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A Hustler’s Guide to Forging Your Own Path: Don Mal, the Rockstar CEO of Vena Solutions

Sometimes, you have a gift. If you’re smart, you don’t squander it.

Don Mal is smart.

As the chief executive of Vena Solutions, Mal has the gift of selling—and it’s taken him on an interesting career path, one that has been winding and twisting, but always upward.

As a teenager, Mal took work selling insurance to fishermen. As you can imagine, it was a tough sell, but it taught him two things: first, that he was good at it; and second, that it was a powerful tool to have in his arsenal.

Chasing Dreams and Honing Skills

As powerful as his gift for sales, though, was Mal’s dream of rock stardom. Indeed, a young Mal dropped out of university after two years to chase after his lofty musical ambition, selling stereos on the side to fund his wild pursuit.

Mal led a band called Between the Lines and saw some measure of success: a radio single, a few live performances. But he could never quite take the leap of faith to seek a career in music full-time, and when he switched from selling stereos to selling software, his career pivoted sharply. Between the Lines faded into obscurity, and Salesman Don reached full force.

Years passed and Mal honed his selling skills, but he often wondered what he was missing. With an abandoned formal education and a sales-centric career path, what sort of gaps had formed in his skill set? And, more important, what could he accomplish if he filled those gaps?

After a 20-year career without a degree, Mal pursued higher education all the way to the top, including executive stints at Stanford University and Harvard University, finally polishing off his résumé with a master’s degree in business administration from the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. From there, his trajectory tilted decidedly upward.

“Higher education benefited me tremendously,” Mal told me in the Liberty Village offices of Vena Solutions, which provides enterprise-class software for budgeting and financial forecasting through Office 365 products. “It gave me analytical and operational capabilities so that I could be a general manager instead of just a sales manager.”

Still, says the CEO: when it comes to amassing and applying knowledge, experience and attitude trump everything.

“Why are some leaders better than others?” he asks.

It boils down to just a few factors, according to Mal—things that aren’t always inherently obvious, like transparency and authenticity, but that can usually be learned.

“If you are missing a skill,” he suggests, “go learn it.” And he has the experience to back up that wisdom.

Don as the vocalist and guitarist for his rock band, Between the Lines, performing at Lee's Palace in Toronto in 1994.

Don as the vocalist and guitarist for his rock band, Between the Lines, performing at Lee’s Palace in Toronto in 1994.

With his new range of skills, Mal ascended the ranks as a sales leader for Clarity, which was acquired by IBM in 2010. In that capacity, he was successful and comfortable. But his full potential had not yet been realized.

From Executive to Entrepreneur

A colleague at IBM, Rishi Grover, eventually got the entrepreneurial itch. When an idea struck him—to build a solution around Excel without interrupting an experience so intimately familiar to enterprise workforces—he decided to turn concept into company (today he is Vena’s chief solutions architect). His friend George Papayiannis, also from IBM, joined him (now the company’s chief technology officer).

Mal saw their move, and acknowledged the brilliance of their idea, and had to make a decision. Giving up a lucrative retention package he’d earned at IBM, Mal took that great leap of faith he couldn’t quite commit to in his youth, diving head-first into the riveting, terrifying world of full-time entrepreneurship.

Mal’s sales background, bolstered by his education, filled a void his technical cofounder colleagues could not. The rest, as they say, is history: Vena has experienced triple-digit annual growth for five years straight, and Mal says not only are they are on pace to continue that streak for a sixth year in a row, but their projections suggest it’s sustainable for at least a decade straight.

“So many entrepreneurs today get caught up with technology and design,” he explains, “but they forget they have to actually get people to buy their product. Sometimes you need to just start selling something and iterate from there.”

 

Can we be surprised? The company is headed by a man raised on selling, after all, and that mindset is embedded into Vena’s culture.

“So many entrepreneurs today get caught up with technology and design,” he explains, “but they forget they have to actually get people to buy their product. Sometimes you need to just start selling something and iterate from there.”

While Vena’s sales-focused culture has propelled growth—the company, now at well over 200 employees, earlier this year expanded into a gorgeous work space—there is no shortage of fun times to be had.

“We don’t hire assholes,” Mal says. “We’ve very much a community here.”

There’s even a company band, called The Grid Unlocked (which Mal once tried to make Vena’s tagline), that has up to 10 members jamming together. It’s a move obviously influenced by Mal’s own history in the music scene. Nonetheless, it offers a novel creative outlet for coworkers to tap into should the sales grind ever wear on them. Employees, then, have the opportunity to take on the roles of both Salesman Don and Rockstar Don.

Vena Solutions new office offers an impressively equipped jam space.

Vena Solutions new office offers an impressively equipped jam space.

Success Beyond Selling

Mal pays it forward by mentoring other entrepreneurs. He gives them a lot of sales-oriented advice, naturally. That’s no doubt where the bulk of his value as a mentor resides. But when pressed to give our aspiring entrepreneurs tips, he was hesitant to emphasize anything specific.

“Dare to dream,” he said, “and know that there is no single path to success.”

Okay, so be prepared for pretty much anything. That’s fair, and it reflects the unorthodox road Mal himself has traveled. How, though, can a would-be founder navigate such treacherous trails? What tools must they hoard in their sack? Mal believes there is a combination of three attributes—trainable, all of them, to a point—that can help any potential entrepreneur become a vanguard.

  • First, you need emotional intelligence. Mal says it’s important to know how to work well with others, because nobody is going to achieve their highest possible level of success alone. Some people possess this talent naturally; if you don’t, it’s worth developing such skills through courses.
  • Second, you need a high intelligence quotient. No, don’t sweat your “score” as told by some quiz on the internet—that’s just a number. But be smart, and always think about upgrading your skills. The wisest sensei is the one who never loses his desire to learn, including from his own students.
  • Finally, you need to work hard. Without a willingness to hustle, all of your intelligence and skills will remain underutilized. Success rarely comes easy, but that is a huge part of what makes entrepreneurship so fulfilling and empowering.
Vena Solutions CEO Don Mal in the lobby of Vena's new headquarters in Toronto's Liberty Village.

Vena Solutions CEO Don Mal in the lobby of Vena’s new headquarters in Toronto’s Liberty Village.

Mal built an impressive career on the back of these three attributes, and he’s far from done. Vena continues to grow as a company, and Mal continues to grow as a person. With some EQ, some IQ, and a little sweat, Mal forged his own individual path toward success and happiness.

With a vanguard mindset, he says, “the sky is the limit.”

Photos by Matt Odynski, Techvibes Editor.

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