Do not start by thinking about your brand. The priority is to find a good problem you can solve. The brand doesn’t exist without this. Build the brand around the problem/solution and ultimately, the benefit to your customers. The risk of building a brand too early is that you’re less open to discovery — you’re trying to fit your problem/solution into an arbitrary framework. It’s limiting.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Akram J. Atallah.
Akram has held numerous executive positions playing a key role in the success of established companies as well as startups.
Before his role as CEO at Donuts Inc., a global leader in next generation top-level domains and digital identity, he served as president of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, ICANN’s, Global Domains Division, which he built from the ground up expanding its business operations generating 90% of ICANN’s revenues.
Prior to that, Akram served as COO for startup CoreObjects Software which he restructured in 18 months and managed its successful acquisition by a large IT services provider.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
At a young age, I had a passion and aptitude for high tech. That is why I studied computer engineering and started as a hard disk drive systems engineer developing some chips along the way. But I soon realized that even the best product doesn’t work unless it addresses a market need. Since those decisions are made on the business side, I decided to get my MBA, allowing me to make a greater impact in these matters. After my MBA, I took product marketing roles with semiconductor companies. Eventually I moved into management positions at various tech companies, serving in COO positions for a nonprofit startup, president of the Global Domains Division for ICANN, and currently as CEO of Donuts Inc. These leadership positions allowed me to play a key role in developing comprehensive and well-thought-out strategies, leading to the success of established companies as well as startups.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
In much of business, the “Aha Moment” is realizing there is a common problem and finding a solution. This was the case with Donuts Inc. (Of note, the company I am currently CEO of was not started by me.) .com was growing — and quickly. Over time, it became difficult for people to find domain names. They were being taken by companies and investors. The ICANN community decided there was a need to expand top level domains. The four founders of Donuts applied for a portfolio of domains. And then Donuts was born.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
There wasn’t a person per se — it was more of a “situation.” As an engineer, I developed many products over the years. But, I was repeatedly disappointed by business decisions that were made. Even though I developed the best product, if there wasn’t a market need it didn’t matter how good the product was. I realized that these types of decisions were made by the business side of companies. So that is when and why I pivoted to leadership positions that allowed me to be involved in both the engineering and marketing of products and solutions.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
For a company to truly stand out, you have to be good at everything you do. Everything — from the way you treat your employees, customers, suppliers as well as your product. There must be success in the entire ecosystem — not just for the self or for the company alone. At Donuts, I strive for this — and we strive for it, as a company.
Every time someone tries to capture more benefit than their partner — whoever that may be — the relationship will be short-lived. It is better to have a healthy partnership from the start, so you are not fighting over scraps all the time. You want to know that the next deal and the one after that will come to you immediately, not to someone else. It is an adage my mom used to tell me that we’re probably all familiar with, but it’s absolutely true — you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I try to spread goodness through advising and influencing young entrepreneurs who come to me and want to launch a business. I also help guide careers, and I coach people on how to develop an idea into a business, what to watch for, what to focus on, etc. I believe it’s always good to share the wealth. It’s not just about how to have a successful business on paper, it’s more than that. Employees, for instance, are not just a collection of people, they are part of a family. I have strong ethics and I like to instill this in my employees and companies’ overall culture. In a leadership role, you lead by example and you have the chance to influence so many people. I hope that I inspire them to lead with the same ethics and philosophy around sharing the wealth.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Logic, strategy, collaboration. Let’s start with logic. I am incredibly logical. When someone brings up a good product idea and tells me they have the audience for it, I immediately visualize all the other necessary questions and qualifiers. For instance, why are they going to like it? What if someone copies you? How will it get to market? Is it easy to use? It’s not about disqualifying the idea — -it’s about getting to solutions so we can execute and be successful.
When it comes to strategy, it’s about identifying a critical problem and finding the best solution with the best execution. And all three must be well thought out and vetted.
