Fireside Chat with Dan Berger, Social Tables

Thank you to Tien Wong and Connectpreneur for hosting my fireside chat with Founder and CEO, Dan Berger, Social Tables. If you’ve never been to one of Tien’s Connectpreneur conferences he puts on a great show and you should check it out here: Connectrpreneur

If you can’t see the video you can link to it here: https://youtu.be/O3i_CIuB7Dg

The transcipr of the interview follows:


Me: Don, this is probably the first time we’ve been together since I last sat on your board probably four years ago.

Dan: Yeah it’s been it’s been roses ever since.

Me: True, so let me let me let me replay to you and to the audience how we first met. I was at a DC tech meetup, the date was April 5th 2011.  I had put out a tweet that the Dingman Angels were looking for good companies to possibly invest and I received this tweet back,

Signed, Dan Berger, I was later to find out that then that Dan is pronounced Don and we then met at a Starbucks. Can you tell us a little bit about that? A week later we’re at Starbucks you your partner and what did we talk about?

Dan: Sure and happy New Year to you and everybody else is deserving the Jewish Happy New Year

DCTech at that time, just for context, I think was less than 100 people at a time. Today it’s a thousand.  I reached out you were kind enough to respond. Because of that time, Twitter was not as noisy as a listener. I was able to find signals through the noise. We met up in his Starbucks. I believe in Maryland. I want to say like Bethesda. I actually remember very clearly it was on a  corner and I
think I was late, and I walked in with my co-founder.

The reason I scheduled that meeting is because my co-founder gave me the ultimatum he said I’ll quit my job If we raised money which is something I’m sure many of you’ve heard before.

Me: I had some feedback for you and a week later we talked on the phone.  Do you remember what I said?

Dan: You said, I’ll only take you seriously when you quit your job.

Me: And I think I also had some questions about the bozo who you showed up with.

Dan: He is still on the cap table. Extensible you said I don’t like the guy you’re partnered with and I don’t like the fact you have a job so once those two things are resolved I’ll be more interested in talking and then a week later I called to say call I quit my job and I fired over my
cofounder.

Me: And I figured I adopted a son. Then I helped you go to the Dingman Angels.

Dan: Yeah and I have to say the Dingman Angels and the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship has been without a doubt the number one source of value for Social Tables. Specifically in that first couple of years. What I found was critical and going to these angel groups is getting the support of I should say super connectors within the group and you were one of those folks. So having your support ahead of the angel group was critical because that got me support behind closed doors.  I had the chance to meet the people there pitching and I was lucky that you were able to
help me gather support in the group and you know we walked in trying to raise quarter million and we ended up over subscribing to five hundred.

Me: Right, and so then you were off

Dan: Yeah and that started a pattern on it pretty much every summer until until two years ago we raised a round.

Me: So and then I used to run this startup peer advisory group and you were a member and I remember that one session we spent a lot about company culture and you talked about one of your employees who frustrated you and I remember this excellent skills, excellent technician but you had an issue with him could you tell us about that?

Dan: I remember I think in your talking about. Every answer that i ever received from him started with no.

Me: It’s kind of like Scotty on Star Trek.

Dan: I mean he was a pain in my neck and he would always say no so we kind of came up with this exercise where you can’t really measure what you haven’t defined. So we
decided to define the culture and that started as version one of our culture and since then we’ve been through three iterations of culture and our values.

Me: So you went back to your group and distilled who are we as a group at that time one cultural trait stood out and I write about it all the time. Do you remember what that was?

Dan: It’s always say yes if not no because.

Me: I think the cultural value that stood out to me was, “yes if.”

Dan: Yeah well right, we have a defined it as no because, which is crossed out and then it says yes if below.

Me: Who is that personified in the personality of the company?

Dan: I refused to hear the word no. This is the way that to it is to this day. That’s the case, I mean I know of any word, no is a trigger for me cuz I’m Israeli, I’m a New Yorker, I’m Jewish. We
we don’t do well with that word.

Me: Which is is a good segue, because that was one of the reasons I stroke a check to you.

