in conversation with
Pandora Mather-Lees, Director IORMA,
Having realised the potential value of data at just 21, Dan Wagner created M.A.I.D. an online database provider which he took public in 1994. This success established him as an entrepreneur with a strong and respected foothold in the city from which he continued to thrive founding the e-commerce software company VENDA and subsequently Powa Technologies for which he secured an injection of funds to the tune of $150m in 2014.
Dan also owns a couple of other businesses – BuyaPowa, a social commerce platform plus Attraqt, a service helping retail websites attract and monetise customers.
Despite a modest, straightforward and conservative persona, Dan has a steely spirit, determination and unwavering focus in his mission to gain recognition for an ever growing list of achievements. I asked him about his impressive career at just 51, his future goals and his involvement with IORMA.
PML: Dan, it’s terrific to have someone with your accomplishments on the board of IORMA. How did you come to join and what attracted you to the organisation?
DW: I’ve known John for a long time. I know that his vision for IORMA is to provide a global picture of the new consumer and it is important that we understand the trends world wide because the internet has changed the way consumers need to be viewed. This is because of Social media and because of the instantaneous ability to communicate globally – as if someone were next door or even in the same room. The boundaries are no longer there for that sort of research and yet researchers continue to operate in a territorial way so I feel IORMA has changed that by looking at the world from a global perspective as a community of consumers so I feel that is the main driver for my role.
PML: You have been very supportive of IORMA for instance in hosting events and contributing to the dialogue. What specific expertise do you feel you can bring to IORMA in terms of its round table discussions and knowledge sharing activities?
DW: I’m a very one-trick pony. I have concentrated throughout my life on online and electronic commerce transactions. That is my expertise and I am one of the more experienced having done it for 30 years. My perspective is very focused, very vertical and very specialised and therefore very useful as part of a broader group of specialised advisors. I believe I bring an aspect to the board which hopefully is valuable and unique.
PML: You certainly have an incredible career trajectory including taking companies from private to public. What can you share that you have learned from that?
DW: I’ve learned that public markets operate in an environment that is not always reflective of the business that is being represented there. That is something that you learn with experience and in fact many investors don’t appreciate for instance that sentiment drives stock prices and other companies’ results can affect your own. So I’ve learned that it is another world, not just a natural progression, it is different operating in a public company context than in a private one. I don’t think one is better than the other; I think there are benefits in both and I have had the advantage of being able to experience both. They each have various merits.
PML: Well your entrepreneurial spirit is very strong and I wonder what advice you would give to young businessmen starting up? For instance Branson always maintained that budding tycoons should always try to cover their risks or have an exit route in case a new venture doesn’t work out.
DW: Failure isn’t an option for me and I think that entrepreneurs should have the conviction to succeed above all else. I think it makes sense to have an escape route or exit plan, but I don’t operate like that. I operate with a single-minded focus to achieve and to win at all costs and whatever it takes and I have been reasonably successful in doing that. Part of that is the will to succeed in the first place. If you are thinking about failure, then you may fail. So the advice I would give is to follow your conviction and be confident about your vision. Do not allow people to distract you – often entrepreneurs are swayed by family members against risk. However that is what entrepreneurship is about – embracing risk; these people don’t sit with the norm, they need to be confident about themselves and not to be distracted. One of the problems in the UK in particular is that entrepreneurs are often not certain if they are doing the right thing in quitting their day job.
I think that if they want to start businesses, they should be championed by society and heralded. If they fail, they should also be patted on the back – like a war wound. It is part of the process and you get up and start again. If you are a champion, you are going to lose a few races on the way, but champions don’t give up.
PML: You seem to have created businesses at just the right time or sometimes ahead of their time; what else do you contribute to your success apart from your conviction?
DW: Dogged determination is at my greatest asset. My previous two businesses were ahead of their time but Powa has come to market at the right time. The problem of being too early is that you have to wait for the other pieces to come together.
An online information platform launched in 1984 might have done better if launched in 1997; Software-as-a-Service or a cloud based platform launched in 1998 might have done better if it had been launched in 2005. During those periods of 10-12 years, I had to fund and continue to motivate myself as the market started to accept the product, so I believe determination is the key as many people would have just given up. It’s demoralising when you go to see people and they say “I don’t have a computer, I don’t think that’s the way we will do things”. I just learned to move on and keep going.
PML: So you needed to have a lot of patience too I guess?
DW: No I don’t have any patience! Determination and a desire to win.
PML: Coming on to your products, in particular PowaTag, and the latest 2.0 version, can you give a simple example of how I would use it as a consumer?