At heart, I’m a collaborator. I want to share ideas with everyone. That is why I create trustworthy and mutually beneficial partnerships with suppliers, employees and customers. When I was running a market-leading semiconductor business, I took care of my customers and helped them succeed although they needed my product more than I needed them. Later on when I moved to run a new business they returned the favor by updating their designs to use my new product which helped me succeed.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Business advice is just advice. Usually no one understands your business like you do, so you have to decide if and how the advice applies to your situation and then decide whether to adopt it or not. In short, I have never followed advice that I later regretted.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
I came to product/business management roles with a background in engineering. As such, I was used to tackling problems with very logical thinking, analyzing and dissecting in detail how best to execute and test solutions. But that was definitely not the right approach in management. Here, you have to manage multiple functions simultaneously and be able to make quick decisions. That was a real challenge for me at first. On top of that, I had taken a paycut to start over as a product manager.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
When I made the decision to go into business management, I was determined to make it work no matter the obstacles. I kept reminding myself that if other people can do this, so can I and to keep an eye on the prize. This wasn’t always about becoming a CEO. I started in business as a product manager and worked my way up, seeing things through and meeting or exceeding expectations.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
I have a very temperate and humble personality. I don’t get too excited or too depressed about anything and when something bad happens I don’t think, “How could this happen to me?” I know there are far worse things happening every day. When something good happens, there are even better things happening somewhere else. I neither dwell on a situation nor celebrate because I’ve already moved on. Dwelling on the past is a waste of time and I prefer to look ahead. This is what has always worked best for me on a personal as well as a business level.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
You don’t grow a company by cutting costs, but you need to put the money in the right place with the highest probability of success. You have to think about which — either bootstrapping or fundraising — will get you to your goal. You have to consider how open your market window is. It’s best to go the fundraising route if your product is time- sensitive, but if you have a wider window you should choose bootstrapping. It’s a trade-off between getting to market and the market window.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
- Do not start by thinking about your brand. The priority is to find a good problem you can solve. The brand doesn’t exist without this. Build the brand around the problem/solution and ultimately, the benefit to your customers. The risk of building a brand too early is that you’re less open to discovery — you’re trying to fit your problem/solution into an arbitrary framework. It’s limiting.
- Solve a permanent problem, not a transient one.
- Solve the problem in an easy, comprehensive and approachable way. Don’t create additional issues when you solve this problem. Here’s an example — Apple introduced the Cube which was the smallest, quietest and most elegant PC you can have on your desk, except it overheated and caused cracks so eventually it failed to get market acceptance.
- Nowadays it’s critical to have an online presence. Tie the brand, domain name and online presence together. This should feel authentic and trustworthy. For example, a commercial real estate fintech company, Janover, rejected the idea of attempting to find a trendy name for its online services and, instead, chose to build authentic online content around highly targeted, descriptive domain names, such as multifamily.loans, effectively tying the brand and domain name together with its online presence.
- Hire a solid team and align them with your vision. Every contributor will make better decisions when they understand the vision.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
One of the common mistakes made by CEOs and founders is spending too much time on product perfection. They need to know when to let things go. I have also observed business leaders launching an unfinished product, which is a mistake. It takes time to do it right and it’s hard to go back and finish it correctly.
Some leaders get stuck on the original product idea and are not open to adjusting to changing market needs or don’t take the time to find the right talent and budget to make it a success. Another mistake is not having enough resources to ensure the product development is uninterrupted.
To avoid these errors, leadership needs to develop a sound business plan and path to get product to market, dedicating enough time, talent, budget and resources to get it just right. At the same time, they need to be open to making adjustments as required by changing market demands and making sure they support development with enough resources.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
I believe both exercise and discipline are essential for the best physical and mental well-being. It’s important to know when you are not being productive and do a mental reset. Multi-tasking and overworking could lead to mistakes which end up being a waste of time and won’t lead to increased productivity.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would like to create a movement that teaches people to be content. There is so much unhappiness in the world. It’s important to cherish what you have, and not pine for what you don’t have. I would start a happiness movement in which great thinkers, business leaders, stars etc. come together to inspire people with their roads to success and happiness by positive thinking.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Yes, I would love to have a one-on-one get-together with Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany.
I respect her incredible humility and would like to know what gets her up every morning and how she has maintained her reputation and role for so many years.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!