caught up with Dave Gilbert, CEO & Founder of Simple Signal, to discuss some vital (and not so vital) information. The conversation ranged from anything to Simple Signal’s approach to the future, to the extent of a style choice that only the nefarious Al Capone might have worn better. The “Big Cheese” started Simple Signal back in 2004, in what Dave characterized as a rather nerve-wracking foray. Even though he hasn’t seemed to put his feet up by any means, the company has since blossomed into a undeniable success story. Mr. Gilbert brings an astounding 20 years of technology, communications, and marketing experience everywhere he goes, teaming up with some likewise vets roughly a decade ago to engineer the most recent solution in Simple Signal. 

Dave’s abundance of spirit transcends what is overtly featured in shows and interviews, and he has experienced a pattern of great successes, no matter the venture. Graduating from seminary in 1983, Dave later founded Coast Hills Community Church in Aliso Viejo, CA, which quickly grew beyond 5,000 followers. Dave soon left the ministry on a friend’s dare – a seemingly unorthodox move that aimed to bring his charisma and expertise to the business world. As cliché as it might seem, the rest is truly history, as Dave has since grown to something of a deity in the telecoms industry – highly respected and revered by all. As a choice advocate for the industry, Dave is incredibly active (and vocal) at telecommunications events, a forward-thinker, dedicated leader, and a proven entrepreneur. Without further ado…here’s the transcript of our exclusive interview with him:

Mike Roden: Approximately how many fedoras do you own?

Dave Gilbert: 14

MR: I noticed in a past interview that you characterized Simple Signal’s initial foray as having the goal of being “ really disruptive”, yet it inevitably ended up being “disturbing”. Would you care to elaborate further on catalysts involved in that shift?

DG: At first (2004) I thought VoIP was going to be the biggest technological shift in a hundred years of telco. I could see how it would create “disruptive” chaos among the giants in the industry forcing them to change both their business model and their technology. But the technology stumbled with regard to its reliability and the lack of cheap bandwidth. Its impact was slowed until around 2008 when we hit a tipping point and the “cloud” was finally easily accessed and trusted by business. So the loud explosion of VoIP was muted. Over the years I’ve joked that my hope of creating a company that was “disruptive” turned out to only be a little “disturbing” to the Giants. However, we are now in a position to make that challenge.

The industry has gone from VoIP to EoIP (everything over the Internet). Nimble companies like SimpleSignal are tying people’s mobile devices together with their land line equipment.  We created the beginning of Cloud-based UC that has threatened all premise-based companies. The “cloud” changed, and continues to change everything. Our customers have become workers that were initially excited about how UC allowed them to work “anytime, anywhere” to where they are lamenting that they are now working “ALL the time, EVERYwhere.” Now they are talking to us about creating solutions that build an overall communications strategy that will allow them to simplify and unify all of the ways their business communicates and collaborates. This is where SimpleSignal differentiates ourselves from the other companies offering VoIP. We are perfecting the “mass customization” aspects of providing solutions that are tailored to their unique business challenges.

MR: Candidly, the term “Big Cheese” is terribly outdated – though you’ve seemingly brought it back in way that’s acceptable; bringing innovations of the future, taking the reigns of progression. Did you always embrace this moniker, and who is responsible for creating it?

DG: [laughs] Yeah, so… I’m old. I suppose that’s why I’m ok with the title. However, I’ve surrounded myself with a team of very hip, slick and cool people that keep me dressing and thinking hip. We like to give interesting titles to our people. The less traditional the better. One of our channel managers is running around with cards that have her title “Channel Diva” on them. We are not going out of our way to try and fit in to a “stuck” corporate industry. We like the idea of zigging when others zag.

From the beginning of our company, I knew that in a sea of traditional, suited telco executives I needed to be different, because our technology is different. I wanted to make sure people knew that SimpleSignal was not a CLEC but was really more software than copper. So I told my team to dress more like Facebook employees than AT&T employees.
My title and my Fedora hat speak to SimpleSignal’s culture. When I walk into a room of Telco executives, people will say out loud “the Big Cheese is here!” They’d never say anything like “the CEO is here.” There are lots of CEO’s, presidents and “founders” in every industry gathering I go to. There are no other “Big Cheese’s” or “the guy rockin’ the hat.” I want people to know I’m in the room.  I hope it’s not my ego that people see. It’s that I’m always marketing SimpleSignal and sometimes I get to have fun doing that.
MR: How have you grown as an individual from your time at Simple Signal? 
DG: Setting out to start a business in Telco that will directly compete with the ILEC’s is an “against all odds” proposition. The giant Telcos have the trust of their customers and more importantly, the trust of the sales channel partners. They have vast resources and the best, most experienced people in the industry. Staying alive for the past 8 years and now seeing SimpleSignal thrive didn’t just happen. It has been a street fight. A 24/7/365 commitment for me, our key employees and our investors. We saw the opportunity, believed the dream, and never quit.  We concentrated on our strengths, rather than focus on our weaknesses. We stayed agile and innovative while the larger companies were slow and resistant to change. I often tell our people we are jet skiers while they are battleships. As a result we picked up opportunities that were under their noses but they couldn’t get to.
Being part of this has been exhilarating, terrifying and satisfying for me personally. It has tested me as an individual and pointed out my strengths and weaknesses. I learned the value of time management and the value of staffing to my weak sides. I learned how to be a better communicator and a much better listener. I learned that I needed to believe the dream when things looked impossible.
I could talk much more about how I’ve grown as SimpleSignal has grown but suffice it to say that I am a better person because I went on this journey.
MR: How would you describe the office environment at Simple Signal? What’s a typical day like? On the opposite of end of the spectrum, how well does the team handle an atypical day?
DG: We start the day with our “stand up” meeting. It’s a daily huddle that we have with all hands. This meeting is like home room in high school. It’s where we make company announcements, track our progress, celebrate team member’s birthdays or point out stellar effort from an employee. It’s a short meeting, usually less than 10 minutes, but everyone in the Denver office gathers in our “Cloud room” (more on this room later) and uses our video conferencing technology (over iPad, smart phone or desk phone) to pull together the rest of the team no matter where in the world they might be.
An atypical day might be a storm day when traveling to our office is treacherous. On those days our people are fully equipped to work from home. Our call center is virtual so all of our people can be at home and our customers would never know the difference (except barking dogs and crying babies in the background.)

