Episode 42

A Generalist Entrepreneur

with Gad Shaanan

August 30, 2022

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Gad Shaanan
President and CEO of GadLight

Gad Shaanan is an entrepreneurial visionary with a thirty-five-year record of creating winning products for internationally recognized, mass-market brands. Gad’s path is rooted in his passions for product innovation and go to market strategy. From identifying a gap in the marketplace, assembling the right team of experts, inventing the solution, executing on the development and finding the right partners to launch. As a business strategist, he fully comprehends the bigger picture and the nature of successful, global business. Gad is a serial entrepreneur and trusted advisor to Fortune 500 companies, distinguished by his unique perspective and strategic risk-taking. Prior to moving to San Diego he founded, Gad Shaanan Design, a Montreal based consulting firm, with satellite offices in Taipei and Chicago.

What are you passionate about? If you don't have that fire in your belly about something, that's a problem.



[00:00:28] Rick LeMoine: Afternoon Gad.

[00:00:30] Gad Shaanan: Hey, good afternoon, Rick. How are you?

[00:00:32] Rick LeMoine: Very well. Thanks for doing this. And to get started. Why don’t you give us a little background on yourself, where you grew up and where you went to school, the usual suspects at a time like this?

[00:00:45] Gad Shaanan: Sure. So my father was an Israeli diploma. And ever since I was six months old, we kept moving to different countries. So the first one was Italy, then it was Austria, then it was Belgium. And then it was Canada where I spent pretty much all my high school years, and it became home. When I was 18, he was called back. I had a diplomatic password because of him. And then you lose it at 18. And I went back to Israel and I served three years in the Israeli army. Then I went back to Canada. I went into Mechanical Engineering, Concordia University I stayed there four years. Then I went to Italy to study Industrial Design, then back to Canada, where I spent the next 30 years. And 21 years ago, I moved to San Diego, to La Jolla, because I just couldn’t take the winters anymore. Enough is enough. 30 years of that is enough.

[00:01:39] Rick LeMoine: It’s ironic that this interview ends up with two Canadians both left because of the weather.

[00:01:47] Gad Shaanan: Right.

[00:01:48] Rick LeMoine: So, if you were to put something, when you put something on your tax return, what do you list as your occupation?

[00:01:56] Gad Shaanan: It used to be Industrial Designer. Now it’s Entrepreneur. I’m on my fifth startup right now. So it would definitely be Entrepreneur. That’s it.

[00:02:05] Rick LeMoine: Okay so you went to Milan and studied Industrial Design after Engineering.

[00:02:13] Gad Shaanan: Yeah. The Engineering I only did one year. Yeah.

[00:02:15] Rick LeMoine: Yeah. More than I did. Then you went back to Montreal and so when did you start a business, or where did you work in initially?

[00:02:28] Gad Shaanan: So what happened was, at the time, you’re talking about the early 80s, it was very difficult to get a job in Industrial Design in Montreal. But after a couple of months I got a job in a firm, in a well known reputable firm, where there were the original founder and then there were two additional partners, and they did the Interior Design, Industrial Design and Graphic Design. And I got a job there. And after three months the head of the Industrial Design department said to me, I really like how you work. Would you be interested in managing this department? and I said, sure. But you know, all the other guys there, there were about eight guys and, they’re all much older, much more experienced than I am. He said yes. But you know, you have that sense of understanding the balance and marketing and business. So just to regress a little bit, when I went to design school in Milan, it is very common to find a job in a design studio. So I worked for this German guy and he really taught me so so much. It was incredible. And that’s why when I graduated, I knew more than just coming out of school on how to manage clients and how to design and how to understand marketing and so on and so forth. So what happened was, he wasn’t ready to officially announce that I’m the manager. So I did work there for about a year, and it became very difficult politically with the other people, and I don’t blame them. So I went back to him and I said, listen, either you make it official or I leave. And he said, you have to be more patient. So I just gave him notice, and I left. And I remember I went home for a Friday night dinner to my parents, who at the time moved back to Canada, and my father was furious because the job is for life. And , I promised him come Monday morning, I’m going to look for another job, as long as it takes, whatever it takes, even if it’s not in my field, anything to get him off my back. And a strange thing happened Monday. I get a phone call from the Canadian railway company, Via Rail. And they said, we understand that you left. And we were really happy with the way you managed our project when you were at that firm. We have a brand new project. If you’re interested, it’s yours. I said, sure. At that time I was living in a one bedroom apartment, and my living room became my studio. The interesting thing is that the next day, Tuesday and Wednesday, two other companies called. And they said again, same thing. We liked how you work. We have brand new projects. If you’re interested, they’re yours. And I said, as long as there are not projects that were ongoing while I was there. And if they’re brand new, I’m willing to do that. And as I was executing these projects, I kept telling my parents, I’m going to finish the projects. The moment I finish, I’m going to look for another job, which of course never happened, you know. So that’s how the company started was sheer accident, and I was perfectly happy working there. I was earning $12,000 a year. Everything was fine, and that’s how the company started.

