Making Something From Nothing: Jonathan Silver Of Engage People On How To Go From Idea To Launch
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Published March 6, 2022
Starting and leading a company is hard. It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Entrepreneurs go out on a limb, often with little to no backup and potentially no resources to support an idea. When I first started out, people made fun of me because I had a really good job, my wife was pregnant, and I was in the middle of a home renovation. That’s when I decided to go off on my own. It’s all about taking a chance.
As a part of our series called “Making Something From Nothing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jonathan Silver.
Jonathan Silver is the CEO of Engage People, the only loyalty network that enables program members to pay with points directly at checkout. Jonathan has a proven executive management track record and over 20 years of experience driving growth in the loyalty and technology industry. His passion lies within developing innovative solutions that drive tangible results for customers and partners alike.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I have been very fortunate, and my childhood is not unlike many successful new immigrant entrepreneurs in Canada. I grew up in South Africa with parents who gave me a great education and all the opportunity to be successful. I moved to Canada when I was 18, and again, was given all the opportunity to be successful. Canada is a great country to live, work and raise a family in. It is also a great place to start a company in, with a wealth of great talent and potential clients — while being right next door to the U.S. I would say that the only thing I really achieved on my own was deciding to take the risks and opportunities that come with being an entrepreneur. From a very young age, I always knew I wanted to build and be part of a great company. I also knew that I wanted to be accountable for my own success and failures.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A former colleague of mine used to tell me, “There are two types of people. You either live in a world of opportunity, or you live in a world of scarcity.” If you live in a world of scarcity, you hold on to what you have. But if you live in a world of opportunity, you can take chances. As an entrepreneur, I choose to live in a world of opportunity.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I am an avid reader, and I always take away something from every book I read. One of the books that had the most profound impact on me was “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz. What we do at Engage People is hard. If what we are doing was easy, everyone would do it. Along the way, we have had many ups and downs and experienced everything from having to make painful cuts to managing the changes of moving from a startup to a more mature company. What resonated most with me was that these decisions are hard, and they take great courage and belief in what you are doing. It also helped with aligning our thinking on what is important to the success of Engage People and what is noise. It has resulted in Engage exiting certain markets and verticals and focusing on the few verticals and solutions that will drive our success in the future.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. Can you share a few ideas from your experience about how to overcome this challenge?
The hardest thing to do is come up with a good idea. The second hardest thing is coming up with customers who will buy it. With this in mind, above all else you have to have passion — you have to believe in what you are building. And that passion needs to extend to your end consumer and what you can deliver to them. People can pick up on what is real and what is perhaps disingenuous. If you’re going to start something, you have to be all in with no hesitation.
Once you have your idea — and you know it is one you are passionate about — network. Help out your friends with their endeavors, consult, attend meetups. This will help you hone in on what exactly you are trying to deliver and how you can go about accomplishing that.
For example, I helped out a friend who had a company that was assisting a gas station in a rebrand with the goal of offering a higher-end member experience. Every time we had conversations, I kept being drawn back to how to drive loyalty and member engagement. I also consulted in the multi-level marketing space, and similarly, every conversation I had went back to, “How do we engage members and employees?” That led me to the idea of leveraging technology to drive a better loyalty program member experience.
Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?
I think that thinking is the exact opposite of what it should be. If you have an original idea, great. Just make sure you run fast and create a market before anyone else has the same idea. Take something as ubiquitous as the telephone. If you asked people who invented the telephone, most people would answer Alexander Graham Bell. He was the first person to actually patent the solution, but it was being worked on by other people at the same time. Elisha Gray or Antonio Meucci could just as easily have been credited with the invention.
The real question is, can you do it better? You need real data to back that up. If you think about all the products that we use every day, how many were the original? Lotus 1–2–3 gave way to Excel, which now has a competitor in Google Sheets. We wouldn’t have Telsas, iPhones, and on and on. If you have a passion for an idea and a way to make it cheaper, better and most importantly easier for potential clients, then go for it. You need to be aware of any patents or any other legal restrictions, but other than that, go for it. Competition is good. It makes everyone better.
For the benefit of our readers, can you outline the steps one has to go through, from when they think of the idea, until it finally lands in a customer’s hands? In particular, we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.
Our solution is a B2B software-based solution, so we did not have to worry about manufacturers. We did have to review patents and did end up purchasing a couple and filing a few of our own. Our challenge was slightly different. We are building a network that enables members of a loyalty program to redeem their loyalty currency directly with a retailer, either online or in store. Our goal is for the member to be able to complete this experience as part of a regular checkout process. The problem with building a network is that at launch, you have no clients and no retailers.