On most days, you’ll find our people working in teams, collaborating on a project or hunkered down on some task. Our office is buzzing but we try to keep it fun and interesting. This keeps personal drama down and the employee engaged with their work.

MR: In a few words, characterize the pursuit of project completion at Simple Signal.

DG: We measure incremental gain over time. “Kaizen” keeps us executing and measuring our progress daily.

[Kaizen (改善) was created in Japan following WWII, and refers to making perpetual, continuous improvements on a frequent, every day basis. In a business setting, this philosophy applies to every employee, and thus, creates a strong corporate environment]

MR: In merging voice and unified communications, what has been the most difficult task faced? How does Simple Signal differentiate itself from the rest of the market, which is inundated with services that don’t necessarily satisfy the needs of the modern consumer?

DG: We are innovators. We sell solutions to real business problems, not a product where one size fits all. We are constantly developing and getting new products to market.

Look, we are different. We don’t come to the market crying “Buy my phones, they are cheaper!” We look at the business and what they need from their communications strategy to make them function better and faster. We find that some of our features make that business function more efficiently. That’s what we do. We give the customer exactly what they want. We help them create a solution from our more than 350 features, apps, and integration that truly changes that business. That explains why our churn rate is so low compared to most Telcos.
In Telco there are only three ways a company can differentiate. Price, Service, Technology. We’ve chosen to focus on our technology to successfully position our company as different from the rest. Research us and you’ll see that we have successfully rolled out products and new technology ahead of our competition.
MR: Growing up, what person(s) and/or organization(s) were your greatest inspiration, helping you transition into your current role and find success?
DG: I have been a voracious reader of biographies, business books and periodicals. I read everything I can by innovative business writers like Jim Collins, Seth Godin and Tom Peters. Currently, I devour every issue of HBR, Fast Company and INC, not to mention blogs and industry rags. To this day I love reading about new business models that work and think about how I can incorporate the author’s thinking into SimpleSignal.
I gain inspiration from companies and leaders like Salesforce and CEO Mark Benioff. I love they way they continually innovate and manage fast growth.  Michael Kirven of Blue Wolf was the inspiration behind our unlimited vacation policy. And I absorb just about Richard Branson writes. His style of business is fun and energizes me.  Anybody that can write a book titled “Screw It, Let’s Do It,” is a hero to me [smiles].
I’ve also found many business and personal life mentors along the way and meet with them regularly. Their real life experiences can’t replace a lifetime of book knowledge.  As a matter of fact I met with one of them for coffee today. And I hope I’ve been helpful to those that have sought me out in the same way.
MR: Are there any future developments in the works from Simple Signal that you’d like to share?
DG: Top of mind for me is Video Conferencing. Our strategic partnership with Polycom will be one of our key initiatives this year.  We believe that every one of our customers will benefit from this very important and experience-changing technology. When you have a mobile Salesforce, getting everyone together is expensive and largely unnecessary. Our video conferencing allows them to use the device of their choice to communicate visually with their peers and leaders of their companies. 2013 brings our ability to help a customer get going with high quality and secure video conferencing while avoiding what last year would have cost them potentially hundreds of thousands in cap ex.

Add to this our interest in taking our solution to the “M” of the SMB. Once we were relegated to the very small business that would trust us because we could save them money. Last year we began gaining customers that have 500 employees and above. In some cases they have hundreds of deployed people or stores and we help them build a communications network of their own. We are creating specific solutions that fit certain verticals like a glove. As a result we are getting the attention of some very large enterprises.

MR: Finally, when you look back on your time with SimpleSignal, is there anything you would like to have done differently?

DG: I think I would have waited about 5 years while the technology matured [laughs]. (The reality is we would not have done it if we had waited).  It was so expensive and painful to be a first mover that we are just now getting to where we thought we would be years ago. But all kidding aside, it’s the education we received over those five years that set us up for our current successes.

Above all, Dave has showed me that it’s possible to wear many hats in a literal and euphemistic way, without compromising quality or coolness (respectively). That being said, I must really emphasize that I use the word cool sparingly, especially when describing individuals. The term might seem as archaic as calling someone the “Big Cheese”, yet these titles are a more than appropriate way to describe the leader and founder of SimpleSignal. Dave’s sincere, unabashed honesty in his personal demeanor is perhaps best represented in his business affairs, and you have to really respect and admire that in the overall scheme of things. Check out SimpleSignal’s blog for the latest from the Hosted PBX and telecoms leaders.

We want to thank Dave for participating in our inaugural interview of the series – not only is he a class act, he is also a tough one to follow. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more from other leaders and innovators…