If you think you need to have Silicon Valley DNA to become a successful technology entrepreneur, Lars Dalgaard proves that it ain’t so. Lars is the CEO of SuccessFactors (Nasdaq: SFSF), a SaaS company which recently went public.
SM: Lars, I want to start with your personal background – tell me who you are. LD: You don’t have that much time! I was born in Denmark – I have a Danish passport. I lived in Denmark until I was 18, with a brief break when I lived in England from 13 to 16.
SM: Did you come to the US when you were 18? LD: I was not smart enough to get a scholarship to the American Schools and I did not have any money to afford it on my own. Out of undergraduate school I started working for Novartis, a pharmaceutical company. They had 70,000 employees. I went to work for them in Switzerland, which was a very interesting experience. I also worked for them in New York for a while before returning to Switzerland. It was a very global experience in a very short time.
SM: What were your functional areas of work? LD: Novartis has a program where they select two people every year who they think has the potential to become one of the people who manage their core business areas – they take them very young, I was the youngest by about 10 years and somehow I got in – and they train you.
They made me a corporate controller first, which meant I had to learn all of the accounting bugs. Pharmaceutical companies make a lot of money, particularly the top three which Novartis was at the time, so they are very concerned about how they control the cash. They teach you a lot about the inner workings of the businesses.
It’s funny because I have not thought about that in about fifteen years, but that is one of the reasons that I drive this company with so many metrics because that was how they did it. Their process evolved over many years. They have gone down to a level where they want each pharmaceutical pill to cost nothing so they can spend billions in research and development and have a high profit, which of course they do.
After that they send you to the US, which is like a training ground. The entire program is like a two year boot camp where they drop you in and they see if you survive. It is that principle the whole way through. You are put in sales school and then sent to the field to be a sales rep. In my case I was a foreigner and I ended up selling cardiology products to cardiologists in New Jersey in the biggest hospitals.
Overall, it was a very simple process – if you survive you are one of us, if you don’t, then find another job. When you were done being a sales rep, they sent you to the head office to become a product manager and you learn advertising and media. After you make it through that they send you back to the head office for more advertising and brainwashing. You are then supposed to be sent out into operations. By that time, however, I was really bored.
SM: How many years were you with Novartis? LD: I think it was two and half or three years.
SM: So you moved through all of those functions in just two and a half years? LD: That is how they do it when you are in that group that they want to promote.
SM: That is great – a crash course in business! LD: I am the luckiest person in the world. It is absolutely fabulous. You are very, very blessed with that.
SM: What years are we talking? LD: That is 1991, 1992 and 1993.
SM: Right before the Internet struck. LD: That’s right! And I was stuck over in Switzerland somewhere skiing.