DW: PowaTag is a new type of engagement platform similar to broadcast TV and e-commerce channels for sales. We have created and designed a new channel for sales which creates a variety of triggers for a variety of transactions. For example, I can be in the hairdresser, see an advert while reading a magazine and buy what I see on the page immediately with one tap of my phone. Or, I could be walking along the street at night when the shops are closed, see an item in the window and point my smart phone at the window and buy that item. I could watch TV and an ad comes on and I can buy what is in the ad by pointing my phone. All of these triggers (scanned via the printed page, through a window, listen to buy, touch to buy on a website) create transactions. It may be a trigger to buy or even registering my device for a warranty which is a pain to do, but the tagging takes a second. Alternatively, it could be loyalty programme or expressing interest in something or checking into a hotel.
There are so many scenarios where we continue to enter our credentials again and again manually. All we have done at Powa is to say why not have your credentials saved securely on your phone? We enable you to provide your personal information to someone by tapping your phone – it is actually very simple. It’s sophisticated in terms of what it does, but it is a simple proposition. The consumer is constantly writing down an email, a home address, a credit card number and phone number, but if I can just tap my thumb on my mobile phone it is a better way of doing it. This is what we have done with PowaTag – it is that evolution of data transfer between a consumer and a merchant or a consumer and a brand, but it is revolutionary in the way that you do it, it is a wonderful experience.
PML: In fact it’s an incredible time saver and time is a precious commodity none of us have enough of.
DW: It is exactly that.
PML: Given that this is a new area of consumer commerce and this is a key area of interest for IORMA in all its forms, what opportunities do you envisage for the future?
DW: I don’t think everyone moves as quickly as everyone expects, but I do think that what we are doing here is to create something that sits on the rails of an existing e-commerce infrastructure, allowing systems to take consumer data and payment more efficiently. Consumers have smart phones and app store access and now it is pretty easy for them. In this respect it’s not revolutionary, it doesn’t change infrastructure, it’s not disruptive, it’s rather an evolution and a better way of doing things. I used to use coins to pay for a train ticket and now I can tap with an Oyster card; that is not a revolution it’s just evolution. That is what we are doing here.
I find it amusing to see silly holographic mirrors people put in retail stores, they are gimmicky – people imagine that things will change dramatically but people are comfortable with the norm and evolve slowly in terms of finding new ways of doing things so all we are doing is adopting a more efficient infrastructure.
PML: By having this technology it will be so much easier that people will surely adopt it. However where do you see mobile technology heading from now into the future?
DW: I don’t think there will be much change in the next five years. We saw the move towards small flip phones and now we are moving towards larger devices as we can do more on the screens. Battery life will improve which is important and connectivity will improve in areas where it is not so great. If you look at the computer industry in the late 90s it was about the smallest, lightest PC, but there came a point when you could not get smaller functionally so we have stayed with the same laptop size that we had 15 years ago. We have got to the point where the mobile phone is powerful, small and compact, that is about it, apart from better battery life.
PML: Apart from mobile much of your business life has been in data, mainly structured. Are you looking at the possibilities presented by unstructured data?
DW: One of my companies, Attraqt, does just that. Attraqt helps retailers and websites manage their content so that they present relevant data to customers visiting their website. This technology can make sense of unstructured data.
I also funded a research project at Cambridge University as early as the 1980s so we are quite sophisticated in that. Artificial intelligence has now developed significantly and I think the forefront is now in working in the medium of video.
PML: Many entrepreneurs like to invest in start-ups, if you were to do so what would it be?
DW: No, I do not invest, I back my own business and I am focused on commerce and data services. I am not a good investor. I feel more comfortable doing my own thing although if I planned to invest in anything it would be property and bonds as I am doing enough risky stuff every day!
PML: Indeed this makes sense and being 100% focused has ensured your success. So what is the essence of your business drive and motivation?
DW: I have always had a desire to win and succeed. There are many different types of entrepreneurs, for instance those who will look at the market and say “I can do that slightly better”, say starting up a restaurant chain, or they will replicate successful products or services from other countries into the UK: I have always tried to create something new. I was a photographer’s assistant, I worked in advertising and I have always been on the arts side of things and think of myself as a creator and inventor. In particular, an inventor of reference points – there is no reference point with what I did with MAID, PowaTag and Venda and I want to make something happen and make it usable, rather like an artist who makes a painting and then gets a buzz if someone buys it. If I go back to when I was 20, even then it was about achievement and recognition – it was always about that and not the money.
PML: Given your vision and creativity, how can you imagine IORMA developing over the next few years? Where should we be going?
DW: I don’t think it should change much and certainly it should not get distracted. It is performing an important role, looking at the global market and the consumer. IORMA is looking at what we in consumer commerce should be doing on a global landscape. John and I both believe that there is a levelling of technology and how we engage with it – social media and so on. I believe tracking the developments in different markets is extremely valuable to merchants. No merchant thinks in terms of the High Street – or they shouldn’t be – they should think in terms of the world. This is where IORMA’s value exists.