Mark Dankberg is the co-founder and CEO of Viasat which produces satellite and other digital communication products that enable fast, secure, and efficient communications to any location. He took the company public in 1996. Viasat has a $5 billion market cap at the moment. Viasat has made more than 12 acquisitions.
In this episode you will learn:
- Product creation
- How to keep an even keel in good and tough times
- What drives company culture
- How reading and podcasts keep him growing as a leader
- Getting out of your own way
- The bliss of ignorance when launching your own startup
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About Mark Dankberg:
Mark co-founded Viasat Inc. in 1986 and has led the company’s rapid growth. He has held the position of Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer since inception.
Under his leadership, Viasat has consistently been one of Americas fastest growing technology companies. As a start-up, Viasat was selected to the Inc. 500 list of fastest growing private companies three times. After listing on the NASDAQ exchange in 1996 Viasat has been recognized multiple times by leading business and industry publications including BusinessWeek, Forbes, Fortune, Red Herring, DefenseNews, Space News, and Washington Technology for its exceptional performance and growth.
Mark is an acknowledged industry expert in aerospace, defense, and satellite communications, and is the leading visionary for a new generation of high-capacity satellite systems. He has co-authored several military standards on satellite networking, and holds a number of patents in communications and satellite networking technologies. He has participated on Department of Defense advisory panels and was invited to testify before a Congressional committee on high technology growth companies and IPOs.
He has also been an invited speaker on communication technology, entrepreneurship, and executive management at several universities including Rice University, NYU, and University of California at San Diego. He was a founding member of the board of directors of the San Diego Telecom Council (now CommNexus), and served on the San Diego County Regional Economic Advisory Board. In addition, he has been invited to serve as a judge several times at the local and national levels for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year program.
Mark began his career with the Collins Radio Division of Rockwell International, and at Linkabit Corp in San Diego, where he held positions in engineering, technical management and business segment management.
He earned B.S. EE and M.S. EE degrees from Rice University and is a member of the Rice University Electrical and Computer Engineering Hall of Fame.
Connect with Mark Dankberg:
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FULL TRANSCRIPTION OF THE INTERVIEW:
Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone and welcome to the DealMakers show. Today we’re going to be learning a lot about starting, scaling, financing, IPO, you name it. Without further ado, Mark Dankberg welcome to the show today.
Mark Dankberg: Thanks for having me.
Alejandro: Originally born in New York City out of Long Island. How was life being born and raised there, and I understand then you moved to LA? How was life growing up?
Mark Dankberg: I thought it was fine when I lived in New York. I remember it was cold, but it was fun. But I like Southern California a lot better. I’ve been there ever since.
Alejandro: Obviously, I’m in New York City, so I do not recommend the cold. I can relate to that, but how did you develop the love for engineering because I know that you studied electrical engineering at Rice. So, how did you develop a love for that?
Mark Dankberg: I don’t know. I think I always liked gadgets. I liked math and science, and I always liked reading. I remember from when I was young, I was reading about space. Certainly, space was a big thing growing up in the 1960s. There was the space program. I liked computers, building things, and I just got drawn into it somehow.
Alejandro: Why space? What was attracting you about space?
Mark Dankberg: Oh, the whole thing about going to the moon was so incredible. It captured people’s imagination. It’s a little bit hard to believe, but there were so many launches. Growing up, there was the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo program, and there were so many launches leading up to it. I guess it was just always at the forefront of the news. It’s hard to imagine anything more exciting besides sports. That was the other big thing I liked, but I wasn’t good at sports. I felt I could be good at engineering, so that was a more natural choice.
Alejandro: Really cool. Then you end up in Rice, and then you’re taking engineering a little bit more seriously. What was this process and experience for you?