Dan: For the record, you were one of the first checks. Why didn’t you write a bigger check because you wrote I think you wrote a $10,000.

Me: I wrote two checks

Dan: You followed up in the second round.

Me: Yeah, I think I’m in for 25 (actually $30K). I’ve written bigger checks for worse.

Dan: Why didn’t you write a bigger check.

Me: You know I have to say I didn’t believe in the idea. I believed in you. When you came back to me and said I no longer have a day job, this is my job. You showed me how committed you were and I felt that you had this great intestinal power. Where does that come from? Tell me a little bit about who you are? Tell me how you grew up?

Dan: Wait, I just wanted to clarify. So I’m a charity case?

Me: No,I invested because I believed in you but I got Nancy to co-invest with me because she felt it was my fault you were out of work.

Dan: So you were guilted into investing in a charity case?

Me: Let’s talk about where you few up?

Dan: I grew up in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Me: Okay, how long were you there?

Dan: I was there until I was nine years old.

Me: Okay, tell us a little bit about your parents, your upbringing. Things like that?

Dan: So I have three sets of parents. My biological, because I’m adopted. My adopted parents, and then step. Because both my adoptive parents divorced.

Me: Okay and so why did you guys leave Tel Aviv.

Dan: My mom math fell in love with an American man.

Me: Okay, so how did that play in any who you are?

Dan: I mean so you know yeah my family mom was a social worker. She raised me as a single mom from you know the first decade of my life or so and you know she drove a secondhand old Volkswagen Beetle from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem every day. Which is essentially like the distance to Herndon and back every day to go teach and you know. I essentially grew up with my grandparents for a long time and there was one thing  I my mom always told me and it’s one of the things of this day is a core values at Social Tables and that’s every day is a school day or and that kind of stuck with me. So whenever she made she made a mistake of I made a mistake she said that. And to this day literally it’s a core value in the company which makes me so happy because the fabric of my upbringing is a part of my company and that I one thread that’s kind of stayed throughout my kind of career. Making the learning opportunity out of anything

The way that manifests itself in the business is that every employee has an education has a two thousand dollars. We have one hundred fifteen employees they get $2,000 and interesting enough most actually don’t use it. Only about 25% of the employees use it and they don’t use the whole thing. But it’s there and it’s some of its on managers try to encourage that they use it for continuing education.

Me: So at nine you moved.

Dan: We moved to the Bronx.

Me: Was that a culture shock?

Dan: Oh my god.  So I I’m 36 and the last year has been kind of a time where I’ve really explored my childhood traumas because for anybody who knows anything about childhood psychology like everything before 12 is what really impacts you as an adult and I would say that there were three major traumas in my life: adoption, my parents divorce, and immigration. It all happened before I was nine.

So yeah, I mean moving to the United States, not speaking a word of English, was an incredibly traumatic experience. I went from a kid who was somewhat popular in school with a clubhouse and a group of friends to a country where I didn’t speak the language. A community where I
didn’t know anybody and it was really difficult and I would actually credit that social anxiety that I had that engaged me to fall in love with computers. Because computers were in an early state.

I was around before the internet  and I ran BBS. I had a BBS time I was on newsgroups.  I was building computers, video games and going on IRC. So doing all these super old-school things on computers and that’s how I got to computers building them and programming them and developing websites.

So that was my escape. That, by the way, that social anxiety helped create social Tables, which we can talk about later. But that that was the key part.

Me: I know you once pointed out to me that a large majority of entrepreneurs, startup entrepreneurs are immigrants. I’ve studied that and when you look at successful entrepreneurs many of them have some kind of trauma.

Do you believe you have.. I mean what I saw in you was a certain amount of grit. Do you think getting through those three defining events created this Dan, who will just walk through walls?

Dan: I think it’s certainly hardens you. Yes

Glen: And I want to give an example of the culture that sort of the person you are and the culture. How it manifests itself in the culture of Social Tables. I remember…

Dan: Can I just follow up this up. I think for me, what that’s made me value in employees is effort. I’m such a sucker for effort and now my co-founder, Trevor Linden who’s been with me, you know, employ number one I just got a business card that’s a co-founder for a six-year anniversary of the company.  He actually says it’s a bias I have.  I’m biased towards people who put an over-index on effort.