[00:05:32] Rick LeMoine: And that was Gad Shaanan Design?

[00:05:34] Gad Shaanan: That was Gad Shaanan Design. And it’s funny, the name is funny too, because a friend of mine just graduated from Law School from McGill. And he said I want you to be my first client. I want to incorporate your company. Give me a name. I said, I don’t know. I have to think of a name. He said, no, you’ve got 10 seconds. Give me a name. So, I said, okay, make it Gad Shaanan Design. And that’s how it started.

[00:05:58] Rick LeMoine: Okay, Gad, describe the arc then of your business involvement, business experience from then until now.

[00:06:09] Gad Shaanan: Yeah. So a few things happened. Number one is I got more and more projects, because I started taking this more seriously and I started pitching our services. And then I started hiring people. And then after I had about five people working for me, I realized how responsible I am for them and their family. So this is no longer a hobby. This is no longer just myself. I want to secure the future of them and myself, of course, and the company. So at that point I met a lady. She was in her 40s. She just wanted to do something to keep busy. So I offered her, why don’t you market the company, because she was very presentable, very smart, very aggressive. She said, I’ll do that, but I’m only going to work 10 to 4, four days a week. I said, that’s fine. So I cut my salary in half, which at the time was 12,000 dollars. So I gave her 6,000, and I took 6,000, and obviously I gave her commission. And within three years we zoomed by about 800% our business. And at that point she fueled the fire, and I said now you need to keep fueling the fire. She said, no, I’m not interested. Only four days a week, 10 to 4. So we parted ways. At that point from 5 people, I think we were like 18. And I decided that really what I wanted to do is go after the U.S. market, because that’s where it’s happening. But I didn’t feel that my portfolio was good enough to compete with the top U.S. design firms. And because my father being a diplomat, I read a lot of newspapers and magazines, politics, what’s going on. And at the time, it was in the late 80s, at the time, Taiwan was going through the roof in growth. And their marketing philosophy was first to the European market, second to the North American market, because Europeans always paid more for the same product than the North Americans. So, I had the perfect qualifications. I studied in Europe. I understand European market. I understand the North American market. And luckily for me, I had a friend in Toronto who had a connection with one firm in Taiwan. So, I don’t know anything about the Asian market. I’ve never been there, never worked there, never dealt with anybody there. I get on an airplane with this one letter of introduction, and I fly over to Taipei, and I meet this company and they’re making computers. That was just before the laptop even was invented. It was just happening. Anyway I landed Sunday. I called them Monday morning. I was leaving the following Saturday. And so, I thought, what do I know? I thought, they’re going to call me, they’re going to have to take a cab, go to their factory, discuss the project, send them a quote, nothing like that. What happened was I got a call and they said, we’ll meet you for dinner Monday. Fine. So we talk and we talk, and then I thought Tuesday morning, we’re going to go. Nope. They said, we’re going to meet you for lunch on Tuesday. And this kept on. Then same thing Wednesday. And Wednesday, something very interesting happened. So at that point I was already married. I had two kids, my parents moved back to Israel. And my wife said to me, your parents come to Montreal every year for three months, and they stay in an apartment. I would like for them to stay with us in the house. I said, great. I’m sure they’d loved that. I have no problem with that. And it actually worked out great, because my father used to take our kids to school, pick him up. My mother used to cook. My wife worked at the time, so it worked really well. So I’m telling them that story, because they were asking me more and more personal questions. All of a sudden they said, you know, that’s very un-Western-like, but it’s very Asian-like. And we’re really like that. I like good. And I said, you have to give credit to my wife. It wasn’t my idea. Anyway, then they said, the next day let’s go to the factory, and we’ll discuss the project. So, I don’t know if that was the trigger or something else was the trigger, but that’s what happened. So I get there, we go through the factory, we discuss what they need, what they want, their marketing plans and so on and so forth. And they literally give me a laundry list of computer towers, monitors, and to develop a brand new laptop. So I said to them, that’s terrific. I really appreciate it. You have to understand at the time it was the biggest project we ever had, what we were having been bidding on. And I said, I’m going to go to Montreal, and next week I’m going to fax you the proposal, was before emails and stuff, I’m going to fax you a proposal. Emails were just started. They said no. We have somebody who types in English. Write the proposal now.

[00:10:47] Rick LeMoine: Wow.

