TeleSign Co-Founders Share Their Best Advice
I had the opportunity to interview two of the founder of software success story TeleSign as part of my Lessons in Leadership series in Thrive Global: Darren Berkovitz and Ryan Disraeli. Darren was one of the three founders and is a buddy of my from college (we were classmates at USC’s Marshall School of School). Ryan Disraeli, another co-founder and the current CEO of TeleSign, is a fellow Trojan alum who, like me, is a self-described Southern Californian through and through. TeleSign’s services are used by 21 of the top 25 largest internet companies, and in 2017 TeleSign was sold to BICS for $330 million dollars. Here are some of the highlights:
Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?
Darren: Failures and setbacks were the name of the game at TeleSign. We hired the wrong people, went after the wrong markets, and made plenty of execution mistakes. Having said that, we always kept going and didn’t give up, even with little progress to show in the early days. Eventually we made the right decisions, and I think that persistence is what allowed us to power through the hard times to make TeleSign successful.
Ryan: I was a teenager when we started, and that comes with a lot of challenges and learning curves. When we first launched, it was hard to get clients because we were a tiny company, and we didn’t have the credibility that customers looked for when handling such a critical part of their infrastructure. When we faced tough challenges, it always felt like it was game over in the moment. But a year later, each of those challenges leads to something transformative and positive for the company as they were drivers for change. An early example of this is when in the beginning years, one of our largest clients threatened to leave because fraudsters had found a way around our current product that had initially blocked almost all their fraud. This situation led us to develop and innovate as a company to address market needs and ended up being the beginning of a new data product release for TeleSign. It forced us to recognize the need to always challenge assumptions and continuously innovate.
Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?
Darren: Find the why behind what you are doing. Ask yourself why I am doing this? If you get a compelling reason you can pretty much do anything.
Slow down: Too much of society is rushed and people focus on instant gratification and easy explanations. The opposite is often true to really accomplish special things: you must slow down, dig deep below the surface, and put in the hard work.
Spend time understanding psychology and human behavior: Understanding why people do the things they do will help you thrive in the business world and your personal life.
Ryan: So much of success is tied to finding and keeping the best possible people. In a startup environment, talent isn’t always defined by experience or whether the person has done the job before. In our early days, we couldn’t afford to hire employees that had many years of experience in the role. So, we had to focus on finding people with the attributes we thought would make them successful at our company – intellectual aptitude, curiosity, passion, desire to learn. Many of our best new hires embodied these types of attributes and were many times more successful than the hires that came with many years of experience. Hire great people and empower them.
It is also essential to find balance, which I admittedly am working on improving myself. Startups can be emotionally draining – the highs can feel extraordinarily high, and the lows can feel incredibly low. These cycles are emotionally draining. We are all constantly connected, and it is important to have hobbies or routines that enable you to disconnect from work.
Finally, it is important to always be listening to customers. Many entrepreneurs launch companies and spend several cycles, perfecting their product before actively getting customer feedback. This can be wasted time if you aren’t evolving quickly to customer needs.
Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?
Ryan: I always look at how leaders handle a crisis. It is easy to be perceived as an effective leader when everything is going well, but it is a much bigger challenge during hard times. I travel a lot for work and whenever a plane hits turbulence, I always instantly look at the flight attendants or the tone of the pilot on the announcements. If they are calm and composed, as they usually are, then I am instantly relaxed. Companies are the same. There are going to be moments of turbulence and teams will look at how you react – are you as calm as the flight attendants or are you creating a culture of chaos when things aren’t perfect?
Effective leaders also build teams based on a foundation of trust. It is vital for teams to be able to be vulnerable with each other and ask for help. A culture where this type of environment is encouraged is critical to ultimately driving results.
Darren: I think the best quote on leadership comes from Lao Tzu:
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
The best leaders I’ve come across aren’t out for credit and prefer to lead from the background, taking pride in their teams’ accomplishments and letting the work and results speak for themselves.
Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?
Ryan: Many leadership styles can be successful but that it is important to be yourself and develop your own style. It is very easy to spot when a leader is not being authentic.
Darren: The best advice I ever received was to be obsessed with process but unattached to outcome. Most of the world is not controllable, so focusing on what you can control and being ok if it rains on your parade is paramount. It’s a hard skill to master, but one that is infinitely valuable.