So, for example, we’ve had employees or applicants write cover letters to my dog, do YouTube videos make decision trees of why we should hire them and so on and I’m a total sucker for that. It’s not always been a predictor of high performance. But I’m a sucker for that.

Me: So I remember a board meeting…

Dan: Is this about my salary?

Me: I remember those too. I’m probably.. What was one of our most constant arguments? Probably the only boardroom this has ever taken place. What did we argue about?

Dan: My salary.

Me: Because it was too?

Dan: Too high..

Me: No your salary was too low

Dan: I was making zero for the first two years and I was making thirty-two thousand and…

Me: I didn’t think you were taking enough money and I thought it made the books…

Dan: We took a board vote and I voted against increasing my salary.

Me: Yes

Dan: So I’m on the record for you know, not getting an increase.

Me: No, it was more about the snowstorm. You remember the snowstorm. We had a board meeting that was set up a year in advance and I had a busy schedule. So I blocked that out and the day before we had about a foot of snow. One of the board members wrote a note saying I can’t make the meeting. I’m not coming in.

I said if we don’t have the meeting we can’t have a meeting the quarter. We had the meeting

Dan: I remember.

Me: Coming in, you were there. How many people from Social Tables were in that office that day?

Dan: I think it was a hundred percent.

Me: You guys were up and running. I just found that amazing. What do you think drives that?

Dan: So I think I get a big part of his modeling my behavior, signaling and all that time managerial
stuff. But I think a big part of it is the company when we hire if you’re not interested in working you know you’re probably not the right person.

Of course look, there’s mitigating circumstance where you have kids. So this is why cultures have to evolve, okay? At that time our average age was probably 24. Today it’s 29. Now I do this type of test where I look at my exec team and I count not just the
headcount on the executive team I count the headcount of the household and you know so that would say he’s got two kids and a wife that’s four people and I look at the number of the total number of household headcount and that’s telling of how much experience.

I think that the team asked a certain extent back then the executive team were young they were not married, no kids.  Today is a very different dynamic and that’s why it’s really important for companies to evolve and change their culture. Because again, back then one of our cultural pillars was work all day, party all night… No, ship all day, party all night and that’s not something that’s going to attract somebody with 20 years experience. So what we have to make that change.

So yes at that time I have no problem with everybody show-up to work on the snowstorm. Today there are many reasons why you can’t and it’s totally fine.

So I evolved my thinking on that. But I still keep a roll call in my head.

Me: So you’ve been doing some traveling.

Dan: Slightly yeah

Me: You and I were a day ahead of each other in Iceland last week.

Dan: By the way, Iceland sounds really good on paper because it’s cheap to get there.

Me: $350 flight… $350 hamburger.

Dan: I had a speeding ticket in Iceland

Me: On the cameras?

Dan: No, a cop stopped me. $800.

Me: That’s two hamburgers.

Dan: But you know how I paid for it the cops had a credit card machine.  I swear to God and they gave me a 20% off because I paid on the spot.

Me: I was thinking about the Israel trip though.

Dan: Okay, cuz you’re going to Israel on Friday?

Me: I am.

Dan: Do you know what Jewish year it is? You know what number it is?

Me: I have no idea.

Dan: You know your lucky they don’t ask you this when you get to the border.

Me: So the only thing I know is I I don’t think it’s appropriate to say right now. “yeash lee glida hee tova, which means I have the best ice cream.

Dan: Say that to the border agent.

Me: Yeah I was in Israel in 73 and the other thing I learned in 73 when I was 16 was, ani sarouf aliach motek, which means I’m burning for you baby.  This isn’t gonna help me in
Israel.

You had a special event in Israel. Didn’t you have a reunion?

Dan: I did, yeah.

Me: Can we talk about that?

Dan: Sure.

Me: Tell me?

Dan: So, you know part of kind of my last year journey has been addressing some of the trauma as I discussed and one of them is adoption and the way to address that in my opinion is to find out who your biological parents are.

