Making a Difference in People’s Lives: How Far Can Technology Take You?
Apr 28, 2015
Most of us choose a certain career path and we follow it until the end of our lives. There are some unique individuals, however, who always seek new ways to make a difference.
One of the most interesting people I have met is Dave Gilbert, President and CEO of SimpleSignal. Dave has pursued different career paths that have all impacted people’s lives in different ways.
After several years as a Christian minister, Dave Gilbert founded SimpleSignal and grew the company to a leading position in the North American cloud communications market. Recipient of Frost & Sullivan’s 2013 Entrepreneurial Company of the Year award in the North American hosted IP telephony and UCC services market, SimpleSignal is one of the most nimble and innovative business communications providers in the region.
On April 1, 2015, Vonage completed the acquisition of SimpleSignal for $25.25 million, which represents a 50 percent premium over anticipated 2015 company revenues. The acquisition is likely to provide considerable synergies and other benefits to the new entity and propel Vonage to one of the highest market share ranks in the North American hosted communications market. The acquisition also marks a new stage in the life of Dave Gilbert. I invited him to share his vision on the future of business communications as well as his perspective on how one can make a difference in other people’s lives.
Elka: Hi Dave. Thanks for agreeing to tell us your story. I’ve known you and your company for years and have been impressed by SimpleSignal’s accomplishments. But what I find particularly interesting is how you came to be involved in delivering cloud communications services to business customers. From what I understand, you were on a completely different career path some 20 years back.
Dave: Yes, at that time I was leading a very fast-growing church in Orange County, CA, called Coast Hills Community Church. One of the things I did was gather a group of businessmen at 6:30 am on Tuesdays for coffee and discussions about life, family and business and how to integrate our faith into it. I was teaching a series on business ethics when a guy approached me afterward and this is how that conversation went:
Mike: “What you are teaching is B.S.! It’s all platitudes. It will never work in the real world."
Dave: “These are time-tested Biblical Principles; if you live your life by these words your life goes better”.
Mike: "You act like you know so much, but how would you know? You’ve never had a real job. Just part-time stuff while you were in school. You went from a Christian college to Seminary to the church."
Dave: “Well, this sure feels like a job.”
Mike: “When have you ever had to make a decision that choosing to not say something or say something unethical could cost you a month of salary? I face that every day. Come work for me. I think you can sell. I’ll hire you and I’ll show you why I think this stuff doesn’t work in real life.”
I came home that night and told my wife about the conversation. I mentioned I thought he was right and maybe I should take a year off and take him up on his dare. If he was serious about hiring me, I told her, I think I should do it. She was shocked. The church was up to three services in a high-school gym and had just purchased a piece of property to ultimately build an amazing campus. My idea seemed like bad timing. But I needed to see if Mike was right.
So I moved from being a minister to a regular guy with a job. Actually I believe this was God’s clear direction out of a life of ministry and it was just as clear a “call-out” as the “call-into” a life of ministry I had received 15 years before. And man, was this ever a journey.
Elka: This is an amazing story, Dave. Can you please tell us if your previous experience as a minister has influenced your ability to create a successful communications services company? Is there anything from your past that enables you to deliver greater value to your customers today?
Dave: When I started SimpleSignal I wanted this to be an example of a company that could flourish while being founded on Biblical ethics and integrity. I also knew that in my “lens” I see the people as the most important thing about a business. After all, the only things that last forever are God and people. That’s why I wanted SimpleSignal to be a place known for being a cool place to work. I loved what John Scully said at Apple when he was addressing an all-employee meeting. “I realize that you will not end up working for Apple for your entire career. But it’s my job to make sure you will be better because you did.” I’ve quoted that many times to my people over the years at our daily “stand-up meeting”. It’s an all-employee meeting that happens for just 10 minutes every morning at 9am MT in a large gathering area where we have a giant video conferencing set-up that lets us conference in our remote employees and sustain the feeling that we are all in this “start-up”t ogether. We openly share stuff that’s working, customer problems we need to work on, new wins, and “Oh, by the way, it’s Tracy’s birthday today. Everyone tell Tracy happy birthday!" It’s raw and mostly unplanned, but it keeps our people engaged in the pulse of the enterprise.
We do other things that demand we hire carefully and get “fully formed adults” to work for us. Stuff like no PTO or vacation policy. Take as much as you need, when you need it. Only two rules. You must have the approval of your peers in your department and you must have the approval of your supervisor. In more than 4 years we’ve had very few abusers of this freedom. It seems to self-govern. When people are empowered they are responsible.
