Transform and Thrive: Envisioning Future Entrepreneurship
Dan Saks, co-CEO of technology start-up AppDirect, discusses revolutionizing the digital economy through competence and compliance, and inspiring tomorrow’s digital heroes
Writer: Phoebe Harper | Project Manager: Tom Cullum
Dan Saks is a big believer in the symbiosis of passion and profession that many modern-day entrepreneurs aspire to. A keen advocate for the transformative potential of technology, and a reputed public speaker on the subject, Saks has previously been featured on the 2015 Forbes 30 Under 30 Enterprise Technology list, alongside frequently advising Fortune 500 executives on cloud strategy and software solutions.
Now, alongside Nicolas Desmarais, fellow co-founder and co-CEO of San Francisco based start-up and technology unicorn AppDirect, Saks is dedicated in his commitment to revolutionizing the Digi-physical space through an innovative subscription commerce platform.
TRANSFORMING THE TECHNOLOGY SUPPLY CHAIN
As a leading subscription commerce company aimed at technology merchants across the globe, AppDirect’s current distribution spans over 35 million businesses worldwide, with an esteemed roster of clients that includes Land Rover, Jaguar, and Deutsche Telekom to name a few.
A unifying platform designed to streamline the complexity of building a recurring business model, AppDirect enables users to sell any product, through any channel and on any device, as a service.
“Just as Shopify and Square and other commerce companies service retailers who are merchants and now are selling digitally, there are over a million technology advisors in the US. These advisors are essentially merchants who want to sell in an omni-channel way. AppDirect is the platform to enable businesses that want to sell technology to be able to do so,” Saks explains.
Contrary to commerce systems designed to support the one-time sale of physical goods, service technologies such as cloud-based services become available through AppDirect’s platform, thereby enabling access for multiple users and businesses. “AppDirect has become the standard to enable businesses to access and subscribe to these digital technologies,” he adds.
What began in 2009 as a two-person operation in an apartment in San Francisco, has since ballooned into a global enterprise that is rapidly approaching 1,000 staff members spread across twelve offices.
“While a lot of our business is in the US, we’re global in nature. Our biggest engineering footprint is in Montreal and across Canada. We have teams in Buenos Aires, India, and around the world to support our customers.”
From this brick-and-mortar background, Saks benefits from the experience that enables him to empathize and fully comprehend the struggles that small businesses face, particularly those with a physical presence and historic cornerstones of the High Street like Saks Furniture.
Fortuitously, the ruinous wake of the recession coincided with a trip to the dynamic tech-haven of San- Francisco - start-up central - where Saks would meet with his friend, and now co-founder and co-CEO, Nicolas Desmarais.
“At the time, cloud was in its infancy, but we recognized the power of the software as a service business model,” Saks comments.
The unique context of the time introduced an industry-defining moment that would trigger a seismic shift across the technological space, as more businesses were forced to adapt to a digital presence.
“On one hand, the future of entrepreneurship looked bleak, as businesses on Main Street had to shut down. But on the other, you had these as-a-service business models in their infancy solving technology challenges that would make it very easy for a small business to consume technology, to be successful, and ultimately thrive,” Saks observes.
It was this dynamic intersection of the digital and the physical commercial space that bought clarity for AppDirect’s founders at the time of the company’s conception, pursuing the question and vision of what the future of technology would look like for entrepreneurship that remains a pertinent concern to this day.
“Out of that, without a technology background in our own right, but with strong conviction that businesses need to find a better way to find, buy and manage the services they need, we founded AppDirect.”
DEFINING DIGITAL HEROES
Fast forward to today, and the ongoing success of businesses that have adopted digital technologies attests to the validity of this vision as a viable business model. “The reality is, digitally transformed companies are excelling and operating more efficiently,” Saks comments.
“We create technologies, like single sign on, centralised user management, consolidated billing and news streams etc, that make it much easier for a business to access all the services that they need, in a unified way and from a trusted advisor.”
Occupying a position at the very precipice of helping businesses and entrepreneurs to transform, the cloud-based business market is a space that Saks finds endlessly fascinating.
“One of the things that gets me so excited about the space is that we get to interact with what we call ‘digital heroes’, or people who are transforming the digital economy. These might be small businesses in their own right, but it could also be the technology advisors that are helping those businesses transform.”
As AppDirect have learnt, technology advisors fulfil an essential role in inspiring trust amongst clients, delivering technological advancements with the reliable backing of a human touchpoint.
