2015 Mercer University Commencement Address

Earlier today I had one of the highest honors I can imagine: I had the opportunity to give the commencement address at Mercer University.

Here’s a transcript of the speech:

I’m humbled and honored to stand here before you today at your graduation.

Two and a half years ago I was sitting at Fogo de Chao in Buckhead with my co-founder Adam. We had just closed the chapter on the most exciting adventure of our career. Earlier that day, October 11th, 2012, we had sold our company, Pardot, for almost $100 million and now it was time to figure out our next journey. It was a bittersweet moment. As entrepreneurs, we had always hoped, and dreamed, of being successful, but didn’t really know what form it would take. One of the most surreal parts of the experience occurred when we sold the company on a Tuesday morning but couldn’t tell anyone until Thursday afternoon. It was a great time to reflect, knowing something new comes next. Only, we didn’t know what was next.

In five-and-a-half years, we built the company from an idea to over 100 employees, and in the process learned five life lessons.

Lesson number one. Find mentors.

Five years earlier we’d started Pardot to help generate sales leads on the internet. Pardot is the Latvian verb “to market or to sell”. Now, that’s Latvian, not Latin — we couldn’t afford the Latin word, so we paid $8 for the domain name and were on our way.

With a name and a dream, I scheduled lunch with one of my mentors Bill, a technology CEO whose opinion I valued. It was a nice Spring day so we sat outside near the Chattahoochee River. I shared with him our new business idea and all the reasons why it was going to be successful. Patiently, he asked a number of excellent questions. After 30 minutes, he looked at me and said something I’ll never forget: David, have you heard of marketing automation. Like most of you, I had never heard of marketing automation. He then shared how it’s the future of marketing and something we should look into. Put simply, it’s next generation marketing software. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that lunch with a mentor, and the advice he gave, proved to be one of the most important conversations of our journey, and it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t asked him to lunch.

Mentors are critical. As much as we like to believe we know it all, or can figure it out, the truth is we’ll go further, faster with strong mentors.

Lesson number two. Invest wisely.

It was late 2007 and we headed to our first tradeshow in Las Vegas. We arrived at the Sahara Hotel on the old Vegas strip, not to be confused with the Vegas Strip where people actually want to stay. We went to the front desk, and said we were checking in. The clerk pulled up our reservation, looked at the dates, and exclaimed, “Wow, four nights! No one ever stays here for four nights.” Not only were we staying for four nights, we were sharing a small, old room. Every business trip we went on for five-and-a-half years, we shared a room in order to save money, so that we could invest in more important areas of the business.

Save money, delay gratification, and invest wisely — it makes a difference. Too often, we chase the next shiny object, only to realize too little, too late that it doesn’t bring us happiness. Figure out what brings you happiness and invest wisely.

Lesson number three. Seek a place where you can grow.

In 2010, the Atlanta Business Chronicle named Pardot the #1 fastest growing technology company in Metro Atlanta. Knowing that we were a finalist, but not knowing our ranking, I rushed over to Disco Kroger in Buckhead and bought a copy of the paper. Excitedly, I turned to the page that listed the winners. Column one had the company name and column two had the three year growth rate from 2007-2009, inclusive. There it was in big print: Pardot – 42,000% three year growth. Thankfully, the Business Chronicle didn’t have a minimum revenue amount at the time, and starting with a base of a couple thousand dollars makes it easy to grow fast.

Pardot was well positioned for growth because of the timing, market, and technology. In the same way, position yourself in a place where you can grow. Seek out an opportunity where you’ll be challenged, where you can learn, and where you can take on greater responsibilities.

Lesson number four. Look for people who share your values.

One day, I walked into the office, and I had this bad feeling in my stomach. I knew I had a 10am meeting that morning with a few team members I didn’t enjoy working with. I’m the co-founder. I’m the CEO. What’s wrong with this picture? It was at that point that I did a good bit of research and self-examination. After reading the book Good to Great by Jim Collins, it finally clicked: we didn’t have a strong culture. We had a group of people that could get the job done but we didn’t have cohesive values.

Over the course of several years, we worked hard to build a great culture focused on people that are positive, self-starting, and supportive. As part of our quarterly check-ins, we answered four simple questions: what did you accomplish last quarter? what are you going to do next quarter? how can you improve? how are you following the values? The most important question was that last one: how are you following the values? We wanted to make our values as strong as possible.

Pardashians, as we like to call our team members, are amazing. In fact, the AJC named Pardot the #1 best place to work in Atlanta two years in a row. In the articles, some of our amazing workplace benefits were highlighted. We had benefits like four hours of housecleaning per month paid for and administered by the company, a full-time massage therapist on staff, and a simple, two word vacation policy: be reasonable. There were no sick days, no vacation days, and no flex days. Everything was centered around the belief that any team member should be able to work anytime, anywhere, and that people should be measured on results, not time spent in the office. Only, the reason we won the best place to work awards is because of the strength of our values.

Look for people who share your same values – at work, at church, in the community – anywhere you spend time. Shared values improve communication, trust, and quality of life. In fact, strong personal and shared values are a key component of happiness.

Lesson number five. Make an impact.

In late 2012, we sold our company. The day after the news was public, I was driving down the Downtown Connector to see a friend in Midtown and share with him the details of the sale. Only, half way there, I looked up and saw one of our Pardot recruiting billboards near the 17th Street Bridge. Seeing the Pardot sign caused a burst of emotion and I just started crying in the car, right there, by myself. My whole identity and self worth was wrapped up in this little company, and now we had sold it. I needed to figure out what was next.

After talking to my amazing wife, I bought a building in Buckhead, at the intersection of Piedmont and Lenox Roads, and turned it into the Atlanta Tech Village. The Village is a way to say thank you to Atlanta, and bring together hundreds of entrepreneurs. Today, we have 240 startups and 840 people, including Mercer’s own office for entrepreneurs. It’s one of the 10 largest tech entrepreneurship centers in the country and the largest in the Southeast.

Over the next 10 years, the majority of new jobs created will come from companies that aren’t even in existence today. Here, in Atlanta, entrepreneurship is alive and well. Entrepreneurs in town have created innovative new companies like the next major social network with Yik Yak and their millions of college users. We have the next great Bitcoin payment processing platform with Bitpay and their 50,000 merchants. Today, Pardot has over 400 employees and is one of the fastest growing marketing products in the world. Right here, in Atlanta.

My goal is to make an impact. I want to help entrepreneurs. I want to make a difference. Whatever it is you do, figure out how to make an impact in your community.

Conclusion

As you set out on the next phase of life’s amazing journey, remember these five simple lessons: find mentors, invest wisely, seek out growth opportunities, look for people that share your values, and, finally, make a big impact. Incorporate these five life lessons and the journey will be even more rewarding.

Congratulations and good luck! Thank you all very much.

7 thoughts on “2015 Mercer University Commencement Address

  1. Absolutely great advice, David. The great thing about mentoring brilliant people is that you usually learn more than they do. That is absolutely the case with you. I’m still taking notes…

  2. David, I’ve enjoyed being a subscriber to your thoughts for some time now and I really look forward to reading them at the end of my day. This speech is terrific– I enjoyed the details, including how geography played a role in your success (Lesson #3) and how it’s driven you to continue to invest in Atlanta. Thank you for sharing this with us!

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