This is the story of Dan Lee, co-founder of Qalius and CTO of Pllenty. He had the heart of an entrepreneur before being an entrepreneur was in fashion and Toronto became the Tech and Innovation hub that it is today. In this interview I pick Dan’s brain about what it takes to be a Tech entrepreneur and learn about his journey.
Long before the Uber IPO and the WeWork scandal, there were dreamers among us who wanted to forge their own career path through life. Dan Lee is one of those individuals. He was starting companies for as long as his friends can remember. After almost a decade and a half of entrepreneurship, Dan is finally at the cusp of all his hard work coming to fruition.
Q. Tell me about why you chose the path of building your own companay vs. taking the corporate path?
A. That’s a heavy question Raisa!
I think it has a lot to do with my experience during School. While studying Computer Science at Ryerson, I worked for Microsoft when Microsoft was going through a big transition. Bill Gates was stepping down and Ballmer was taking over, this was just around Y2K. I also worked for one of the big Banks.
And in both cases, I found the corporate environment to be stifling.
We would all sit in cubicles at both offices. There wasn’t much communication happening among the coworkers within the cubicle four walls at the time.
The only conversations I heard, especially at the Bank was around the Go Train schedule. Like what Go Train my coworkers caught and what Go Train they were going to take back home.
And even the work I did at that bank often seemed a bit pointless. And I thought I needed something more; I needed to do something different.
At that time, in the early 2000s, tech wasn’t as big as it is now. The only go-to places were big firms after graduation, like IBM, Microsoft, AOL or some Telecomm company.
Or you worked for a consulting company where they would bill you out for twice as much as you were paid. You were essentially doing the same work as you would do for yourself without the overhead.
One of my friends went to Ernest & Young and he was managing projects. It made me think maybe I can do the same thing and make money for myself.
All my friends at the time either went to consulting, banks or big tech firms. Those were the only paths. And I didn’t know where to go. Tech seemed a bit dead at the time, just after the dot com bubble, with little innovation. The web was stagnated with IE6 being the default. It all led to starting my first company.
Q. Let’s get into what is happening today. Tell me about the companies you founded and are working on.
A. So I am pretty much managing the tech side of two companies. First is the cloud consulting, AWS firm, Qalius. And we are now being more and more pushed in to Security infrastructure – either continuous monitoring of security or redeploying infrastructure in a more secured way. That’s one aspect of what we do.
Cloud has totally changed the paradigm of programming. Now, Devs can’t just think of software, they need to think of both software and hardware. The line between software and hardware is totally blurred.
So we had to transition from building these fullstack monoliths to microservice architecture within the last three to four years. And because of this shift, a lot of legacy software is being rebuilt right now and it has been a great opportunity for me and my team. Having my team fully AWS certified, being an Advanced AWS partner and having a very strong relationship with Amazon. Things are going well there.
My other focus is Pllenty, a FinTech platform. We recently defined the value proposition as being a payment and communication workflow that integrates with existing systems of our clients for a seamless customer experience. This platform is also taking off and now I am splitting my time between these two “hungry babies” that are demanding a lot from me.
Q. What was the very first company that you started?
A. My first company was 321 Software Design. It was a just a name that I came up with in a bar. Even back then finding a good domain names was hard, it’s definitely much harder now.
I had 0 employees, it was just me! It was still early days of the internet and I ended up doing a lot of internal portals and integrating systems together for midsized companies.
Ironically, money wise, that was probably the best time of my life. As soon as I started having staff, there was no money left in the end. Financially, being a solo person, everything you make is yours.
I let my first company fizzle out over time in order to start another firm called Propeller with my then partner Ray.
Q. What is the hardest thing about running a business?
A. There are a few hard things. Cash flow is always hard – cash flow is king. Especially in professional services, cash comes in waves but the expenditure is steady. So you go down, down, down as you pay staff and bills and then you get a huge stack of cash. It can get pretty stressful – making sure everyone pays on time.
Managing staff is also very hard. So is managing clients. There are a lot of complexity around it. Managing in general is hard.
