Innovation is the cornerstone of security and technology. At AC Global Risk, we want to highlight and gain insight from leaders who are revolutionizing their fields. Our Industry Innovators series seeks out the best and the brightest to explore how they are paving new ground nationally and globally in enterprise and entrepreneurship.
Don Faul is currently the Chief Executive Officer at Athos, a next generation smart clothing company focused on building better athletes. Prior to Athos, Don was the Head of Operations at Pinterest, where he led community support and outreach, international growth, and business partnerships and sales. Before joining Pinterest, Don served as the Vice President of Online Operations at Facebook, where he built and led the company’s global user, developer and payments, and risk operations teams. Don joined Facebook from Google, where he built and managed the operations supporting merchants using Google’s commerce and payments products. He started his career as a Marine Infantry Officer, serving as a Platoon Commander with 1st Light Armored Battalion and 1st Force Reconnaissance Company. Don completed combat tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq before leaving active duty in 2003. Don graduated with Honors from the United States Naval Academy with a BS in Systems Engineering and received his MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Don currently sits on the board of Nuru International, a nonprofit focused on battling extreme poverty through sustainable development efforts and the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of Marines.
We recently caught up with Don and had the opportunity to pick his brain a bit on what it means to him to be an industry innovator.
How easy was the transition from the military to enterprise business?
It was difficult. I came off active duty in 2003 and went back to graduate school. I had no idea of what direction to take, or the qualifications that were needed. Moreover, I didn’t know which companies might give me a shot, but I was fortunate in that I had some folks who helped guide me, and that was invaluable.
What aspects of the military helped prepare you for being a business innovator?
The first thing I would say is teamwork and leadership. These two qualities are just as valuable in the private sector as they are in the military. Next I’d say is learning how to persevere in the face of challenges—having grit. There will be ups and downs in every successful company, and you need to learn how to stay focused. The military teaches you that, particularly on deployments. It’s about being focused and having discipline—knowing how to operate.
Can you share an example of true business innovation that you have personally witnessed?
I was fortunate to be with Facebook early. I joined in 2008 when the audience was primarily college students in the US. At that time it hadn’t broadened its demographic to the international phenomenon it is today. Over the course of my time there—when there was tremendous growth—there was an enormous amount of innovation which centered mainly around how to grow and scale the business. What I witnessed was Facebook growing up from a college site to global platform. [perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Successful entrepreneurs have to be inspiring leaders. They have the vision beyond a simple product or idea, and they have to be able to inspire others to join them in this crazy idea and keep their team marching in the same direction.[/perfectpullquote]
What are the three most important traits that make a successful entrepreneur?
No.1 is vision. It is hard to be successful if you don’t have a strong vision that you deeply believe in.
No.2 is grit and determination; almost every entrepreneur has been through failure.
No.3 successful entrepreneurs have to be inspiring leaders. They have the vision beyond a simple product or idea, and they have to be able to inspire others to join them in this crazy idea and keep their team marching in the same direction.
Leadership, teamwork, and vision. Rank these in order of importance for a start up.
This is a hard question but I would say vision first. You can have the best team and leadership, but if can’t articulate the vision then the team is lost. You need clarity on where you’re going otherwise you will constantly be challenged as to where you’re going. Next is leadership and teamwork. Great teams have great leaders. These are two sides of the same coin.
What matters most in innovation?
The paradox is that great entrepreneurs are steadfast and stubborn—they see a future they want to make a reality. It’s very rare that the path you start down is the path that leads to the vision. It’s critical that entrepreneurs and team members are open about how to get there—that they learn from mistakes and course correct.
You have worked for the leading names in technology, from Google to Facebook to Pinterest. What examples of innovation in those organizations most impressed you (pick a couple if possible)?
Within Facebook I certainly saw some incredibly compelling shifts. There were very big features that changed, and shifts in the experience. Newsfeed, for example, was a seminal moment—and don’t forget it was very controversial at the time. 30-40% of Facebook users protested. Today, we can’t imagine Facebook without Newsfeed, or indeed any social media for that matter. Yet also so much of Facebook’s innovation progress didn’t involve massive game-changing features—it was just incredibly disciplined execution. There was an understanding of where we were going and then staying focused. The 5% progress here and there—well, those gains add up very quickly when you stack them up. So much of Facebook’s success falls in that category. There was unbelievable discipline.[perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Entrepreneurism is about the journey. You may have a vision of what you want to accomplish, but very quickly you’ll learn that building a business is not an individual effort. It is the ultimate team sport. [/perfectpullquote]
What are you most proud of?
Without doubt the teams that I was able to be part of, or that I was able to lead and help build. At Google, we started in small teams of 5-6 people that grew to hundreds supporting billions of users. When I think back to what they were able to accomplish, it’s not surprising that those people are now doing amazing things at dozens of organizations across the valley.
If you had one piece of advice for entrepreneurs….
Entrepreneurism is about the journey. You may have a vision of what you want to accomplish, but very quickly you’ll learn that building a business is not an individual effort. It is the ultimate team sport. From your very first hire to managing a big company it’s all about the people, culture, and talent. That may sound clichéd and obvious but it’s very hard to get right, and is never more true than in the early stages when you are scrapping and trying to survive. You can lose sight of the vision and the mission without the right people, and of course the mission is critical
What is your favorite book, your favorite film, and your favorite cocktail?
My favorite question of the interview! Without hesitation, my favorite book is Beach Music by Pat Conroy; favorite movie is Braveheart; and favorite cocktail…I’ll go for beer instead!
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