So late last year I did three different DNA tests, 23andme, ancestry, and my heritage. Basically for techies, for Mormons, and for Jews. So I covered the gamut you know and I got the results back. I think somebody is relating to this story. I got the results back and you know usually if anybody uses your DNA test, okay, so most of them about 10% of you and most of the time to get DNA results it’s like oh yeah I’m a 2% cousin you might like exchange a couple messages and there’s nothing there.

I found a 13% match which is a first cousin and so I reached out to the guy, This is hilarious. I’m in a group with somebody who’s got very strong gene or genealogy experience and he was able to find a number for this
individual.

So on a Friday night, I called my first cousin and I said hey I’m your cousin and he said to me if you want to
know how mom’s cooking tasted you can go… you can f#@K off. But if you have a check to write me we can keep talking. I said, okay this guy’s related to me.

So we build the relationship.

Me: How much did that cost?

Dan: We build a relationship. He’s a very cynical person so it took a little while to convince him in that I was
legit. But then he logged in he saw and then he gave me two options. He said, either this is your dad and it’s from my dad’s side or this is your mom and it’s from my mom’s side.

So I felt stronger that I found my dad not my mom because the connection I don’t know which. Because the DNA test doesn’t tell you so I reached out to this person and find out he had died. I talked to his widow. I’m like oh my god you won’t believe it you know. I feel your late husband is my dad.

She says, oh my god that’s beautiful. It makes so much sense. He had so many relationships. And then

Me: He might have been the guy who taught me, I have the best ice cream in Hebrew.

Don: But not while they were dating and then at the same time I triangulated some more information from
the adoption agency. They don’t give you information. They’ll they tell you like that a couple of things and then I was like oh crap I screwed up. Actually, this is not my dad the woman who my cousin originally said it was actually my mom.

So that’s called the woman and apologized. And like I had photos of his tombstone because it’s actually a file
online you can find photos of every tombstone in the world. You can find.. it really incredible.

So and I was like tell me about him. Oh god, he sounds just like me and then and then I ended up figuring
out it was actually my mom. So I got in touch with her and we met for the first time in April.

Me: Emotional

Dan: You know the internet takes a little bit away from emotions these days because you could FaceTime and you can talk and stuff. So yeah it was emotional you know for sure. But I, it’s so obvious she’s my mom like we
both have really bad bunions. We both have the same laugh. Just so may qualities are very similar. You know, our temperament is similar.

I’ve met my four siblings.

Me: Okay great. And how’s your relationship with your adopted mom?

Dan: Stronger.. stronger than ever. She didn’t take… I think she was a little concerned about what I was doing
in the beginning.  I think I never adopted anybody, but my dog. But I would assume that you know it’s some sort of slight.

Because, uh, you know, she’s like the mom and then you going go find another mom and they have to have another mom, you know to build a relationship.

Me: So how’s the company doing now?

Dan: Oh wow! What a transition.

The companies do really good. Well, our numbers are public as the Washington Post covered it. We’ll finish the year right around between eighteen to twenty million in recurring revenue. We’ll be profitable in q1.

Me: Wow, that’s quite an establishment.

When did you start?

Dan: 2011

Me: Tell me about the management team is kind of on this, is going through a transformation. This year we just brought on board a new HR person who’s absolutely phenomenal from Doctor First, Anna Fryman. We brought in a Chief Revenue Officer from FrontPoint Security, John Hannula. He started six-months… both of them started in the last two quarters. Trevor Lyn is still going strong and now he’s not only running marketing. He’s also running product. Kristin Zeitleras is my chief of staff who runs operations and (name inaudable)VP of Finance. And we have an opening for a VP of Engineering.

Me: So.. a pretty strong team? You seem comfortable doing some traveling. You’re able to leave the office.

Dan: Yeah I mean I would say over the last year I’ve definitely not overworked myself.  I check out. I don’t even work on weekends sometimes.

Me: How often do you check-in? Like, when you were in Iceland?

Dan: Daily. yeah

Me: On Text all the time?

