Ping Identity, MobileDay CEOs Teach Students About Building Companies

It’s not often two of Colorado’s most successful tech executives share what they’ve learned over the course of their careers, but it happened Thursday, when Ping Identity CEO Andre Durand and MobileDay CEO Howard Diamond talked about building businesses.

Durand and Diamond were in Boulder to help kick off the University of Colorado at Boulder’s New Venture Challenge. The event is the school’s campus-wide business plan competition.

The crowd was primarily students interested in the challenge, along with a healthy number of non-student entrepreneurs hoping to learn lessons to apply to their companies.

Durand is founder and CEO of Ping Identity, a network security company based in Denver. The company has raised several rounds of venture capital and is on the shortlist of Colorado software companies that have the potential to go public in the next few years.

Diamond is a Techstars mentor and has a decades-long track record of leading companies that sell software to enterprise customers. He’s trying to repeat that success with MobileDay, which has developed an app that simplifies dialing into conference calls and that helps large companies identify the cheapest ways to make calls.

Here are my takeaways from their remarks:

—Building products is not the same as building a company. Diamond is well known around Boulder for his sales acumen and his ability to sell to enterprise-size companies. He views himself less as a serial entrepreneur than “a business guy,” and he joked that he gets more excited by purchase orders than ideas for products.

What he’s passionate about might not be alluring to new entrepreneurs, but it is crucial for a startup’s success, he said.

“The thing I talk about all the time is how do you take great ideas and turn them into businesses. That’s what I care about,” he said. “I’m not a tech guy, I’m a business guy.”

He would elaborate on that later. “Anyone who is only focused on making a product, but isn’t focused on making a business—that’s a mistake. When you’re creating a business, there’s a whole breadth of things that need to be wrapped around the product,” Diamond said. That includes setting a price point and developing a go-to-market strategy.

Diamond believes history’s on his side, and he’s probably right.

“How many times have we seen mediocre technology beat better technology because the better technology didn’t have strong sales and marketing?” Diamond asked.

—It’s about what the customer thinks. You know the saying, “the customer is always right?” Startups should pay heed to that.

“The only reality is your customer’s reality. If your customer thinks it’s a great product, it’s a great product. If the customer doesn’t think it’s a great product, it’s not a great product,” Durand said.

“If you’re getting your product in front of customers, and you think it’s brilliant, but they don’t think it is, you’re kidding yourself,” Diamond said.

Diamond qualified that idea a bit, saying sometimes startups might have the right product but struggle to find the right customers or develop the right strategies for selling to them. Knowing and developing a customer base is a complicated challenge, he said.

—Be bold and stay confident despite failures… Ideas for great products and business savvy do matter in building a company, but so do self-belief and the ability to stick out the tough times, Durand said.

“Willpower is so incredibly important to success,” Durand said. “I’ve seen extremely brilliant people who are unwilling to take a risk. They’ll analyze a problem to death, and then decide to do nothing. And I’ve seen people who know nothing will their way to success after a period of time and a lot of failures.”

—…but be humble and willing to learn. For all the talk about boldness and confidence, there also was an emphasis on humility. Diamond expanded on that with a quip.

“I’m really good at what I do, and I’m wrong a lot,” Diamond said. He joked he was wrong about 49 percent of the time, but he’s also learned to never stop asking for advice even though he’s had a long career and now is in his 60s.

“Asking for help is something you should do constantly,” Diamond said.

It’s especially important to keep failures in perspective.

“You don’t get anywhere without making a lot of mistakes,” Durand said. “Every failure is a learning moment.”

—Serendipity matters. Sometimes entrepreneurs will need to catch a break to hit it big.

“An enormous amount of what we do, and an enormous amount of what you will do, is going to be hard work and [requires] your passion, but never forget there’s an incredible amount of luck, and an incredible amount of serendipity to it,” Diamond said. “If you have success, sort of by definition, you’ve been in the right place at the right time.”

—Understand the mentor relationship. Entrepreneurs in Colorado talk a lot about the importance of mentorship, but it can be intimidating for young or inexperienced entrepreneurs to ask a successful entrepreneur for help. One reason is they don’t always know what they can offer in exchange for advice.

Durand and Diamond said that doesn’t matter and encouraged the crowd to seek out relationships anyway. They also talked about what mentors get out of the relationship.

“We are not wonderful people who are doing this out of the goodness of our hearts,” Diamond said. “We get so much out of this. We learn, we get intellectual stimulation, we stay fresh. The idea that it’s a one-sided thing is never true of a mentor-mentee relationship.”

Durand said the most rewarding part of the relationship is seeing someone succeed because it tells a mentor his or her advice and help has had an impact.

Potential mentors do sometimes have to turn people away, but that’s not a rejection of the person asking for help. It could even benefit the person seeking help.

Diamond said that when someone approaches him that he can’t help, it’s usually because he doesn’t feel he has the expertise.

“There are people I’ve met with who I think are brilliant and wonderful, but I don’t think I’m the right person to help them,” he said. In that case, he’ll try to connect that person with someone in his network who can.

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