The first thing we did was build an interim solution that did not require any retailer integration. It was not a great solution but allowed us to do two things: First get a few clients on board, which then generated traffic and revenue to retailers, and once we had that up and running, get the attention of a few key retailers. We were able to use this solution to create a technical integration into the largest ecommerce retailer and global payment processor. This has allowed us to sign up additional clients. As our client base has grown, so has our value to retail partners. We have now reached the network effect where we are onboarding multiple new retail partners and clients each quarter, and the network growth is really starting to pick up steam.
I am a firm believer that a first anchor client is the key to accelerating your success. We have been incredibly fortunate in that our first client was a large Canadian bank. They have taken multiple leaps of faith with us over the years and have helped create the foundation for Engage People. When we first started, our entire focus was on getting the first client and building the product second. We knew that if we could get a major client interested in what we were doing, it would validate our vision. As we have grown as an organization, we have become much more focused on creating a couple of scalable products, and we are fortunate that we have great clients who provide us feedback and guidance on how to continuously evolve our products to ensure that we deliver the optimal member and client experience.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started Leading My Company” and why?
First, starting and leading a company is hard. It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Entrepreneurs go out on a limb, often with little to no backup and potentially no resources to support an idea. When I first started out, people made fun of me because I had a really good job, my wife was pregnant, and I was in the middle of a home renovation. That’s when I decided to go off on my own. It’s all about taking a chance.
There are massive ups and downs along this journey. But the high you get out of it and the ability to make a difference is irreplaceable. If entrepreneurship is in your DNA, take the risk. At the end of the day, if you fail, it’s okay. You can get another job. Failure is not the end of the world. Having a job is a good thing. Having a successful career over time is something to celebrate.
Also, remember that you have all sorts of opportunities in front of you. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of them. You don’t want to look back at the end of your life and wish you had done it differently. And along the way, remember that you don’t have to know everything. It takes a long time to get comfortable with things outside of your comfort zone. This is a requirement — a skillset of every entrepreneur. As your idea evolves into a business, and you expand your team, you have to trust that your team has every ability to do their jobs. This is a constantly evolving process.
There’s a lot of responsibility in seeing your idea through, and that can’t be taken lightly. Engage People now has 130+ employees whose livelihood I am accountable for. They give me their time and effort, and I need to be accountable to their well-being as a leader. This goes beyond delivering an idea to your customers. It’s also about the team you build around you.
And lastly, but most importantly, have fun!
Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
When you’re developing an idea, first you really have to identify a current and relevant challenge that your idea could solve. And, as mentioned, you have to be passionate about solving it. For example, during the dotcom boom I had an idea around using loyalty points to pay for every-day items on an ecommerce site. But my idea was a bit premature, given that the technology didn’t exist, and ecommerce wasn’t fully figured out yet.
Over time, I kept getting drawn back to this idea of using technology to drive a better member experience in the loyalty space. And now, we’re delivering exactly what I had in mind so many years ago. It takes dedication and a willingness to evolve your idea into something that will solve a challenge while remaining true to what you’re passionate about.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
I can’t really comment on the value of these consultants. I have never used one, so cannot comment on the value that they bring to you or your organization. Personally, I have always believed that real customer input is key. The balance is not to let one customer’s input sway you too much in any direction. You need to get feedback from multiple potential customers. Not every idea works for every potential customer, so feedback from as many as possible is best.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
The path you take really depends on the goals you’re looking to achieve. I will say that if you choose to raise capital, it is unbelievably important to keep your eye on long-term objectives rather than a quick win. Those quick wins may not be the best for the long-term trajectory of your business. My team and I kept this in mind and are lucky to have a great partner behind us.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
One of my passions is helping people tackle large, complex challenges by developing innovative solutions. Leveraging my learnings in creating my own business to help other people achieve their goals is one way I can meaningfully contribute to the lives and prosperity of others.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’d like to see young immigrant entrepreneurs have the opportunity to see their ideas become reality — whether through helping to make connections, mentorship or providing an overall creative environment to encourage new ideas and help business propositions flourish.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
François Pienaar. He was the South African rugby captain during the 1995 World Cup of Rugby. It was the first major international tournament for South Africa post-Apartheid. It was an opportunity to get an entire country to come together with a single purpose and focus. He was able to keep his team focused on the game while never underestimating or shying away from the impact it was having on an entire nation. At the same time, they were facing a formidable opponent. New Zealand had handily beaten an English squad in the semis. South Africa had also lost to England previously. They were playing against tremendous odds, but they knew what their strengths were, and he kept the team focused on where they could be victorious. It is that focus, strength and determination that makes great leaders.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.