One of the things I have learned while writing this column is how experiences at a young age can have a profound effect on careers.
It sounds obvious, but hearing it firsthand from someone such as Mike Daniels creates a vivid impression.
Daniels, 70, of Vienna, Va., said the communications skills he learned as early as the seventh grade helped him play a role in the growth and monetization of the Internet over the past four decades.
Daniels is one of the under-the-radar guys. Daniels saw it all, from the beginning of the Internet to the growth of AOL and the Washington technology sector.
The ones who got ahead tended to be the ones who could take a powerful idea or product and sell it.
“Many of the technology people who are very smart and great technologists are not able to communicate their ideas,” Daniels said. “They tend to be introverts focused on the technology. You need to lift your head up, see the strategic picture.
“Almost all of the great technology leaders I have had the privilege to work with have had the skill to communicate their message and the mission to their employees.”
And Daniels has seen a lot of them. Bill Gates of Microsoft. Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle. Jeffrey P. Bezos, founder of Amazon.com and owner of The Washington Post. The late J. Robert Beyster, founder of Science Applications International. Even the late Steve Jobs of Apple.
“Black jeans. Black turtleneck. Almost ethereal,” he said, describing Jobs working at his craft. “He was the best I ever saw in Silicon Valley in 40 years.”
Jobs “honed his communications skills to a fine art. It was almost like a play. The staging was great. The graphics were great. He had a great style of getting you ready for the anticipated moment of his next product.
Daniels is the former chairman and chief executive of Network Solutions, the Northern Virginia-based domain registration company that became a multibillion-dollar behemoth selling .com, .org and .net names.
He was witness to the earliest days of the Internet. He currently sits on the board of directors of Blackberry, CACI International and Mercury Systems, all publicly traded technology companies.
As I said, his verbal command dates back to his schoolboy days in his hometown of Cape Girardeau, about 100 miles south of St. Louis. Daniels won first prize and $50 in the local Rotary Club’s debate contest after encouragement from a teacher.
The subject was the importance of honesty and good character, which the eventual Eagle Scout pulled from the Boy Scout handbook.
After the first win, he was hooked.
“I entered every oratory contest I could when I was growing up and won most of them,” he said. “I saw that the ability to connect with people and convince them of your arguments was one of the keys to success.”
Daniels’s skills won him a debating scholarship to Northwestern University and years later helped him through a crucial presentation to the board of directors of SAIC, where he persuaded them to plunk down $4.7 million for a little company called Network Solutions.
It eventually was sold to VeriSign in 2000 for $19.3 billion — one of the biggest creators of shareholder value of its time, along with Amazon.com, Google and, now, Facebook.
Buying Network Solutions, he said, “was the change-of-life moment for me.”
His insight? He noticed that Network Solutions “had won the exclusive cooperative agreement from the National Science Foundation to sell .com, .org and .net to every human being and organization on Earth.”
Daniels had been interested in business since he was a kid growing up in Missouri, cleaning floors and driving trucks for his father’s food business.
He graduated from Northwestern in 1968 with a degree in communications, where he spent a lot of time studying science and technology. He stayed another year to get a master’s in international relations, then was assigned to Washington as a member of the U.S. Naval Reserve.
He began following the Internet in its infancy way back in 1969 at the Advanced Research Projects Agency, a forerunner to what we now know as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
ARPA was established by the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s to spur technology that would allow the nation’s communication system to survive a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union.
He was a scientific officer at ARPA, overseeing government contracts with major institutions and companies, such as the University of Michigan, University of Southern California, MIT, Bendix and IBM.
At ARPA, he met scientists Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, who are considered the fathers of the Internet.
While earning a law degree from the University of Missouri in the early 1970s, he got a call from the chief executive of CACI International in Arlington, Va., whom he had met while working for the government.
CACI hired him as special assistant to the chief executive.
The communications skills came into play as Daniels worked as a salesman, helped with CACI’s marketing and ran a small division of employees.
“I got in front of lots of customers in those days,” he said.
In 1979, at age 28, with $10,000 from his CACI stock, he left to start his own company, called Computer Systems Management, in Rosslyn, Va., primarily working for the Department of Defense.
Daniels and his team built the company into a 300-employee enterprise with revenue of about $10 million, then sold it to SAIC, at the time a privately held, employee-owned science and technology company.
“That was the first real money I made,” Daniels said.
He stayed at SAIC from 1986 through 2004, building it into the largest, privately held technology service company in the United States, with 42,000 employees and $9 billion in revenue.
That is where he convinced Beyster and his board to buy a small, Northern Virginia company called Network Solutions.
He ran Network Solutions from 1995 until 2000. During that time, Daniels called on his communications skills when SAIC spun the company off into a separate firm.
He led the initial public offering in 1997, which required a roadshow around the country to raise $69 million from investors.
From 1997 to 2000, he raised $3.2 billion for Network Solutions in the public markets and ultimately engineered its sale for many billions more.
Daniels rejoined SAIC after the deal before going off on his own in 2004. He didn’t exactly retire. I counted six investments on a fact sheet he sent me, including Sybase, which was acquired by SAP for $5.8 billion. He speaks frequently, is an expert on cybersecurity and co-authored a book called “Names, Numbers and Network Solutions: The Monetization of the Internet.”
He serves as chairman of the board of LMI , a Tysons, Va.-based logistics consultant to the government.
I asked Daniels how his own monetization went, and he demurred.
One of the back pages of his PowerPoint presentation gave me a clue.
The last bullet point on the Network Solutions section said the company stock appreciated 3,347 percent, the fifth-highest appreciation of any stock in that 10 years from 1994 to 2004, enriching the company’s employees and many others.
“It paid to be an owner of Network Solutions,” said the final bullet point.