Dan: Yeah, if you pay $5 to Verizon you get unlimited voice-to-text. Well, you get your same plan abroad.

Me: So when you travel you don’t leave the company behind?

Dan: Not yet. No I mean I don’t I think my team… I don’t think my team is ready for that yet.

Me: Future plans for the company? Anything, any new products, anything changing, anything we should know?

Dan: So for people who don’t know what we do, maybe it’s a good idea to just talk about that real quick.

We have 5000 customers worldwide. We serve the hospitality industry. We’re in the group business which is about 40% of all hospitality revenue and that pretty much means everything, like whenever you book a group of sleeping rooms or a meeting space our software is used to manage that, the sales and marketing aspect of it.

But also the operations and execution of it. So for example, we’ve been used for over the past five years about four and a half million events that used to plan planned in our software about a hundred thousand a month. Roughly everything from the papal visits to LeBron James’s wedding has been in our software. We have 95% of all venues and DC use us and about
35% of all hotels in North America use us.

Again like anything with meeting space to help you sell and market it and help you operate the event and then we’re now getting more into the group side. So if you’re trying to reserve like ten rooms in hotel we’ll help you with that.

Me: How different is the company from your original vision?

Dan: It’s still the same thing because we’re all about making face-to-face connections more powerful so you know if look at all of you took the time and I’m grateful for you spending the time here today and your goal was to you know, you all, had an objective in mind whether it’s to
network or learn something or sell something and an event is not successful unless each of your objectives is achieved and we think that technology can help achieve those objectives no matter where they are and the reality is that 10 years ago each of us spent two point nine hours per day on a digital device. Today it’s 5.9 hours so you know it’s almost the amount of time we spend in front of computers and cell phones is you know growing 203% and therefore it’s more important
than ever that the face-to-face time we have is use the best in the best possible way and our software does that.

So it’s used to design events, to sell a space. It’s used to make sure that the right planners are connecting with the right properties every single time

Me: You did a lot of product discovery since the beginning? I mean the product is totally different than when the original product

Dan: The original product was nothing, was a simple seating chart. But again with those elements are still in the product today but it certainly has grown somewhat. You know we grew from a feature to four products. And now we have a marketplace for finding events with about 13,000 venues. If you search you can find venues, visualize them, start planning events you know organize great events.

Glen: Wo how long are you gonna be doing this?

Dan: I’m 36, I’m single, I have no assets. I’m asset light so I’m in for a very long time.

Glen: You have no assets?

Dan: No, I mean on paper. Okay yeah, I mean I have no car, no house

Me: So this is growing well. Things are going well.

Dan: Yeah we’ll grow 30% this year grow very well with the cost structure in mind.

Me: Right, let’s say you move on from this, something happens, you move on from this hopefully as an investor it’s something good. Do you do it again?

Dan: I know I think I want to start our hotel chain.

Me: Really?

Dan: Yeah.

Me: Why?

Dan: Because it’s opportunistic.  Everything right now, every huge chain is buying small brands. So I think there’s a big opportunity to start up a deep brand.

Me: Would you use your software?

Dan: Probably not because it will be a boutique hotel. We serve more of the convention hotel. So probably not. Well, maybe for like, you know booking rooms.

Me: So so do you still have this in your office (holding up a can of Driven Forward WhoopAss).

Dan: I do. yeah.

Me: This is this is my business card. It’s a can of whoop-ass.

Dan: yeah I have one. So I figure I should spend 60 seconds interviewing you. If the crowd doesn’t mind.

Me: Sure.

Dan: Because it’s very rare that we get Glen Helman, Mr. Cranky, himself on stage. No holds
barred.

Me: Yeah.

Dan: Okay great. So the other day I saw on a DC tech Facebook group that he posted looking for an SEO company to clear your name.

Me: No. it actually wasn’t a clear my name. It was to unclear somebody’s name that had been cleared.

Dan: OHHHH.

Me: So, for instance, I think this will happen today. If you read my blog today, I blogged about a guy who was a CFO of a company which the state of
Virginia is found to have fraudulent books and I do that often and if I was he I would hire this firm.

