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Venture Atlanta: Dave DeWalt opens up about success and leadership

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The 11th annual Venture Atlanta began with a bang. The energy was high, and the Southern Exchange Ballroom on Peachtree Street was packed. The community-sponsored event is put on by a nonprofit organization, and yet it’s become one of the premier venture capital events in the nation. Of the $2.6 billion invested so far there have been $14 billion in returns. In attendance are over 200 investors and 1000 attendees. Hundreds of companies applied to demo, and there are about 175 total who, over the duration of the conference, will present.

Arun Matthew is partner at Accel, and Dave DeWalt is managing director of AllegisCyber, and former CEO of FireEye, McAfee, and Documentum. DeWalt has also been a part of creating 17,000 jobs, $20 billion in shareholder value, $2 billion in revenue, and has 32 years now in high tech. 17 years (68 quarters) was spent as CEO. He said he was retiring on his 52nd birthday, “but I’m so OCD. I’m now on 21 boards and I’m just so into high tech and cybersecurity, and have a huge passion for building companies and scaling companies. I just can’t stop.” 

Arun Matthew: Tell us about your first opportunity.

Dave DeWalt: At Documenum I felt the weight of the world on me as CEO. Humility and honesty is one of the greatest values and skills I learned. Learning how to lead and inspire. And then on top of that I learned from the former CEO about power. How to use it, how to lead. 

AM: What’s changed over the last nine years? What do see as preconditions for success?

DD: Eight or nine years ago Delta was hanging by a thread, and we took the bull by the horns. Last year Delta made more profit than all the other airlines combined. It was that Atlanta ‘can do’ attitude that I hadn’t seen anywhere else. I saw and learned from Home Depot and Coca Cola. Passion and energy and watching Atlanta grow in technology. 

AM: If you’re thinking abut starting a company in the southeast what are the areas you’re seeing?

DD: In 1986 it was only Silicon Valley for high tech. Now, it’s so virtual and so global. Here in Atlanta it’s like a Silicon Valley East. The talent, the loyalty; I’m really encouraged to see the human capital grow here. The saas vendors, the cloud vendors, and the cyber ecosystem that’s been growing here. So much of the transportation industry has grown. This one company created this container for animals to travel. Incredible innovation. Now that company is rocketing. It’s great to see so many verticals growing.

AM: Let’s go back to Delta. You went through almost bankruptcy to more cashflow than all the other airlines combined, where are you now and how to keep innovating? Are there principles you hold onto?

DD: I’m a board member, not the CEO, so they really drive it, but it’s about digital transformation. If you get maniacal about it, that’s the difference maker. To watch it in every facet of the organization. Hundreds of millions of consumers getting us feedback. It’s so mobile now. We get awards for our mobile app. That’s how you stay ahead; that’s the edge. Making the culture. I always say surround yourself with people better than you. I try to create functional leaders. For Delta that’s in their DNA. If you’re an investor, that’s what I look for. World-class leadership. If they don’t have it, I don’t invest. Great leaders are the bullseye. I look for that. Can they really understand what leadership can do for a company? If you can emotionally attach your employees to your mission, then you’ve got it. It’s an X factor. You can usually tell it right away whether they have it or not.

AM: When I think of a CEO, I think of team building, but in addition to culture and that X factor, what do you do tactically?

DD: People, people, people. Recruiting. Get the right talent. I try really hard to do almost a psychological test. I try to personally get connected. I don’t necessarily talk about your skills. Tell me about your best friend, then give me their phone number so I can call them. I want a 360-degree view of your personality, and then I can get a view of how you get ahead. Focus in on that. I want highly motivated game players. 

AM: Over the last 30 years can you tell us about one or two defining experiences? What jumps to mind?

DD: One was probably my worst failure that ended up becoming my greatest success. The number was 5958. That was the DAT release. The day was April 21, 2010. As the CEO of McAffee we wiped out 167 companies in 15 minutes. Let’s just say we turned your computer off, and it wouldn’t come back on. 3.2 million computers. I mean the White House was calling me. Grocery stores couldn’t open their doors. 880 Burger Kings couldn’t operate, which might not have been such a bad thing? The Canadian Liquor Board? All joking aside, it was the worst moment. I created a video in about 60 minutes, and I took full responsibility. We said we’d take care of it. What happened? Empathy happened. In the next 3 months after we fixed those companies, almost all the companies ended up investing in us even more. Intel especially. They learned a lesson from the experience. They helped us to never let the OS to ever fail to come on. We dropped 40% market cap after the moment, then recovered it and gained 60% on top. The question is: How do you handle yourself in a crisis? So my greatest failure turned into my greatest success. I’m not sure a lawyer would say to create a video, but that’s what I did and it worked.

AM: 85 billion went into venture capital this year. What’s going on? Any lessons you’d share as an investor?

DD: Is this the greatest age of humankind or what? We’re in it. I wish I’d become CEO now. When I was in it with McAffee the whole market was $3.2 billion. Now it’s $100 billion. Whoever can really get the eye of the tiger and innovate, the sky is really the limit.