[00:10:48] Gad Shaanan: I said, okay. I’ve got nothing else so might as well. Right. So I write the proposal. And as coming from Canada, we’re not very heavily oriented towards the legalese of a contract. We’re really more focused on the work we’re going to do. So I write this 30 page proposal, and I hand it over to them. And the next day, the next morning, Friday morning, I meet the owner. We have a really nice conversation. And he said, we have decided to give you the contract. And I said, I’m thrilled. And he said, do you know why? I said, I assume because we’re very good at what we do. He said, yeah, you are. But we also had many other Western companies quote us, and we haven’t given them the contract. We’re given you the contract. He said, I’ll tell you why. You wrote this 30 page proposal, and like 28 pages is what you’re going to do for us. And two pages is the actual agreement. All the other proposals were like 28 pages was the legal document, two pages what they’re going to do for us. That’s why I’m giving you the proposal. I said, look, we don’t know each other. We live thousands of miles away. He said it doesn’t matter. Either we trust each other more in a handshake than anything else or we don’t. And so actually that was the beginning. So I had the office there for seven years, and through him, introduced me to his friends and other companies and other companies. And we were like growing so fast. At the peak, we were 45 people, but by then we were like over 30, 35, it was incredible. But at that point, after seven years, I had enough of a portfolio that I knew I could go after the U.S. market. And that’s what I did. I went up to the U.S. market. I competed with the top design firms in the U.S.. We ended up winning more than losing contracts against them. And at some point, we did work for fortune 500 companies, and it was wonderful,

[00:12:43] Rick LeMoine: So at some point you cross paths with Qualcomm, based in San Diego. And you’re still here.

[00:12:51] Gad Shaanan: I’m still here. So what happened was, we had an office in Taiwan, and we had a marketing office in Chicago. So one day, I get a phone call from the lady who was doing the marketing in Chicago. And she said, I need you tomorrow to be in San Diego to meet with a company called Qualcomm. Now you’re talking about like 96, 97, around there, nobody heard of Qualcomm. They were a chip company, and so on and so forth. What do they do? They make cell phones, and we have an opportunity for you to pitch in front of the people who make decisions on designing cell phones on the company. So sure enough, like a good soldier. I get on an airplane. I fly to San Diego. I meet the key people at Qualcomm who make a decision on which design firm they’re going to hire. And so I make this, in our presentation, on how we approach design, wide design, strategy and so on. So the lady was in charge. She says to me, we really like what you’re doing, but you’re two weeks too late. I said, what do you mean we’re two weeks too late? We had a bake off a few weeks ago. I said, I don’t even know what a bake off is. She said, bake off is we give four companies $25,000 and six weeks to come back to us to pitch us what they think our cell phones should look like. And then we picked the one we want to work with. I said, I’ll take the $25,000 and the four weeks and I’d still like to be in the running if that’s okay with you. She said, sure. So we did that, and we ended up winning that contract. And from there we developed more and more projects for them. We did satellites, phones for them and so on and so forth. And then we started doing work for WD-40. We invented the smart stuff for WD-40. We did work for Buck Knife since then move out of San Diego, out of El Cajon.

[00:14:37] Rick LeMoine: And you designed the new version of the San Diego trolley somewhere along the line, didn’t you?

[00:14:43] Gad Shaanan: Yes. So, when I had the office in Canada, we did a lot of work for Bombardier, designing mass transit equipment for them, designing interiors of original jets and business jets. And because of that knowhow, one day I got a call from Siemens. And Siemens had a factory in Sacramento. And I guess I must have heard through us, through Bombardier, and they said, look, we’re looking for somebody to design the trolley for San Diego. Would you be interested? So I flew out to Sacramento, we negotiated a deal and we did that. Yeah. So we designed the trolley for San Diego. And then now they’re using that same design to other cities across the states.

[00:15:22] Rick LeMoine: So that’s Gad Shaanan Design. Take us from there to today.