Mark Dankberg: I always thought it was fun. I really enjoyed engineering. I liked computers, and that was one of the things my father did was he got involved in computer systems engineering in the ’60s. He would show me computers. We’d go to his office and work at IBM for a while. So, I’d see computers. I learned how to interface with them and program them. There were times even in high school, where I got to program computers on timeshare. That whole thing about programming was really interesting. Then in the mid to late ’70s when I was at Rice, that was just the start of microprocessors, so you could have your own computer. You make your own computer program, machine language and assembly language. Then in the late ’70s also, digital signal processing became a thing, so you could actually do these really cool things with computers. Not just do hotel reservation systems, but you could do things that you could interact with. It was just really fun. It captured my imagination. I didn’t really have a good understanding of what it would be like or what it meant from a career perspective, but I thought there was something there, and I thought that would be something I would like to do.
Alejandro: Obviously, computers have matured quite a bit. Back then, you needed a moving company to move the computer. Now you can carry it out in your pocket.
Mark Dankberg: Yeah. When I was at Rice, it was still punch card time. If you were going to do things, you know, programming computer architecture courses it was always build, you know, make a deck of punch cards, submit it, hang around, and wait till you got your job back. It was just at the end of grad school where I got to use mini computers where you could interact with them directly. There were also programmable calculators which were pretty powerful at the time. You could program those, and you could hook them up and do all this research. That was just fun stuff. It turned out to be really relevant to my career, so it was good stuff to learn.
Alejandro: Absolutely. I understand that after Rice, you did your fair amount of sharing in corporate, and you had a couple of positions. Could you walk us through what those roles were that you had, and what did you learn from them?
Mark Dankberg: When I first started, I worked at a Collins Radio division at Rockwell. Collins Radio is a really interesting company that had been started by Arthur Collins as an entrepreneur and grew the company pretty steadily, but I think in the late ’60s, early ’70s (I’m not quite sure which) they ran into some financial troubles and it was acquired by Rockwell. Rockwell is a good conglomerate, but Collins Radio is still around today as a really interesting company. I learned a lot there. One of the things I learned that probably influenced me a lot, I learned I was actually pretty good at communication systems, which was interesting because I hadn’t really done that. In college, I had been more engineering. I learned I could be good at it. The other thing I got exposed to was working with customers, which for them was mostly in the defense industry. I learned that people who could bridge a business purposes, like why were we doing the things that we’re doing, and then what was the technology, and where was the technology going. Those people were valuable, and customer liked talking to me. That was really helpful in learning what the market wanted. It was really influential in my career. But then, the other thing I learned there was it was a big, big company. At the time, Rockwell was in rocket engines and power tools. It was a big conglomerate, and there were some real issues in what a conglomerate could do or the rate at which it could adapt to changes in the market. So, I was really interested in smaller companies just to find out what that was like.
Alejandro: So then, let’s talk about the next experience you had here with Linkabit. What was that? What did you learn there?
Mark Dankberg: It was really interesting. It was a pretty small company. I joined there in ’79, and maybe around 300 people. It was started and run by ex-university professors, Irwin Jacobs, Andrew Viterbi were the two principles who were both extremely famous and well deserved in communications there. Very theoretical stuff, but had found some really interesting applications. I think what I got out of there was really another level of rigor and theoretical analysis, and what you could gain by applying that level of theoretical knowledge to real practical problems in communication applications. I also got to learn more about this whole issue about the inner section between business and the technology. It was really good for my career. I think I learned a ton there.
Alejandro: This was actually what led you to launch your business. We’ll get into this in quite a bit, but you are the founder that I’ve interviewed that has stayed the most at a company. You founded this company in 1986. Is that right?
Mark Dankberg: Yes.
Alejandro: It’s unbelievable. Let’s talk about the incubation process of this idea. How do you start thinking about the concept, and what is that day where you finally give your notice at Linkabit, and you say, “I’m going to build a business out of this?”
