Published January 19, 1999
Volume 7, Number 1

SkillSet's Dan White is Making His Own Luck

Most of the people who are founders of growing companies have a simple explanation for their success. With growth and increased profits, it's always tempting to play up one's skills and talent. As all fishermen know, the fish grows with each retelling of the story of its catch.

Dan WhiteDan White of SkillSet, the leading developer of enterprise-wide collaborative recruiting software, is much more modest about his company's success, however. Despite the fact that SkillSet is growing at a remarkable pace, roughly doubling in size and sales every year since its founding in 1993, White attributes a good portion of his success to an intangible factor: luck. 

"My experience in the venture (capital) world before I even got into startup companies myself is that companies have an element of luck to them," he explains. "Regardless of what you do, or who the people are, or whether the idea has merit or not, you make it or you don't and a lot of that has to do with luck.

"I think you create your luck, for sure," he adds. "You have to recognize an opportunity, be able to take advantage of it; but you also need the opportunity." 

White may be lucky, but it's luck that comes from the benefit of experience and perspective. White's father worked for IBM and later founded Venture Resources, a firm which provided both executive recruiting services and venture capital to high tech startups. 

"I got introduced to the recruiting business or staffing at the dinner table, and just in the course of growing up I learned something about it from hearing my dad talk about it all the time." 

After graduating from the University of San Diego, White worked as an accountant at Coherent, a manufacturer of laser equipment. 

"I hated being an accountant, but I did an awful lot on the computer to automate things and really liked that," he says. He left Coherent and went to work for his father, with the intention of leaving in a year to pursue a Masters in business. 

His work at Venture Resources put him in a position where he was constantly evaluating startup companies and new technology. In addition, he cobbled together various software packages to manage Venture Resource's recruiting processes. 

"It got good enough for us to show as a business development tool, a 'this is what makes us different from the others' sort of thing," he explains. 

His work attracted the attention of some investors who worked with the firm, and they offered to bankroll a company which would create software to enhance and manage a company's recruiting efforts. 

Despite the best efforts of the investors and a large staff of engineers, however, that company, Personafile, failed. 

"Personafile was intended to be the same thing that SkillSet is, except that we tried to build all of our core technology and engines and stuff from the ground up with C++," he says. 

A few of the company's customers urged White to call them if they ever got their software working properly. "As an entrepreneur, it's one of the most frustrating things that can happen to you: to have a good idea, that people want to buy, and you can't give it to them." 

On a lark, he attended a seminar on Lotus Notes and purchased a $99 evaluation copy of the program. In a month, he called Don Darrah, who had worked with him both at Venture Resources and Personafile, to show him his work. 

"I told him that I thought I could build this application that we had fifty engineers build for 18 months but couldn't finish," he laughs. "And he came over and said, 'By God, I think you're probably right.'"

The story speeds up considerably from this point. SkillSet was formed by the two in mid-1993 and they had a saleable product by early 1994. Former Personafile customers purchased the product and the two were also successful in placing it in a test site at Coca Cola in Atlanta and a division of IBM by June, thereby establishing SkillSet in the top two percent of Lotus partners within months of introducing their product.

White's luck came into play again when IBM purchased Lotus, pouring sales, marketing, and development resources into Lotus Notes, and migrated Notes to integrate use over the World Wide Web. 

"For us, markets exploded, unemployment is at record lows now so our market is hot, the technology is there we got lucky," says White. 

It's not luck that White built the company on the principles of technological innovation, quality and service, or that SkillSet has attracted talented employees, however. That's all been by his design. 

"Still, I'm really blessed to have people who invest so much of themselves," he adds. "I love my job, and I'm lucky enough to work with everybody here." 

Putting it that way, White's luck may just be recognizing his blessings and that's not really luck at all. It's a gift. 


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