A Look Back: Vale Dave Goldberg

Revisiting our story on a great entrepreneurial mind, SurveyMonkey's CEO Dave Goldberg

“In this time of sorrow, we mourn his passing and remember what an amazing husband, father, brother, son and friend he was. No words can express the depth of loss we feel, but we want his children to learn how much he meant to all of you. In lieu of donations, we want to celebrate his life in a manner that respects the family’s privacy as they cope with this tragic, life changing event: Sheryl, their children, and our family would be grateful if people would post their memories and pictures of Dave to his Facebook profile.”

It was a simple request posted over the weekend by Robert Goldberg after the shock passing of his brother Dave Goldberg, celebrated husband of Sheryl Sandberg and CEO of SurveyMonkey.

In this vein, we take a reverent look back at our story on one of Silicon Valley’s most intelligent, and kind, men.


In Silicon Valley, success is a byword for sacrifice. The northern Californian postcode might be home to technology companies that have toppled entire industries but it owes its mythical status to the way it fosters an extreme brand of ambition, where achieving an entrepreneurial vision comes at the expense of everything else in life.

For those who don’t buy into Silicon Valley fables, there’s always Dave Goldberg. The CEO of SurveyMonkey – an online survey tool that anticipated the role data would play in shaping businesses back in 1999, that has been valued at $US1.35 billion – is proof that investing in the world outside work may see you hurtle faster towards your professional dreams.

“When I was running my first start-up, I never took a day off but found that you’re not necessarily that productive when you’re going to spend all that time at work,” laughs Dave, with a warmth that speaks more of his Minnesota upbringing than the steely corridors of high technology.

We’re in a plush Sydney hotel where Dave, who insists I take an elaborate crab sandwich, decamped a few hours earlier to launch SurveyMonkey’s first Asia Pacific office.

“Our company is nearly 15 and we’ve been really successful but it’s a marathon. We’re growing really nicely but we need to pace ourselves,” he says.

When Dave says his entrepreneurial instincts came late, it’s clear that humility is reframing his life story. He has openly credited his mother, a Minneapolis kindergarten teacher who established a centre for children with disabilities, with opening his eyes to the ways in which entrepreneurship could change the course of people’s lives.

“I was really motivated by having a big impact,” says Dave, who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University and briefly worked on Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign before becoming disenchanted with politics.

“For my first business, I was working with my best friend from high school and we started the company in my apartment, borrowed money on credit and ran out of funds several times. It wasn’t easy but we were having fun and changing the way people discovered and listened to music. When we started out, no one thought anyone would ever listen to music on a computer but as an entrepreneur you have to say, ‘Nope – I hear these people and they’re much smarter than I am but they’re wrong and I’m going to keep going anyway’.”

The business Dave is referring to is Launch Media, a digital music trailblazer that paved the way for current spin-offs such as Rdio and Spotify, which he founded at age 26 and was later acquired by Yahoo! Music for US$12 million. But although Dave, who grew Yahoo Music into the world’s most visited music destination and was ranked one of Billboard magazine’s top digital music power players, it was his 2009 move to SurveyMonkey CEO, a humble web survey development tool that would define his future path.

“You make better arguments with data,” explains Dave, who spent a short stint living in Sydney’s Paddington in his twenties. “We had fifth-graders, who wanted to improve their lunches at school, run a survey telling teachers what they liked and didn’t like and they ended up changing the menu.”

SurveyMonkey might appeal to fifth-graders but it’s also revolutionised the way businesses gather and analyse information, creating an entire market in the process. The online platform, which receives 2 million survey responses a day, boasts a client base that includes 99 per cent of Fortune 500 companies as well as academic institutions and small businesses around the world. And in Australia, SurveyMonkey’s third-largest market, the tool is embraced by everyone from Qantas to BHP Billiton.

“In Silicon Valley, people are allowed to fail,” he explains. “Failure in Silicon Valley is not a mark of disaster – it’s almost experiential learning rather than failure. I think we have an incredible ecosystem of investors and PR firms who serve as the institutional memory of startups. They’ve seen so many startups come through that they can pass that wisdom on to the next group. It’s a system that creates successful companies and allows people to leave and start new ones.”

Dave, who raised US$800 million in debt and equity for SurveyMonkey in 2013, is slow to attribute the company’s success to his own talent and experience. “I’m more of a generalist than I’m good at one specific thing,” he laughs. “When I’m building a team, I want to find people who are better than me at certain things. Everyone’s happier and doing a better job when they’re doing things that they’re good at. SurveyMonkey offered me the opportunity to act like a start-up but with the resources of an existing business; so I could hire great people and build a team that would allow us to scale.

“I think that the challenge is as you grow and hire more people it’s difficult to keep startup culture intact. It’s also difficult to make sure that you have the right people in the right job – if you’re growing 100 per cent each year then systems break. We want to grow but we want to have a long-term perspective on our growth rather than doubling the employee base every year.”

Missing from Dave’s official bio is the fact that marrying Sheryl Sandberg – Facebook’s chief operating officer and author of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead – rates among his formative career decisions. Dave met Sheryl, who has repeatedly been voted one of the most powerful women in business by Forbes, when they were both working in Los Angeles in 1996, and has admitted to falling for her when she fell asleep on his shoulder during a movie (he realised later on that she sleeps through most movies on any shoulder available).

Unsurprisingly, Lean In’s idea that career success stems from the ability to articulate your needs is the blueprint for Dave’s own business, sparking a company culture that sees employees thrive.

“I think my wife says it best: Men and women need to speak out about what they want and what works for them,” says Dave, who famously hired Selina Tobaccowala, SurveyMonkey’s chief technology officer, when she was four months pregnant.

“We don’t expect men to take time off to take their kids to the doctor or spend time with their family and we need to change our perceptions. It’s still too far out of balance.”

I quiz David about how SurveyMonkey’s clients can use data to empower themselves but his response equally applies to decoding messy businesses of juggling career and relationships. “Information itself doesn’t make great decisions. It’s all about learning to ask the right questions.”

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