Mark Dankberg: Linkabit was really interesting. I was there from ’79 to ’86 when we started Viasat. The company grew by at least a factor of 5 in employees. So, we went from about 300 people to over 1,500 by the time I left. It had been acquired by a company called Maycom. Maycom had a fair amount of resources that they could put into Linkabit. Linkabit was a really strong systems company. So, I learned a lot about thinking about big systems, what the role of digital communications was in there. In the ’80s, was really interesting because I remember one of the big things right around 1980 timeframe was Apple going public, which that was a pretty big indication of what the potential was for people in digital electronics and digital hardware. Apple was computing. We were communications, but you could see the potential for communications. In the early ’80s, you had the first inklings of things like email. Linkabit had university ties and we had an email system. That was really powerful. We had networked computers that were really interesting. That was all pretty early because one of the things Linkabit did was we had involvements with Arbinet. We were looking at extensions of Arbinet through satellites. I was into packet networks at an early time. Arbinet and Packernet would evolve into the internet. So, you could see all these things swirling around and that there was a lot of potential. Irwin Jacobs, who went on to found Cloudcom. He and some others left Linkabit in ’85. They had some really good vision on what was going to matter. We could see that stuff happening at Linkabit, but also saw as Linkabit grew so fast, there were a lot of changes. It went from a really small company to a big company competing with other big companies. I think there were things in my experience at Linkabit that I thought, “These things could be done better as a company. I would say one of the factors that influenced me in thinking about starting Viasat and has still been one of the things front and center as we’ve grown. This whole issue about staying there for such a long time was how do you grow and scale a company and not lose the things that made it so exciting as a small company? What is that? How do small companies become more bureaucratic and less fun? How can you avoid those things? The thing we had in our mind when we started Viasat was less about the classic startup, which has always got a great product. Here’s this thing the world needs, and we’re going to go make that and be really good at it. We didn’t know what that was. We really did not have a product idea when we started the company. What I had in mind and the two co-founders who started the company with me, who are still here had in mind was there should be a way to do this that makes things more fun, basically, and still can be really profitable, but there could be some organizing principles in some ways about building a company that could be better.
Alejandro: How did you meet your co-founders?
Mark Dankberg: We all worked together at Linkabit. Linkabit had an incredible engineering workforce. Because it was started by university professors, as I mentioned; good, close ties to universities. They hired a bunch of their former students, and they had a strong network among other really good academics. So, Linkabit was able to hire a lot of really strong new graduates. I think that was the strength of the company. There was a handful of really good senior people; senior being maybe in their 40s. Also, lots of really strong people right out of school, which is one of the things I learned that that was definitely the way to grow a company. That was the environment. There were three of us that worked together at Linkabit. I was a systems guy. I dealt with customers. Steve Hart, who was one of the other founders, was really strong in big software architecture, math, network security, and cryptography. Mark Miller was really strong in digital communication systems theory, but also in hardware design. The three of us had worked together for a few years and had put together some very successful space projects, systems projects. We really enjoyed working together. I think we had a lot of mutual respect. Among the three of us, we spanned a lot of technology in business and market knowledge. That was it. We had worked together. We liked it. I remember we were at a company party one evening. We were sitting together at a table, and our wives all got up at the same time to go to the ladies’ room. I told them, “I’m thinking about starting a company. Would you guys want to do that?” They both said, “Yes” before the wives came back. So, that was it. Then it was quite a while; I’d say months to a year later. They were really committed, and that was great because it would have been really hard without them.
Alejandro: Was there a specific event that was for you the event that triggered you to say, “Today’s the day I give my notice because this is going to happen?”
Mark Dankberg: We started in the spring of ’86. In the spring of ’85, Irwin Jacobs left Linkabit, which was a fairly traumatic thing. By the end of the summer, he had taken a pretty good contingent of others along and started Qualcomm. Originally, it was just he who left. By the end of the summer of ’85, there were eight or nine people gone that were all key people. By then, I was only 30 and Vice President at Linkabit and had a big group. I was running a business area. The hardest part about starting a company, I felt, was leaving behind all the friends, maybe 150 people that worked for me at Linkabit, so leaving them behind was a negative part of it. Actually, the catalyst was we were working on winning a big satellite program for Linkabit, one of the largest development programs they had. The three of us worked together to land that program. We signed the contract, had the kickoff meeting with the customer. Then we felt, “Okay. Now, we can leave,” and that we weren’t going to feel bad because we had created some momentum for the people in the business who were leaving behind. That actually was the catalyst. We turned in our resignation right after we had that kickoff meeting.
Alejandro: What was that night where you went to your house after giving your resignation? What was going through your head and through your wife’s head?
