Suits, Ties, And Smashed Startup Stereotypes Rule The Day At AppDirect

Suits and ties at a tech startup sounds like a contradiction in terms. But one Bay Area business is making its mark with enterprise and indie business alike by balancing formality and the comfort of casual.

Daniel Saks was at a crossroads.


After interning at a boutique investment bank, he’d landed an interview with Goldman Sachs–the Friday before Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy which heralded the beginning of the financial crisis and an uncertain career path for the young financier.

Fortunately, Saks hails from an entrepreneurial family. Though his great-great grandfather’s 100-plus-year-old furniture business shuttered along with many other independents, Saks saw a way to help. “When I moved to Silicon Valley in the summer of 2009, there was all this opportunity in cloud computing that could solve so many problems for small businesses,” he says.

He was inspired by the potential for change, and teamed up with Nicolas Desmarais, a former management consultant with Bain and Company, to start AppDirect out of an apartment across from San Francisco’s Coit Tower.


The idea was straightforward: create a platform to power the marketplaces of global companies that connects them with small businesses looking to buy and deploy their cloud applications and services.

When Corporate Culture Meets Startup

What they didn’t write into the business plan was how to deal with a culture clash. Saks and Desmarais launched a tech company in the financial district of San Francisco. While neighboring Silicon Valley’s tech ventures are famous for less-than-buttoned-up cultures complete with parties, puppies, and a paucity of corporate formality, AppDirect’s potential customer base ranged from Fortune 500 bigwigs to indie enterprises. How to play to both and still attract talented staff as they grew their business?

A Shifting Dress Code

Saks and Desmarais decided AppDirect would represent both worlds within its ranks. “From our perspective, we are building a business with a vision connecting with other businesses around the world,” he explains, “The principle we’ve used is a ‘cultural karma chameleon,’ so our people conform to cultures of the partners we are working with.”


Rather than enforce a strict dress code that might pinch productivity, suits and ties would be de rigeur should the customer hail from a traditionally formal enterprise. Relaxed attire would reign in the comfort of an office day with no outside meetings. Today, Saks admits he’s wearing jeans. “It completely depends on what I’m doing,” he qualifies, “A suit gets me in the zone,” for executive meetings.

Keeping the delicate balance everywhere

Even their office space balances tradition and disruption. Executives have offices with doors but there is a dedicated space for the ping pong table and all the walls can be written on. So far it’s working.

AppDirect’s staff numbers 120 and its client base ranges from Staples, Deutsche Telekom, TeliaSonera, Rackspace, and Swisscom, among others. AppDirect’s platform connects more than 12 million users in 80-plus countries to Microsoft Office 365, Box, and Google Apps. The company’s received $20.8 million in funding since its launch in 2009.


For this, Saks credits the company’s five core values, embedded at the earliest stage of the venture. He invokes them frequently throughout the conversation: Humility, True North (“to disrupt subjective convictions and align priorities”), Positive Mental Attitude, Intensity, and Ownership, and says that every decision made or action taken is done with an eye toward how they play out against those values.

Core Values Poster

When hiring, for example, Saks eschews idiosyncratic interview questions favored by some tech giants and tries to learn more about the candidate’s life outside of the office. “We are not judgmental,” he asserts. “We look for people who have a lot of outside interests and come from varied backgrounds,” he says.

Evaluating applicants in this way allows him to see who would perform best in varied scenarios, especially when relating to customers in different countries. He also likes to see people who can really listen and be open to a range of ideas.


Once on board, Saks says each new hire is put through the paces “to assess how people act in different situations.” Training doesn’t end there, he points out. AppDirect has three rules for working with different types of people: be prepared, be able to relate, and be in person.

“We do a ton of research on [partner] companies’ culture and organizational structure,” he says, in order to be able to engage them appropriately. The chameleon strategy helps staff relate to clients no matter where they are coming from and makes the client feel comfortable.

The face-to-face strategy ensures a solid relationship according to Saks. “I will fly at any point to meet a customer,” says Saks, suit and tie at the ready. He recalls taking a red eye to Germany once when a client suggested they’d be available to meet the following afternoon. “One thing Silicon Valley companies tend to forget is that nothing beats a human relationship.”


That goes for within the company as well. Saks notes that every employee has a velcro patch at their desk that can hold badges earned for meeting goals, kind of like scout patches. Though office doors can be closed, Saks says AppDirect holds monthly town halls, weekly team meetings and collaborate in an open space. “We are bridging the gap between Fortune 500 enterprise with the tech world,” he maintains, “When we have guests in town from Europe they come in and they can have a fun time.”

Between the rigorous hiring process and the onboarding, the karaoke in pajamas and the sharp suits, Saks is confident that his staff understands how to mingle with any type of customer. Indeed during the America’s Cup–which they enjoyed a splendid view of from their office windows–an existing client brought a guest who was so impressed with their vibe AppDirect was able to secure an additional deal with them.

Says Saks: “It’s less about having one way of doing things and all about knowing how people perceive you and being comfortable in your own shoes.”


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a staff editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.