Tony Safoian – President & CEO, SADA Systems

As President and CEO of SADA Systems, Tony Safoian firmly believes that technology can empower people to transform their world. To this end, he places innovation at the core of the business model, coupled with exceptional customer support and managed services. Under Safoian’s guidance, SADA has differentiated itself by proactively addressing a rapidly evolving market across enterprise, SMB, government and education sectors, while creating transformational value for customers.

Safoian has transformed SADA Systems from a small, family-owned business into one of the world’s top business and technology consultancy and cloud services brokerage firms. Joining a prestigious list of Microsoft National Solutions Providers in 2013 and becoming a Google Cloud Premier Partner in 2014, SADA enhanced its suite of product offerings, solutions and services providing consultative, deployment, change management and cloud managed services. Safoian’s continuous drive for innovation and growth has led SADA Systems to develop cutting-edge applications such as Atom, providing asset management and analytics capabilities for transportation departments and related agencies.

Tony earned his BA in Philosophy and Management from University of California at Irvine, and an MBA from the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business.

Tell me about your early career.
My first job out of college was with a startup technology company that sold event tickets, like to ballgames and concerts, online. I worked in the marketing department but always had an interest in technology. After a year at the startup, I decided to join the business my parents had recently founded. The company, SADA Systems, was helping organizations find and use the latest and greatest technology systems. Culturally and otherwise, helping the family business was always the right thing to do in my heart and mind.

How did the concept for SADA Systems come about?
Growing up in Los Angeles, we always had high-tech computers and printers in our home. As a child, I spent countless hours tinkering with them, taking them apart and putting them back together, over and over again. I recall teaching my mother how to use a graphic design application, which she would turn into a career, eventually founding a company called Grafxworx.

In the late 1990s, my father was working as the head of IT for a business management firm he had started with a partner. Meanwhile, my mother was running her graphic design firm. Sensing an opportunity to build something bigger for himself and his family, my father split with his partner and founded SADA in 2000. The company was focused on writing customer software for small businesses. I joined about six months later, fixing computers and setting up basic networks for clients. In 2003, SADA and Grafxworx merged, creating SADA Systems. I was named president and CEO.

How was the first year in business?
Our first year in business was full of trial and error. What we lacked in experience, we would make up for in hard work and a commitment to customer success. From the start, we were firm believers in the notion that technology could transform every aspect of a company. However, in order to help our clients leverage the latest computer systems, we knew we had to become experts in the technology itself, as well as the processes by which companies find, buy, and adopt technology solutions. We anticipated a wild ride ahead, and we set our minds and resources to overcoming obstacles.

What was your marketing strategy?
“Strategy” is the wrong word. We were relentless, persistent. We knocked on every door and turned over every rock. We made sure that every project we took on became a success story, which inevitably led to referrals. Initially, we focused on the local market in and around Los Angeles. We got to know the people at the Chamber of Commerce, and made sure they were aware of the great work we were doing for clients. We delivered great customer service and referral business reflected that, and we still continue make exceptional service a top priority.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Our growth was slow and steady in the early years. We took risks but they were calculated. We watched every penny and reinvested in the business. In 2006/2007, we became acutely aware of the paradigm shift in technology to cloud computing. We recognized immediately the opportunity to establish SADA as a leader in this space, and followed up by training our people on the model and establishing partnerships with cloud computing pioneers, like Google and Microsoft. Over the past decade, with cloud technology as the wind in our sails, SADA has grown more than 40 percent every year.

How do you define success?
I’ve always said that we will only be as successful as our clients. When they achieve their business goals with our help, everyone wins. This goes back to my belief that technology has the power to transform organizations and truly improve people’s lives. This isn’t a marketing slogan: We’ve literally worked on projects for clients that have enabled people to live happier, healthier and more productive lives. We’re also proud of the business we’ve created, and the positive impact that our employees continue to have on our community.

What is the key to success?
For me, there are three things. First, I believe it’s important to be critical of oneself. In business, especially when you’ve had a little success, it’s easy to get a big head. I make it a point to evaluate my interactions with people and the contributions I’ve made in order to understand how I can be more helpful and thoughtful. Second, never lose sight of what a customer or partner wants – and then over-deliver. We know that our clients and partners have options when it comes to technology services vendors. Success for us is making sure they never feel the need to consider anyone else. And finally, success is about doing something you love, for which there is great demand, day in and day out.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Surround yourself with the best people you can find. And don’t be afraid to delegate – that’s why you hired great people! Also, don’t let people who are not in your shoes determine what is best for you. When the outcome of a decision has the ability to impact your career or livelihood, take control. At the end of the day, make sure that you are in charge of your destiny.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Stay hungry, stay humble” and “Luck equals opportunity plus preparedness.”

What are some of your favorite books?
Softwar: An Intimate Portrait of Larry Ellison and Oracle by Larry Ellison and Matthew Symonds

Tribal Leadership
by Dave Logan

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
by Stephen R. Covey

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
When I was just beginning in business, I had a tendency to take things too personally. If a client, partner, or employee was disappointed, I felt personally responsible, even if I wasn’t. Over the years, I’ve learned that “tough” days are really just opportunities to learn. How can we, as an organization, improve the situation? By taking the approach that most problems can be solved through teamwork, knowledge, and persistence, I’ve been able to power through many challenging business situations.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I am obsessed with the art of what’s possible. To me, that means shoot for the stars in everything I do, and approach every situation with an open mind. I feel a deep sense of accountability to our clients, partners and employees, and I strive everyday to deliver on SADA’s commitment to helping them achieve their goals – both professionally and personally. It sounds cliche, but as an organization, we take very seriously the notion of “pushing the envelope.” We are constantly trying to figure out what is over that next hill, and how to get there as quickly and thoughtfully as possible.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Do something you’re passionate about, with a keen eye toward what the market needs. Then, be consistent. To be successful in business, you must be committed to the process. Work hard and enjoy the journey, because being the best takes time.

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Interviews are conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.

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