Mark Dankberg: I think my wife was just confident. For some reason, she felt like I had been successful in my career. She was very supportive. She didn’t act worried. But there was a bad thing that happened at Linkabit that turned out to be motivational. I turned in my resignation. There’s a VP that ran the division said, “Okay. This is going to be a big deal. Why don’t you go home, and we’ll figure out how to announce that to the rest of the company.” So, I did that afternoon. He called me later that afternoon and said, “Well, we don’t want you to come back. We think it’s going to be too disruptive.” I don’t know if he was thinking that I was going to try to poach people. He said, “Don’t come back.” That made me mad because I hadn’t had a chance to even talk to all the people that worked for me and explain what we’re doing and why. Immediately after that, I said, “Okay. I’m out.” That was not good. I started calling people I knew in the industry and said, “I’ve left Linkabit, and we’re starting a new company.” That same evening, I had two big company customers say, “Wow. If you’re out, we want to hire your company immediately. Can you start tomorrow?” So, the fact that they did that, that really motivated me to get things going was a big confidence boost actually.
Alejandro: Were you getting some revenues right away?
Mark Dankberg: Instantly. Yeah.
Alejandro: Wow. Just out of curiosity, what kind of revenues was that in the first month, for example?
Mark Dankberg: The other thing that happened, which was also pretty motivating was, they figured I was the ring leader, and they worked really hard on my two co-founders. They forced them to stay. “Give two-weeks’ notice, and then they just every day tried to alternately bribe them or threaten them to not join us. But they did. They’re high in integrity, and they wanted to leave. So, they came, and that was also a boost. We literally had no money. Each of us had little kids and big mortgages. So, we were working out of my house. We did about $300,000 in revenue that first year. That was $25,000 a month. That’s what we were doing. Right from the beginning, we worked for big aerospace companies. We were helping them on their own satellite projects. That’s how we got started.
Alejandro: Back then, $300,000 right off the bat, with 20K a month. Mark, I’ve got to tell you that with inflation and everything, that’s really good if we adjust it to today.
Mark Dankberg: Yeah, it was a good start. By the end of the first year, one of the things that was really important was trying to figure out, “We have to be profitable. We have no money.” So, we raised $300,000 of venture capital during that first year. Probably three or four months after we started, which let us move out of my house and actually get an office and buy a real printer and copy machine, so we didn’t have to stop at Kinkos all the time. By the end of that first year, I think the last couple of months we were profitable, which was a big deal for us. We had added two people. We were starting to be on our way. I think that was my big objective at the beginning was to last a year so that it wouldn’t be totally embarrassing.
Alejandro: Basically, you had given yourself about 12 months to really make this thing work?
Mark Dankberg: Well, I wouldn’t say it was 12 months to make it work. It was really just a question of would we run out of money? Would we get to the point where we just couldn’t hang on? We did. We were able to hang on. We raised the $300,000. It turned out we probably didn’t have to have it because we were just always busy and growing. One of the things that’s kind of amazing, and we are pretty proud of it. I think in 33 years, there might be one year where we were flat in revenue, but I think we’ve grown every year for 33 years. We grew fast back in the beginning. The numbers were small. Growth rate was high. It took quite a while before it compounded into something really interesting. We grew steadily.
Alejandro: Talking about steadily, I just saw a report today that you guys did annual revenues of 2.1 billion. So, probably now looking back, you might be getting some vertigo-type of thing when you see the height that you have reached. Just for the people that are listening, Mark, what ended up being the business model of Viasat?