“One of the things that we’ve recognized is that while in the consumer world we’re used to buying digitally online, in the business world, people fundamentally want to buy from people they trust.
“A lot of our efforts at AppDirect have been focused on uncovering the secret sauce and characteristics of these digital heroes to be able to educate future heroes as to how we drive those transformations and thrive at commerce in the digital economy,” he elaborates.
The human element behind the appeal of these digital heroes is a defining difference to enable successful partnerships in the technological sphere.
“AppDirect sits at the intersection of literally tens of thousands of partners that have been integrated into APIs (Application Programming Interface).
“What we’ve seen is that the most successful partners are ones that are effective at creating scalable partnerships but also provide the understanding and support that enables others to effectively take their product to market. It truly takes a combination of technology and enablement - which includes people, marketing, and advice, to really succeed at a partnership in the technology economy.”
An extension of this people-centric focus, the customer or user experience becomes paramount, bringing the individuals behind the technology to the fore.
“A lot of the experiences that we build are not just for businesses that are going to self-serve online, it’s actually to help automate the human-to-human interaction in a way that creates an omnichannel touchpoint,” Saks explains.
This ideal of leveraging technology to streamline efficiency ultimately translates to improving people’s working lives. This is best embodied by the company’s ‘A Day in the Life of’ initiative.
“We focus a lot on how we can make the lives of our customers more productive so that they can spend more time doing what they love”
“A lot of our focus on experience is about, how do we make it more effective for those who are supporting businesses’ adoption of technology - how do we make their lives easier?
“With ‘A Day in the Life of’, we deploy members of our team to spend time with the persona they’re servicing - it could be the IT administrator, or a technology advisor - and we observe what they do on a day-to-day basis and essentially create a huge spreadsheet that defines how we can automate all the things that they do, with the goal of collapsing these tasks and processes through technological automation,” he explains.
Thereby, the personas affected dedicate less times to mundane tasks, relinquishing the valuable commodity of time that can be better spent elsewhere.
THE APPDIRECT DIFFERENCE
AppDirect pioneer an accessible vision of technology, whereby business owners and the people behind the companies do not need advanced technological prowess or significant training to harness the full power of technology. As such, their gamut of services caters to businesses exploring advanced services, yet also more simplified solutions.
Alongside their defining human-centered ethos, AppDirect’s versatile market offering is geared towards differentiation in the technology space, by consolidating the needs of an end user – who would typically be charged with arranging their own tech stack involving a “complex and fragmented” process around payment systems, productivity services, back up and technological infrastructure – within one platform.
“A lot of our focus on differentiation is how do we build a platform with capabilities that enable our technology advisors to differentiate the value they are providing to an end user.
“We operate in somewhat of a blue ocean based on our strategy - we intentionally wanted to develop an eco-system that is unique,” Saks concludes.
“Overall, I’m a very big optimist on the outcome of how enterprise technology and technology for small business is going to provide fundamental transformation”
A NEW CHALLENGE
In much the same way as the Great Recession left scope for new opportunities and the advent of advanced technological possibilities in its wake, so too has the challenging context of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic delivered opportunities and industry revelations.
“One observation that I’ve made throughout the last year and a half of COVID-19 is that, while I think it’s going to be great for people to get back into offices, what it did showcase is that digitally transformed companies can operate digital first and provide the flexibility, transparency, and alignment so that all of their team members and customers have equal access and opportunity to thrive through technology,” Saks states.
It is this sentiment that hearkens back to what is at the very core of AppDirect and indeed all successful technological enterprises - people. Looking to the year ahead, AppDirect will continue to dedicate their focus to enabling and enhancing the capabilities of the millions of technology advisors around the world to streamline digital transformation within businesses.
Drawing to a close, Saks ends on an optimistic note of the pursuit of wellbeing and the wider context of allowing individuals to pursue a healthy work-life balance.
“Technology is not just about technology, it’s about the service of people and if people show up to work every day, they should be super happy about what they’re spending time on. If technology can aid them in optimizing their time to do the great things that they need to at work, then have more time to do the things they love in their personal lives, it fundamentally creates a better economy.
“Although there are a lot of challenges with broader consumer technologies, I truly believe that enterprise and business technology aids people to spend less time on their devices and in front of a screen, enabling them to do more of what they want. This is really what the future is all about and that’s what makes me so excited about the eco-system we’re playing in.”