“Learn to Say “No” — No to Funding, Job Candidates and Even Customers”, Words of Wisdom with Don Mal, CEO of Vena

I had the pleasure of interviewing Don Mal, CEO and co-founder of Vena Solutions. As CEO, Don executes Vena’s global growth strategy, manages customer relationships and secures long-term revenue. With Don leading the charge, today Vena is the fastest growing provider of cloud-based corporate performance management (CPM) software.

What is your “backstory”?

I spent most of my 30-year career in software sales roles, the last six years as CEO and co-founder of a sales-driven software company. Before that, I had a very different career path in mind. I wanted to be a rock star.

Midway through a commerce degree in the 1980’s, I dropped out of school to be a full-time lead singer in a rock band called Between the Lines. We signed with a record label, recorded two albums and got some great gigs and radio airtime. The only things we were missing were a hit single…and money.

That’s what led to my lifelong sales career. I got a job selling stereos at a national electronics store where, in a just a few months, I learned I was really good at it — in the top 2–3% of sales reps across the country. On the advice of a friend I set my sights on software, devouring magazines like PC Magazine and BYTE, and managed to land my first software sales job at Softkey. The rest is history.

Today, I’m happy to report that I’m still pursuing my rock star dreams. I have a recording studio in my basement. I had my first real gig in 30 years earlier this year, and I play twice a week with my company Vena Software’s official house band, The Grid Unlocked.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

I built a world-class golf course with door-to-door sales, and zero experience.

I took up golf around the time I met my wife and became an instant addict. Not long after we got married, we went to my wife’s family cottage and the first thing I noticed was that there wasn’t a high quality golf course within 100 miles. So, I decided to build one, even though the only thing I knew about golf courses was how to play them.

For two years between software sales jobs, I worked full-time on the course. I negotiated the purchase of the farmland where the course would be. I tracked down and recruited renowned course designer Tom Broom. And, I raised the first round of funding by going door-to-door selling founding memberships to neighboring cottagers.

The result was Wildfire (www.golfwildfire.com), an award-winning golf course in Canada that went from the back of a napkin to the pages of Golf Digest in a few short years. Wildfire was my first experience building a world-class business from scratch, something I’m proud to be doing again with Vena.

Are you working on any meaningful non-profit projects? How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My main cause is healthcare, mostly because it’s hard to imagine a family that hasn’t had a life-saving experience thanks to excellent first-responders, doctors and hospitals. This year my wife and I personally supported and continue to do volunteer fundraising for a $1 million capital campaign for a hospital near our cottage. Last year I raised $10,000 for the Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer (www.conquercancer.ca), and Vena was the lead sponsor (donating the $10,000 grand prize) for Kiss My App (www.kissmyapp.ca), a national mobile healthcare app contest for high school and post-secondary students.

Can you tell me a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?

Two names come to mind: Caius Dobson and Jacob Luxton, the two grade 9 students who won the grand prize in last year’s Kiss My App contest. Besides the honor of winning, $10,000 can go a long way when you’re in high school. I just hope they’ve put a chunk of it away for college savings — or seed funding for their next venture.

What are your “5 things you wish someone told you when you first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

1. Focus on what you know — A temptation that faces almost every tech entrepreneur is trying to be all things to all people. Avoid these temptations at your peril. Strong, built-to-last companies start off focusing on meeting all the needs of some people, not some of the needs of all people. Vena Software experienced this in its early days — trying to serve every business user of Microsoft Excel — before we focused on what we knew best, financial software. We quickly pivoted to providing software specifically for the office of finance and the results speak for themselves.

2. Learn to say “no” — Saying “no” to funding, job candidates and even customers can end up being the smartest decision you make. It’s far easier (and less costly) to say no to a relationship than to break one up. Saying “no” to the wrong opportunities helps you focus on the right ones. In hindsight, I should have said “no” to a number of customers over my career, appealing at first as big wins, but ultimately being high-maintenance and unprofitable to serve.

3. Be authentic — Be confident. Be defiant. Be contrarian. But above all else, be authentic. Be open and be vulnerable. People today are too savvy to let you get away with being someone you’re not. Authenticity fosters trust, vulnerability is a strength, and the best leaders exhibit both. My team at Vena knows my weaknesses as much as they know my strengths, and we’re a better team as a result.

4. Sales cures all — Taking a page from Mark Cuban, you can have the best product, built by the best people, but if you don’t sell it you don’t have a business. Especially in the early days, sales needs to be a shared responsibility across the whole company, not just the sales department. A big reason for Vena’s success is that everyone in the company can sell it — from our finance team to our chief technology officer.

5. Put the customer first — This one sounds so obvious that it should go without saying, but I’m constantly surprised by the number of companies that don’t do it. I regularly see companies and products built on what founders or developers think their customers want, or a gut feel for what they should want. And I’m not alone: the first recommendation in Gartner’s 2018 technology predictions report is all about focusing on people-centric technologies. My advice to new entrepreneurs always includes talking with, studying and obsessing over your target customers before and throughout your product development.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, or I might be able to introduce you.

I’d like to spend some time with Marc Benioff, the CEO at SalesForce.com. I’m so impressed with the way Benioff pioneered the cloud software market long before most software execs would give it even a passing glance. In doing so, Benioff paved the way for thousands of companies that followed…Vena Software very much included.