Mark Dankberg: What we wanted to do from the beginning one of the things we learned at Linkabit was we did really, really good systems engineering, but the way we made money was by selling products. So, the thing we really wanted to do was we wanted to avoid getting trapped as consultants where we were just selling our expertise and be able to turn our expertise into products. Those could have been subsystems or modules or boxes that we sold to clients, but we wanted things to be tangible. So, the phases we went through was first, just trying to turn our skill into products we could sell. That was the business model for 20 years, but a big part of what’s catalyzed our growth for the last 10 years is we realized we were making these satellite ground systems primarily, grounding things up, could go in aircraft or ships or ground, but they all used satellites in space for the transmission. What we realized was people weren’t making satellites very well. There were business reasons and other business model reasons where the owners of satellites either didn’t understand how to make really high-band satellites or didn’t want to. So, probably about ten years ago, we really started focusing on services as the business model. So, think of it as first, we sold products that other people who delivered services or used satellite services would buy our technology, but we realized the much bigger landscape, bigger business was owning and operating satellites and making the best satellites, and that would allow us to deliver the best services. Then, our technology became a means to an end as opposed to the product in itself. There were a lot of evolutionary steps along the way, but that business model is what can carry us for growth along the lines of what we’ve had even going forward.
Alejandro: You were talking about venture capital and the fact that you guys raised $300,000 from, I think it was Southern California Ventures.
Mark Dankberg: Yes.
Alejandro: So, we’re talking about years ago. How would you say that the venture capital space as a whole has transitioned to where it is today?
Mark Dankberg: Oh, boy. We’ve only been peripherally involved. One thing we realized early on was that we were really fortunate in working with Southern California Ventures because they were honorable people. They let us grow the company in a way that was good for the company. It was also really good for them. It was like 100:1 return for them when we went public in ’96. But their fund had issues, and they had to do some work with their limited partners in order to preserve our independence along the way. We really appreciated that. Their attitude was good. They let us grow in a way that was good for us. I’d say one of the things I think has seemed to let things go cyclically but seemed to have bounced back is that I think now there’s a lot of basically respect for entrepreneurs and the drive that really strong entrepreneurs can have and how important they are to the success of a company. I think they treated me and our founding team well as entrepreneurs. I think maybe there were time in-between the ’80s, ’90s, and today where it wasn’t quite the same where the entity was maybe perceived as more independent from the entrepreneurs. But I would say now, the amount of money that goes into the biggest funds, it’s very difficult for them to deal with little startups like us. Now, the kinds of money that we were raising, even if you were to escalate it for inflation, it’s more than a round of angel investors. It’s really hard to find startup. I think, from my perception of the venture industry, it’s hard to find venture capital investors who can really take the time to invest in little companies that don’t know what they’re doing. Which was sort of us.
Alejandro: Got it. You were eluding to it; you guys did the IPO. How much capital did you guys raise prior to going public?
Mark Dankberg: That was it. We raised $300,000, and we probably sold another few hundred thousand to employees in the ten years. We had a plan that the venture investors agreed to that we would issue some amount of stock only to new employees, which we did, and they bought it along the way. But I think our total capital raised was well under a million dollars when we went public in ’96.
Alejandro: Then that 100:1 that you were alluding to makes total sense. They probably invited you to dinner or a drink, I can imagine.
Mark Dankberg: It worked out well. I think they were happy. One of the things that is also amazing is that pretty much all the venture partners and even the limited partners held onto Viasat stock. I think many of them, almost all of it from ’96 till now. It’s still been a really good investment because we’ve grown. I think we’re valued at 25 million was our market cap when we went public. Today, it’s over 5 billion. So, it’s been a good run for them since as well.
Alejandro: For sure. For the listeners, if they want to take a look at this, they can see that when you guys IPOed, that was around $4 a share, and now you are at about $90 a share, which is unbelievable. What a run. You had the opportunity to live the dot-com boom, and I the dot-com bust. Right?
Mark Dankberg: Yes.
Alejandro: So, what did you learn from that environment and going through that storm?
