Dan Saks, BA’07, displayed an entrepreneurial flair early in life.
The first piece of furniture he sold in his family’s business growing up was a curio cabinet.
He was 8.
Skip ahead to his first year at McGill. Most students apply for summer jobs. Saks created his own – a successful business selling tours in Niagara Falls, not far from his hometown of St. Catharines, Ont.
Saks is now president and Co-CEO of AppDirect, a San Francisco-based tech company that has grown from a few people hunkered down in an apartment in 2009 to more than 800 employees around the world.
In 2015, AppDirect achieved “unicorn” status for private startups valued at $1 billion or more. It also nabbed notable mentions in 2017: Forbes magazine ranked AppDirect among the 100 best private cloud companies (No. 32), while Goldman Sachs included Saks, and co-CEO Nicolas Desmarais, on its list of the 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs.
“It’s super exciting,” Saks says, of how things are going for the company he launched in 2009 with Desmarais, AppDirect’s chairman.
“I think we’re well positioned to continue to grow and make a massive impact on the way businesses use technology. And I think we’re only at the beginning of a really long journey and a big opportunity.”
AppDirect calls itself “the only end-to-end commerce platform” for selling, distributing, and managing cloud-based products and services. Its clients include Google, Microsoft and Comcast.
As he completed high school, Saks thought he would end up at Western University or the University of Toronto. Then he visited McGill campus with a few friends, fell in love with the school and city, “and instantly knew that that would be the place for me.”
He was accepted into the Management program, but “my parents encouraged me to go into Arts because they thought that I should have a more well-rounded background,” Saks says. He regretted the decision at the time, but later felt that having a Liberal Arts background – he majored in political science – “gave me a lot of the critical thinking skills to succeed in business.”
Saks went on to Harvard for a master’s in accounting and finance. He had always wanted to start a business, and figured having a background on Wall Street at an investment bank or consulting firm would best position him to raise capital down the line to do that.
But in 2009 the Great Recession had hit, and “the world was in a different place,” says Saks, who notes his family’s furniture business had shut down after 100 years.
Saks had already met his future business partner in Montreal – his brother was a McGill classmate. For years, he and Nicolas Desmarais had brainstormed about what they could do to start a business that would make a big impact, Saks says.
“We saw that the global recession was hitting. Businesses around the world were struggling. On the other hand, we saw that in San Francisco and in Silicon Valley, the cloud early days were providing opportunities for businesses to thrive through technology. So we really set out to connect business owners around the world with this technology they need to be successful.”
AppDirect got off to a slow start, but they knew it would be a long haul, says Saks.
“I think that from our perspective, what our vision was didn’t exist at the time and really it was enabling people to resell digital services,” Saks says. “So we’ve now established ourselves as the leader in the States and we had very strong conviction in our vision and that’s what enabled us.”
AppDirect has people around the world, including teams in Argentina, India and Germany. It has already created about 300 jobs in Canada – it operates in Calgary, Ottawa and Montreal – with plans to add at least 300 more over the next five years.
AppDirect made that announcement in February, the day Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited their San Francisco headquarters. (In his last year at McGill, Saks met Trudeau when they were in the same geography class.)
Saks sits on Principal Suzanne Fortier’s International Advisory Board, and he returned to McGill in February where he received the Young Inspiration Achievement Award at the Desautels Management Achievement Awards luncheon.
“The McGill experience definitely helped shape the person I am, the leader I am,” says Saks, who notes he met Desmarais through being at McGill and their first angel investor was Eric Boyko, BCom’92, from Stingray Digital.
“The power of the McGill community is so huge,” he adds.
“McGill alum are really there to help others if they ask and they tap them. So I’d encourage students to be active in reaching out to alum to try to get support and help for their ideas and businesses.”