Managing the day-to-day and then pulling your head out of the weeds and having a vision of where to go can make or break you.
Q. Do you think it’s tougher to manage staff when you own the company vs in a corporate setting?
A. I don’t have experience managing a team in a corporate setting, but you’re more emotionally involved when it’s your own company I think. If someone is being lazy in a big company, it’s easier to not care.
But if you’re leaning on your small staff and everyone is super busy and one person is missing because they are too hungover or not into it, it can really affect you. You don’t have as much redundancy in a small firm.
Also, assembling the right executive team is a key piece of running a business that I didn’t realize before that I was missing.
Q. Can you explain more what you mean by that?
A. Right now, Qalius has the team of co-founders but also the team at Amazon. And with Pllenty we have the executive team but also the Advisory board that gives us legitimacy in certain verticals. When you’re alone and trying to build something up, you need that business sense to really grow.
In the end, companies are humans and you just constantly have to be in conversations with others – even if it’s about something that will happen a few years down the line. Sometimes things go fast but things can also take time.
Execution needs to be fast but the prep-work of building up relationships and building up strategy can take years. I didn’t realize how important it was when I was younger.
Back then I thought running a business was all about selling and bringing in work, then selling and bringing in work, without a direction. But now both companies have a direction and an end-goal. Our day-to-day today now involves making sure we achieve our end goals.
Q. When you say end-goal you mean exit?
A. 100% it means exit – how do you exit down the road? But even before you get there, what defines you? That constantly evolves and you need to be ready to pivot.
Q. Tell me more about what exit will be like for your companies.
A. First of all, the companies are more than just me. For the investors, they want a return on their investment – they want to 10x their investment let’s say.
As for me, I am pushing to build up that value as fast as possible. What our value proposition will look like over time is tough to say at this time.
With Qalius, the professional services company, it’s a bit easier. You look at companies like Onica, which is similar to Qalius, that was sold recently and the founders have exited at this point. It has been done many, many times. But with Pllenty it is a new thing, and a new path and it’s tough to say where it will go.
Q. What is the most rewarding aspect of running your own company?
A. I don’t know if there is much rewards in running a business *laughs*.
Right now, what is rewarding is basically that we are still alive! And both firms have survived three years and moving forward.
Supposedly, year three is the hardest. So the fact that we are still alive in year three is pretty rewarding.
If I talk less about running a business but more about building software, what is really rewarding is building software that other people uses. The business side is very different *laughs*.
The fact that Pllenty processes thousands of transactions every day now and we have monitoring on everything, so we catch even the smallest issues, it’s very rewarding.
Similarly, with professional services, when you on-board a client and they use the software – it’s very rewarding. With running the business, surviving is rewarding in and of itself.
Also, building the team, creating the vision and seeing them move forward is also very rewarding. It’s like being in a band and everyone is making the same music, complimenting each other.
Q. And you get to make the music that you want?
A. Well yes, but to a point. You have a say as a founder but things get big and you need to collaborate in the right way.
You can’t be stubborn and build a collaborative environment where everyone can be heard.
The fact that having a team where everyone is dedicated and sees decisions the same way is very rewarding.
Q. If you can give your 25 year old self any career advice, what would it be?
A. I would have told myself to work for a big company for a while, despite the downsides. And learn how a big company works, how they organize themselves, how collaboration takes place within that environment. And once you learn that, you are in a much better place to start something.
I would also tell myself to build a Dev team sooner than later, hire sooner than later.
Q. What is your top three advice for anyone who wants to become an Entrepreneur?
A. Fail fast – if things are going sour, get out of it fast. Don’t waste your time trying to save a sinking ship. Time is of the essence, you can’t get that time back.
Be prepared to make no money for at least 2 to 3 years. Make sure you are aware of that.
And surround yourself with good people. Your role as a business owner is not to just work on the day-to-day but also to build relationships. And not just with customers and vendors but also in a strategic way. Constantly and consistently putting yourself out there.
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