Mark Dankberg: Yeah, that was really interesting because, in the run-up to the bust in the mid to late ’90s, the internet was becoming way more important. Then there was this issue about what are the transmission means going to be? Remember, this was in the late ’90s. There were no cable modems even. There was hardly any DSL. So, there were enterprise networks. It was very confusing about what was going to create value. Mobile was becoming a big thing, but there was really little in the way of mobile data. So, we were watching this. We had gone public, and actually, the thing we learned going public was a means to an end. It was a whole new learning experience for me and the company about how to relate to investors, and what did investors want. We could certainly see that there’s a lot of the rationality in that, and we were trying to relate what people were investing in to what was going on. We could see that satellites had a role in this. There were a bunch of satellite startups, a lot of which were disasters. That was when Iridium and Globalstar were multi-billion-dollar investments, but so were things like Global Village and Worldcom and Imran. There was just mass confusion. Tons of capital, not very sophisticated investors. One of the things I’d say we learned well was to just not chase what was happening what the investment banks or the analysts were telling us. The thing that was interesting about us was, we had a growing and good defense business. We saw applications to commercial, and we saw these synergies between them. But there was this web-saw thing where people would say in the ’90s it was like, “Get rid of your defense business. Turn yourself into a pure commercial internet broadband business, and you’ll be worth way more than you are now. We didn’t do that because we’d seen how we had grown basically from profits and cash flow. We said, “It’s good to have those things, and we get R&D.” Then the crash happened, and everybody said, “Dump all your broadband businesses. Just stay with defense.” No, that wasn’t a good idea either. So, we really had to navigate those things for ourselves. I would say there were times when that made it harder dealing with investors, but also the single, biggest thing in the boom was we were subcontracting to Boeing when they were going to do Connexion by Boeing, which was the first inflight internet service. We were working for a locked and TRW startup that was going to enterprise broadband by satellite. We were working for a company called WildBlue that was going to do consumer internet by satellite. All three of those things in the fall of 2001 ran into big problems, either from 9/11, or the stock market meltdown, or mergers. We had a really tough period there where we had literally hundreds of millions of dollars of business go away almost overnight. If you look at our stock history, there was a time in the early 2000s where our stock was back down to like $3 a share because of that, but we navigated. It was really stressful, but we navigated it. I think that combination of defense and commercial and consumer is what sustained us all that time.
Alejandro: I guess during those times, I’m sure it was incredibly stressful for you, Mark. How do you typically, like during super stressful situations like when you’re out of work, how do you reenergize to get back and tackle this?
Mark Dankberg: One thing, I try to keep an even keel. We’re never as smart as people think we are when things are going well, and we’re never as dumb as people think we are when things don’t look so good. I try to make sure to be rational about things. I felt like we still had a lot of potential. One of the things that I would say has been really helpful for me, and for the company as a whole, is just going back to the way we started the company, which was really about building a company and a team more than trying to, let’s say, cash in on a product idea is that we have had a really close-knit team that has been together for a long time. I think we all support each other well, and we have a lot of confidence in each other. I think that helped everybody at the toughest of times, which is knowing the quality of the team. I think also, early on, I mentioned this thing about engineering and business kind of like sports teams. I really like playing team sports. I like basketball. I think you develop the sense of camaraderie on a team that is really fun, it’s enjoyable, and it’s powerful for the best teams. I think that’s what we wanted to develop as a company. I think the fact that we were more focused on the company’s growth as opposed to just cashing in on a particular product really paid dividends in those tough times because there was such a strong sense of teamwork among us. I think in a really strong team everybody has a role. I had my own role, but I’ve always seen my job as just there are certain things I can do, and I can count on other people to do their parts well, which they always did. I don’t know if it makes sense to you, but that combination, and the teamwork, and sense of camaraderie, that was a big factor in helping the whole company pull through those tough times.
Alejandro: Got it. You were eluding to it that the co-founders are still around. I think that the culture is everything. The 33 years is quite a bit of time, and we all know that entrepreneurship has no such thing as a straight line. It’s really not. Mark, I want to ask you, what would you say has been perhaps the biggest breakdown that has led to the biggest breakthrough in the history of the business that would create like an unbelievable culture and environment?
