Coffee Break: Dave Irwin, founder and CEO of Polaris I/O in Geneva
Q: Describe your company.
A: Polaris I/O is a software platform for key account growth and retention. We define key accounts as the largest public (and private) companies in the world anchored by the Forbes Global 2000 list, which alone represents half of the world's economy. We support senior executives, key account leaders and their teams to protect, retain and grow their largest accounts globally by working backward from customer's needs.
Our capabilities include commercial insight applications about key accounts, applications for co-creating demand with key account stakeholders and digital engagement tools for establishing commercial communities.
Q: Do you plan to hire any additional staff or make any significant capital investments in your company in the next year?
A: Yes, we will invest in our growth based on client feedback and expansion opportunities continuously. One major area of investment now is in a new learning center to complement our key account platform.
Q: What will your company's main challenges be in the next year?
A: Working with our clients in scaling key accounts requires continuous innovation in solving complex problems. Complex problems arise from trying to align the many capabilities and people involved on both sides of a commercial relationship. And solving complex problems requires new approaches. The single biggest challenge is people's willingness to embrace an adaptive model that is responsive to evolving account conditions. Change is necessary but hard.
Q: What's the hottest trend in your industry?
A: The focus on customers vs. just prospecting for new business. I think there is a significant shift in attention to the dynamics of customer relationships in B2B given the fundamental shift in digital disruption accelerated by the pandemic. Because of these market dynamics, protecting existing customers -- ensuring there is staying power -- has become increasingly a top level executive priority. Someone from the SaaS investment community commented "retention is the new acquisition today." That reflects this shifting trend we're seeing in business.
Q: If you had one tip to give to a rookie executive, what would it be?
A: Be curious and empathetic when listening to others to truly understand their point of view. These attributes enable an executive to solve problems by understanding the different perspectives of those involved before trying to solve a problem to soon. Gaining buy-in from others through collaboration is the path to success.
Q: Do you have a business mantra?
A: The 80/20 rule applies to everything. Pay attention to the 20% that drives 80% of results in any situation; that is where to spend your time.
Q: From a business outlook, whom do you look up to?
A: I follow Ray Dalio. He covers so many topics beyond economics that I align with, and when it comes to economics and the business outlook globally, he shares a strong historical perspective and provides easy to follow videos and reference guides that are grounded in past observations.
Q: What is one interesting fact about you or your company that most people may not know?
A: I think about our business as Moneyball for CRM, which isn't immediately obvious but a good analogy. The Forbes Global 2000 is equal to half of the world's GDP. These companies are responsible for the greatest concentration of global B2B spend. But so many suppliers concentrate on "going to market" with many people focused on new customer sales vs. "going to customer" with fewer of the right people focused on unlocking massive growth in fewer key accounts. The model is often inverted from where the money is -- it's counterintuitive but borne out of a historically older model focused on products vs. customer outcomes.
Q: Was there a moment in your career that didn't go as you had planned? What lesson did you learn from it?
A: I was training sales and key account teams on value-based content for months. After running through hundreds of people in dozens of classes and getting a lot of appreciation from executives, I was asked repeatedly by salespeople to go with them to meetings to share all the value mapping I had done. This is not what I expected.
What I learned is there is a lot more to learning than just conveying information to people -- a lot more. This is an area that caught me off guard and today we spend a lot of time on changing "teaching" to "learning" with our learning center and "learn by doing" approach.
Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
A: I like to be outdoors -- whether by a pool, walking the dog or playing golf. Anything outside is what I like to do.
Q: What book is on your nightstand?
A: I am reading a book called The Art of Alignment by Patty Beach that a friend of mine recommended. So much of our business is about overcoming silos to align people to a common mission and journey across functional areas. It's fascinating to read about the same challenges I experience from a different perspective.
Q: What keeps you up at night?
A: Like most people -- fear of the unknown or lack of control of all factors in a situation can keep me up at night. I've learned over time that the flow of progress is something you can participate in but not control. But it can be frustrating all the same.
Q: If you were not doing this job, what do you think you would be doing?
A: I've always been in sales and marketing roles no matter what job title I have, so I would be doing that type of work somewhere. What I love about being in a startup is you can innovate what you believe in much faster by working with people who have a shared vision. This is valuable vs. being somewhere that has conflicting agendas that can cancel each other out.
Q: What was your first paying job?
A: Dishwasher at a chain restaurant. What was amazing is I ended up becoming a cook within a couple of weeks because they had a need to fill. I liked that a lot more!
Q: If you could put your company name on a sports venue, which one would you choose?
A: I would pick Citi Field, formerly Shea Stadium, where I went all the time when I was growing up in Connecticut -- first with my dad, then with friends. It's also in New York, where so many of our clients are located.
Q: Two people to follow on Twitter and why. (besides your company)
A: Now I follow Elon Musk -- how can you not? And I also follow National Geographic -- which isn't a person but it interests me and provides a reminder of the big natural world out there that isn't a business or political perspective.
Founder & CEO
PO Box 566, Geneva, IL 60134
Industry: Software Platform
Annual revenue: $5 million
Number of employees: 25
Family information: Married, 2 Kids