been written about his quirky ways, and those of us on the inside know what a crazy place it was to work. It wasn’t always an easy environment, but it was highly productive and most of Lars’ insanity was about driving a pace of innovation that was hard to match. In the early days, we had competition, yes, but we shot ahead so fast I can barely remember those has-been company names. To be honest, I did curse Lars’ name more than once, but I know most of my colleagues will agree with me that working under Lars was the most impactful, career-changing experience they’ve had, and because of it many of us have gone on to create and fuel innovative and thriving cloud companies ourselves (see The Lingering Impact of SuccessFactors Alumni).
There are hundreds of things I took away from my experience working for Lars. Here are six of my big takeaways.
1. The status quo is lame.
Lars never wanted to do anything like anyone else. As a Danish native he didn’t grow up in the tech world of the Bay Area, and he was constantly reminding us that we were not to do anything “how everyone else in the Valley does it.” Lars was always trying to find new ways of marketing, selling, designing, coding. If you said to him, “This is the current trend for website design” you’d get thrown out. If instead you came up with a creative and different way of approaching something, he was an enthusiastic collaborator. And he was never afraid to take risks and be proven wrong in some areas, because in other areas the new ideas were changing the game.
Lars’ way of thinking is now engrained in me as a leader. When my team sets strategies that resemble the status quo, I typically send them back to the brainstorming room.
2. Don’t take no for an answer.
Lars never accepted no from his people. He had big and crazy ideas that would produce jaw-dropping moments of pain for me–but they also ultimately resulted in jaw-dropping results. Once, two days before a huge conference, Lars came in with all new ideas and asked to change the entire format to something that had never been done. (Actually, Lars didn’t ask, he told.) I had to fight my reaction to say “that simply can’t be done.” I walked away and gathered my team in the brainstorm room. In the end, we pulled off his wishes, and that conference ended up as one of the most unique and game-changing events I have ever been a part of. And the fact that we executed on the seemingly impossible, empowered us to feel we could do anything.
3. Talk to customers. Constantly.
Much like many other enterprise tech companies, part of our brand at SuccessFactors was our “customer focus.” With Lars it wasn’t just marketing speak; he truly believed that the key to success was staying in constant communication with customers. And not just the leadership team, he wanted everyone in the company interacting with customers. We had programs where we divided up every customer account among all employees, and we were required to make contact with our personal customer list every quarter. If you didn’t call your customers, your picture was up on the Wall of Shame for all to see.
Once, an angry customer called to give Lars feedback on some product issues. Lars emailed the conference call-in number to the entire company and required us all to listen to the concerns. Customers’ problems were all of our problems, and customers’ goals were our goals. Being singularly focused in this way got results, over and over.
4. Look bigger than you are.
Lars has a big, dynamic personality and a way of always seeming like the most important person in the room. Early on, the press wrote about Salesforce.com as the poster child for software-as-a-service. We knew we needed to be one of the two or three in the cloud crowd. Even though we were orders of magnitude smaller, a core tenet of our marketing strategy was to look and act much bigger than we were. This meant heavier investment in visible marketing activities like events and PR, and focused work in cultivating large brand name customers to advocate our solution publicly.
A few months before our third-ever customer conference, Lars decided that Jack Welch should be our keynote speaker (see above for jaw-dropping moment). Once I finally secured him, Lars decided that instead of Jack delivering the keynote alone, we would hold a moderated “fireside chat” between Jack and Lars. Though Lars was very respectful and appropriately deferential to Jack’s legendary status, it still gave the subtle impression that Lars and Jack were on more equal footing. And the hundreds who attended the event walked away with the view that SuccessFactors was way bigger than the smallish company we actually were at the time.
5. Never be satisfied.
Even if something worked perfectly, Lars still wanted to change it up the next time.
He didn’t spend all his time focused on SuccessFactors, he devoured information about everything and was always on top of unrelated industries and trends. In the middle of the night he would email me innovative examples that he found on some website from some completely unrelated company and say “we should do this.” Though at 6 a.m. I would cringe at the extra work and wish he could be satisfied just once with the great things we were already accomplishing, I dutifully took the idea and found some way to move the needle with it. Keeping everyone on their toes all the time made for some tired employees, but we were surely moving the company forward at lightening speed.
6. Care for your people.
On the outside, it may appear that Lars was a ruthless leader with no regard for his people, but actually the reverse is true. Days before I was moving to London to help lead SuccessFactors’ European expansion, my car was stolen. Only it wasn’t just taken from my driveway, it was taken by a professional con artist who gave me a fake cashiers check that bounced in my account after I’d paid off the car lease. The thief had my car and I had a checking account tens of thousands of dollars in arrears. Lars went to our CFO immediately and said, “if SuccessFactors can’t lend her the money to get this straight, I will do it personally.”
And that was just one of many examples of the times I knew that even though Lars was tough on me, he ultimately cared about me and had my back. I can honestly say that I think Lars would have knocked down walls for me, and in return I would have done the same, as would have the thousands of other employees who worked there. And we did, on a daily basis.
All of these lessons (any many more) that I learned from Lars have shaped me into the leader I am today. Though my style is different than Lars, and I might lead in a “nicer” way, my team at ServiceMax knows that we don’t do status quo, that we can achieve the unachievable, that customer success is all that matters, and that I always have their back.
Stacey Epstein: Stacey is VP of Marketing at ServiceMax, a leading SaaS start-up. Previously she was VP of Global Marketing Communications at SuccessFactors, where she was instrumental in the company’s successful IPO. @staceyepstein