Mark Dankberg: I think cultures I think they evolve. One of the things I learned, once you get above a few hundred people, most of culture evolves indirectly. Certainly, CEO and the leaders through things like all hands, or your actions can have an impact on culture. Especially for us, one of the things that we ended up doing early on was we decided that we would have multiple geographic locations so that we could be close to customers. The other was so that we could recruit people who wanted to live in places like Boston or Washington. Especially when you have multi-sites, which we’ve been for a very long period of time, your culture evolves through these shared experiences and the things that people think are important. So, I think we’re really fortunate in the way the culture evolved, but a lot of it comes not just from the things we do, but the people that you hire, the reasons that they come to work, what are the things that they like because those are the things that they will share and reinforce. One of the things that’s really interesting to me is, when I go to our different locations, you can see the key leaders there will maybe even focus on culture in an explicit way more than we did in the home office here in San Diego because they want the new hires who weren’t exposed to me and the rest of the company to understand what our values were. It was really interesting seeing how they wrote those down and captured them and explained them. I think the thing that really was amazing to me was seeing how they had written down stuff that we just sort of did by instinct, but they had captured it really well. That’s when I knew that we really had a culture and what people really appreciate. They still do. I think if you talk to people who work here, even new hires, there are some really unique things about the company, which I think go to trust for employees. We expect them to perform well. I’ve really not been big on things like organization charts because when we were small, one of our strengths was that people would do whatever was needed at the time. They didn’t think of themselves as having specific positions. Like Mark Miller, the co-founder is fabulous on communication systems theory. He would buy parts. He would solder on benches. He would pack stuff up to ship. Steve Hart would do anything that we needed. That’s what the whole team did. I think that cultural thing is something that you want to preserve. We had all these people that really wanted to preserve that. I think that’s what happened.
Alejandro: I completely get that because ultimately, culture is all about the founders, and then it’s something that people get just influenced by, and it just takes a life of its own within the corporation. I can actually get that. One thing here is, when you are growing the business 2x or 3x a year, I think that as a leader yourself, you also need to scale. Mark, in your case, you grew this from nothing to where it is today. How many employees do you have today?
Mark Dankberg: I think around 5,500 or so.
Alejandro: I mean, that’s quite a fair amount of employees. How were you able because I’ve seen as well that when you’re experiencing that tremendous amount of growth, you also need to grow yourself as a human being, as a leader. So, how was that process for you?
Mark Dankberg: It’s an ongoing process still. I just feel like there’s this whole notion of life on learning, and then you combine that with the fact that our business keeps evolving, and we keep changing what our business is. So, the way I think of it is, I’m perpetually unqualified for my job because even if I’ve figured out the things that got us to where we are, those aren’t the things that are going to get us to where we want to be. So, I spend a ton of time reading and just trying to learn. There’s this thing I heard once that says it takes a wise man to learn from his failures or his experience, but it takes an exceptional one to learn from the experiences of others. That’s what I’ve always tried to do is read and listen to podcasts like yours and try to figure out what are the things that people go through, and what should we be looking for? What are the traps? I guess a lot of it is just sort of fear that I’m not going to be able to keep up, and I think that drives me to do it. The other thing, though, that’s really important in being a successful CEO and scaling this way is to have a really strong team of executives, and to always be looking for people who are better than me in all the disciplines that we need. To give them credit and a lot of latitude, just be sure that our objectives are the same and that we trust each other, but not micromanagers that can guess. Let the people know what they’re doing to do what they do. Yes, there’s a lot that CEOs need to learn, but a lot of it is just to make sure that you don’t get in the way. That was one of the things early on I felt was sort of the best executives and leaders don’t interfere with the skills and talents of the people that work for them. They let them be successful, but they’re not making them be successful or commanding or controlling them to be successful. They let them be successful. Some of that is actually doing less and not more.
Alejandro: I keep hearing from all the folks that I hear is that it’s all about who you are surrounding yourself with in terms of colleagues, and senior executives, and so forth. In your case, Mark, is there one specific trait that you look for when you’re getting someone aboard on your team?
Mark Dankberg: Yeah, I think I’m going to go back to this teamwork, the sense of teamwork. I’m not the only one that feels that way here. I think when we recruit senior people or new people, what you really want them to do is to look around and go, “Wow. That’s a team I’d like to be part of. To think of it just in that way that they appreciate the skills, and the talents, and the confidence, and the motivations of the people that are here; that they look at the things we’re trying to achieve, and that they feel like, “I want to be a part of that team.” There’s a lot that goes into that attitude. It’s respect for what we have already. It’s excitement around the potential, and it is appreciation of what the role that new individuals can bring to that whether they’re new hires or really senior people. I think that’s the thing we’re really looking for is people who want to be part of the winning team and realize that it takes a team to win. I think that attitude over a long period of time, and it’s real, that’s really powerful.