I am very aware of our culture and do all I can to sustain a positive feeling in places such as our national operations center. That’s a pretty high-stress environment. Frustrated customers calling in with bad attitudes can bring a place down. So we do things like have a Tiki bar that shows up regularly to keep things fun.
These are things I value about people and what I want most to build in a successful business is a place where people like coming to work. They are challenged and inspired to do better work because they are challenged by their peers to be better. Not top down.
As we became a Vonage company two weeks ago one of my most cherished moments was when past and present employees approached me saying, “Thank you, if it wasn’t for SimpleSignal, I wouldn’t be where I am today.” That’s the Biblical concept of community. We make each other better…together.
Elka: Technologies are evolving rapidly and becoming increasingly important for both company success and personal well-being. What do you think is most important in technology development today? How do we make sure that technologies are addressing real customer pain points and vendors are not just creating technologies for technologies’sake?
Dave: Finally we are living the promise of the cloud which is work from anywhere, anytime. We are truly a mobile generation. The problem is now we work everywhere, all the time. Now we need technology to protect us. For example, I have the ability to set up my call path so inbound calls buzz all my phones and devices, giving me the option to pick up or automatically route the unanswered call to someone else or to voicemail. I now have just one number for life. We all live on our cell phones and soon on our watches. We won’t be carrying wallets because everything we need is in our phones or watch or who knows where else.
I’m thinking that technology doesn’t necessarily make our lives simpler. But properly managed it can. I love how my personal and business communications are unified and simplified and how my cell phone is integrated into the software I use all day. By the way, I’m looking forward to no longer carrying a wallet. Some would say “Whoa, that’s too much technology”. To me, technology, like fire, can be good or bad. It depends on how you use it.
Elka: What is your vision for the future of SimpleSignal, now part of Vonage, and cloud communications in general?
Dave: The VoIP business space is very fragmented. Like many of the start-ups that were pioneers in VoIP, SimpleSignal was an undercapitalized, scrappy company with big dreams that rose from nothing in 2005 to one of the top 20 Broadsoft UCaaS service providers in the world. However, I knew we could never lead the space. We needed a partner to help us get to the next square on the board. I just read Ben Horowitz's book “The Hard Thing About Hard Things,” and he said, “If you don’t have a good chance of being number one in your market you should sell.” A light came on for me when I read that and I thought, “Vonage is our perfect partner.” They just bought Telesphere, a company just like us so integration will be easier, they appreciate and need what are our greatest strengths, they need our people, and together we could be THE leader in the UCaaS business.
My vision is that now our people get to work every day in an environment that frees them to be their best version of themselves. They have resources to grow with and talented teammates to challenge their thinking. The culture at Vonage Business encourages risk taking and moving quickly yet thoughtfully. So far our people are very excited about the transition and are optimistic that things will continue to get better as we optimize the team. That is my job as I see it: to help define the culture so we keep our talent productive and innovative. I thought about changing my title to “Bus Driver” as I keep in mind Jim Collins' famous quote, “Get the right people on the bus. Then, make sure everyone is sitting in the right seat.”
I think it is safe to say that the Cloud Communications business space is still very new with huge opportunity in front of it. The big logos are just now coming into the competitive market and the enterprise customers are finally opening up to the idea that they trust the cloud with their communications. In the last two years we’ve seen amazing growth in nearly every cloud communications service provider. It’s an exciting time. I’m so glad I get to be part of it.
Elka: Thanks, Dave. Finally, what’s next for you? Do you think you will start a new technology company or go back to being a spiritual leader?
Dave: After two months of negotiations and diligence getting the business sold, I’m just now starting to think about my future. I see two roads. One leads to the world of commerce. Possibly staying on with Vonage, if we agree that I can add value to their team. Another possibility is that I may find myself leading another company someday. The other road leads to a more meaningful and spiritual life. I sort of did my career in a strange way. Most guys my age are just now getting a chance to steer their careers in a spiritual direction. But I did that young. I went to Seminary, started a church, then abruptly went into what I call my “tower building” phase of life. Now I am considering heading back into a full-time ministry direction, but probably not in a traditional role as a pastor. I'd like to speak to business people specifically. But having lived most of my life blending my business with my spiritual life, I would like to think I can find a way to encourage business people by helping them combine their day-to-day business lives with their spiritual lives. I believe this balance makes us better business people.
In my life I’ve learned that when I strive to find a clear direction things only get more fuzzy. It’s when I let go, wait on God, stay true to my purpose and wait to be led that the right thing to do becomes so clear, I can’t miss it. I have faith that moment will eventually appear. It always has.
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