[00:15:28] Gad Shaanan: So, eventually I sold the company to people out of a group out of Minneapolis. And then I started a smaller version called GadLights, looking again for different clients. So we won’t compete. And at some point I decided to retire, and that really didn’t agree with me. It’s not in my DNA. And what happened was somebody asked me to see if we can help a young company who makes drones. And I’ve always liked anything that flies ever since I was a kid. I used to design and build remote control airplanes and so on. Anyway, I looked at the company, and I looked at what they were doing. It was really not interesting for me, but it picked my imagination. So what I decided to do since I wasn’t doing anything, I decided to go to the various drone shows both military and industrial. And I saw what I saw. Just about every industry I touch, and I touched hundreds and hundreds of industries, is that 90% of the products in the market that are being offered are a variation of the same thing. And then there’s 10%, which is maybe interesting but not going far enough. So one of the things that I enjoyed over the years, more than just design, is looking for a hole in the marketplace. And once I find that hole in the marketplace, come up with a solution that fits that hole, so that we can have really a unique product and a unique strategy to appeal to certain markets. So, that’s when I launched the latest company called unmanned aerospace, and we’re developing a new drone. It’s about a hundred pounds. It’s a big guy. It’s based on an invention that a Spanish fellow did back in 1923. And it’s based on an aircraft called the gyrocopter. And a gyrocopter is basically, imagine you have a rotor up above, but it’s not powered. And you have a propeller that sends you down the runway. And as you go down the runway, the wind that blows through the road or starts spinning it, it becomes a virtual wing and you take. So I took that and put it on steroids where we created, we gave it the capability of do vertical takeoff and landing. We integrated hydrogen power, obviously it’s battery. So now we can fly for six hours. We can carry 15 pounds. We can do vertical takeoff and landing where you can fly in really rough weather. So it’s a very different aircraft than anything out there. And through different people who along the way, decided to help me, we got the attention of the Navy. We’ve been invited, actually in this October, we’re going to go in a ship out of Key West, and we’re going to spend three, four days on that ship to give them demonstrations on what our aircraft can do, because they’re very interested in our capability. So that’s where I am today.

[00:18:17] Rick LeMoine: Wow. That’s an incredible story. And,

[00:18:21] Gad Shaanan: A seg way. Huh?

[00:18:23] Rick LeMoine: Tell me your thoughts on the business environment today, and what you’ve seen. Put it into perspective for us. You’ve been very successful. What are the headwinds that you see, and what are the opportunities that you see?

[00:18:41] Gad Shaanan: It’s a difficult question. I don’t know what the headwinds are, but there’s always headwinds. And there’s always the unexpected. For me, my entire life, I was comfortable in the unknown. A lot of people cannot handle that. I don’t mind taking risks even though, obviously they need to be calculated risks. And I like adventures. If you have that in mind, and most importantly, if you’re passionate, then you can do anything. So if you keep your eyes and ears open on what’s going on in the marketplace, it can be any industry. And I mean, any industry. And you don’t come up with a variation of what everybody else does, but you really look at what’s needed, then you can be very successful. One of the things I’ve done really well over the years is, I found dots where people don’t see dots, and I connected them in ways that people don’t see. And what it means really is being ahead of the curve by about four or five years, because you have to do that. If not, by the time you come up with something, you’re behind. And I said, this is my fifth startup. So, I had the two design firms over the years and invented a coffee machine on a new brewing process, how to make coffee, invented a new blood glucose meter, and now this thing here. And each one was because I talked to somebody and it picked my interest. And then I decided to dig into it and see what can be done. So it’s not exactly what you’re an expert at. In fact, I love being a generalist, because a generalist gives you tremendous flexibility. But then, when you dig in and you dive in into something specific, and you don’t know something, then you hire those experts, whether it’s an aerodynamics expert or propulsion expert, or anything like that. So I think the future is very bright, but if you don’t have a passion for something, and if you’re just going to do a variation of what everybody else does, you’re basically bringing to market a commodity. And, I’m not a commodity type of a guy. So for me, headwinds, all that stuff, doesn’t bother me at all.

[00:20:52] Rick LeMoine: Cool. Gad, I think we’re at the end here. Do you have a final suggestion or a final message for the younger folks in the audience? I just really liked the way you settled in on the passion piece. And I see that every time I talk to you.

[00:21:11] Gad Shaanan: Yeah. And really passion is what drives me. I have to tell you over the years, I’ve hired and interviewed hundreds of people. And I always ask them a simple question towards the end. What are you passionate about? And I have to tell you, honestly, 8 out of 10 have a really hard time answering that question. And I don’t care if you’re passionate about sailing, surfing, horses, cars, it doesn’t matter what are you passionate about? And, if you don’t have that fire in your belly about something, that’s a problem. So my advice to them, you better get really passionate about whatever it is that you want to do in life. I have to say that I’ve been working for 40 years, and I never looked at it as work. It was always a challenge. It was fun. Sure, there’s frustrating days. But it’s the passion that keeps me going. When I went to design school in Milan, and then I worked for this fellow, I worked nights and weekends, whenever I wasn’t in school. It wasn’t work. It was, I couldn’t get enough of it. And I do have a balance of life. I have two grown ladies, and we go traveling, and I go sailing, which I love. There’s a lot of things I do. In the past, I belong to a few boards. And, you have to be passionate about life no matter what it is, no matter how, sometimes it take gets you down. It doesn’t matter, get up and do it again.

[00:22:40] Rick LeMoine: Gad, thanks.b

[00:22:41] Gad Shaanan: Thank you very much. Take care. Bye bye.

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