Alejandro: One question that I always ask the guests that we have on the show is 33 years, Mark. It has been a ride. It has been a ride. Looking back, if you had the opportunity to talk with your younger self, with that young Mark that is giving the resignation to Linkabit. If you had that opportunity to have that conversation, what would you tell yourself? What would be that one piece of business advice that you would give to your younger self and why?
Mark Dankberg: There are a couple of things. One thing that I’m amazed at now because now that we’re as big as we are, I’ll see little companies who have great ambitions and maybe great talent but will want to do ambitious things. Like, wow, that’s hard. How are they ever going to do that? I think one of the things that helped us when we were small was being blissfully ignorant of how hard it would be. Just all the things we had to go through. I remember people telling us, just being amazed. “Hey, you started this company. Isn’t that incredibly risky?” I just didn’t see it that way. I would say that part’s really good. In some sense having too much understanding of what you’re getting into might be hard. So, that part, I would say I wouldn’t change. There’s one skill that I think we’ve never really I’ve never really developed which I marvel at now, which is if you look at our whole history, investors have always put a value that’s based on what we’ve done. One of the things that’s so striking today is how many companies have astronomical evaluations not based on what they’ve accomplished already, but just because of the size of the marketer that they’ve been able to convince people that they’re going to be successful. Some of our investors are probably just the sizzle versus the steak. We’ve always been really focused on the steak part. How are we going to perform this year? How are we going to balance investments and profits? I think in many ways, that’s been good for us. I’m a little bit ambivalent because you see some of these companies, some of whom are in the space domain like us and have astronomical evaluations. Some of them have evaluations much higher than us even though they’ve done very little in the domains that we have. Understanding that when we started, we were a very capital-like company, but right now we have billions of dollars of assets. We need to invest in more assets. Things in space are really expensive. So, paying some more attention to how you convince investors of the potential as opposed to showing them what we’ve done. I’ve still got to figure that part out. I think maybe if I were to go back 30-something years, I think there’s some balance required between the skills that we’ve had that have worked for us well and the skill of spinning the vision to investors. Actually, it would be interesting to see what you think. I think a lot of the entrepreneurs who have been around for a long-time running companies really maybe were more focused on this execution: how do we perform? How do we evolve as opposed to how do we spin? I don’t know the answer to that, but there’s a balance in there.
Alejandro: For sure, and I think that’s a very interesting point that you’re touching on here, Mark because I find that the height, at the end of the day, you can sell that for so long. Eventually, you need to deliver. I find that perhaps the contributive approach that you have and the lens from which you’re looking at things, probably you’re not going to have that extra zero on the right that is going to get people excited, but ultimately, you’re going to be able to always overdeliver on whatever you’re promising because that’s what integrity creates is being able to deliver on your work. If I were to look at things, I’d rather deliver than create hype and eventually everything from scratch.
Mark Dankberg: Yeah. I think that’s true, but I think there’s I always think of these skills. That’s the skill if you can find people who can really deliver but can help spin that vision. Having a high capitalization is a tool that’s good for the company and the team. That’s the one I’m still working on.
Alejandro: Perhaps it’s storytelling. Maybe you can make some friends in Hollywood that can give you tips. But anyhow, Mark, for the folks that are listening, what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi?
Mark Dankberg: Email works the best for me. So, just email@example.com. That’s the best way to get a hold of me.
Alejandro: Amazing. Do you use any type of social media like LinkedIn, or Twitter, or anything like that?
Mark Dankberg: I’m more of a learner. I think that’s part of the spinning and storytelling. It’s still not true everybody wants to know what I think about everything.
Alejandro: Okay. Got it. Alrighty. Well, Mark, thank you so, so much for being on the Dealmakers show today.
Mark Dankberg: Thank you for having me, Alejandro. I really enjoyed it.
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