Dan: Oh you were like asking for him?

Me: No I was asking so somebody… so I have a series of blogs about somebody yeah company called Trustify, and if two months ago you… and they’re raising money. Yet I don’t believe they have any real sources of revenue except for investors and if you googled Danny Boice or Trustify two months ago the whole first two pages would be my blogs. If you do it now it’s a bunch of garbage blogs that he has put up.

Dan: I think I got it because if what I did is after I did that after I saw a post that I googled your name because I was like what’s wrong with Glenn’s Google results and some of the things that come up are all really positive. you know it’s your blog, it’s Twitter. So I have a question for you. How do you balance when you make decisions to write about people? How do you balance the truth or you’re your own version of the truth and hospitality.

Me: So I’ve made a decision. The reason there’s a can of whoopass here, that I have a brand. That my brand is to be 100% honest and frank. When I get a tip and I get tips often. I look at. one is it punching down. am I picking on somebody who can’t defend themselves doesn’t really… and if the answer is yes I drop it.

Dan: It’s got to be in your weight class?

Me: Yeah, then is it really a horrific thing that people should know because it’ll protect them and if there’s yes it’s a no doubt and if it’s no, I say, yeah but is it funny.

Dan: Okay

Me: Can I make people laugh and then the last thing is will I be sued. Can I back what I say up.

Dan: That’s interesting, I didn’t think about that. So anyone threatened you with a lawsuits?

Me: So a year and a half ago I got a demand letter which was do you know the Streisand effect?

Dan: Barbra Streisand

Me: yeah so Streisand had a house built and it’s a beautiful house and she wanted it to be secret and somebody took pictures of it and published it and she sued him and the Streisand effect is that lawsuit brought more attention to it. It had an inverse effect.

So I got this demand letter and the first thing I said is well look I know everything I said is true. I really don’t have anything to worry about. You’re trying to make me spend money so I said let’s Streisand Effect it and I put up a GoFundMe account and I raised three thousand dollars for my legal defense.

Dan: Did anybody here give Glen money?

Me: Some people here did, yes. I raised three thousand dollars. I hired a very good law firm and the Washington Business Journal picked it up. I got a lot of press on it. I got a lot of hits on my website. I got some customers, I get customers from it

Dan: Is your brand part of your lead gen. Like it is t

Me: It’s definitely demand gen. It is in a way and it isn’t. So it brings a lot of… it raises the SEO of my blog, yeah and you know I say that 60% of the blog posts I do are investigative reporting. It is if you look at today’s post there’s a guy who runs a charity who’s on the board of a charity who has been the CFO of a company that has committed fraud and who’s trying to erase the breadcrumbs that he was ever involved in that company. so that’s what today’s post is and I think the people who donate to that charity and the other people in the charity should know that.

Dan: It’s like Trump’s charity.

Me: I don’t know, this charity may be a good charity. The guy on the board has some issues that he either needs to stand up to or not.

So that will not drive leads to me. It drives traffic. It creates better SEO. Right?

Then I’ll do a thoughtful piece on strategy. Yesterday I did one on Robert Cialdini’s book, persuasion,  presuasion. Which is and about influence and neuromarketing and neuroscience and on the end of those I always have an opportunity for people to convert.

Dan: Got it.I was just curious to give you a chance. You probably don’t have a lot of opportunities…

Me: I would say that being a cranky guy, you know, there’s there’s probably…  I have a base. I hope the base is bigger than 30 percent. I hope I’m a 70% base guy and 30 percent aren’t here because it’s me. But yeah definitely…

Dan: Between the two of us out I’m surprised anybody is here.

Me: Yeah I had made a decision that I’m not gonna be a red apple. Most people in my business are red apples and they don’t want to make waves. There are some people who like green apples. I’m the only green apple available. You like a green apple come talk to me. If you want a red apple there’s a bunch of them right. delicious versus granny’s

Dan: Red delicious or Granny Smith.

M: Yeah I’m the Granny Smith. Yeah, I’m a little. I’m a little tart.

Dan: Okay

Me: Are we good?

From there we went to Q&A from the audience.


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