Wait, What? From High School Dropout to President and Founder with Taso Du Val

Posted: 12/25/2018 - 12:00

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In this episode of the Sourcing Industry Landscape, Dawn Tiura interviews Taso Du Val. Taso Du Val is the CEO of Toptal where he is in charge of the strategic vision and managing Toptal’s explosive growth. With an untraditional background that took him from high school dropout to CEO, Taso, who is also a musician, originally started out in the music industry as a producer.

Dawn Tiura: My name is Dawn Tiura, I'm president and CEO of Sourcing Industry Group, also known as SIG, or S-I-G, and I'm excited today. We have an amazing entrepreneur that I'm going to spend a little bit of time chatting with and getting to know, and his name is Taso Du Val, and he is the president and founder of Toptal. Welcome to the show, Taso.
Taso Du Val: Thanks for having me.
Dawn Tiura: I'm excited. You have done so much at a relatively young age, and I hope you don't mind me saying that. It's just remarkable. Can we talk about your journey? Do you mind?
Taso Du Val: Sure, let's get into it.
Dawn Tiura: Let's talk about post-school. Where do end up immediately after school?
Taso Du Val: Well, I actually was a music producer directly after school. When I say school, I actually mean high school. I didn't end up graduating from high school or college. I dropped out of high school to be able to pursue both technology and music, and I guess came full circle, because I became pretty successful on both of them.
Dawn Tiura: Oh, my goodness, I love this. Obviously not the same path as anyone else I've spoken to at all on this podcast series. After high school you became a music producer. How did that lead you to Toptal?
Taso Du Val: Well, I completely failed at it at first, and then I went right into software development, and actually working within the technology sector. After failing, let's say after a year or so of writing music and not getting signed to a major label, and realizing that I have to do something with my life, I ended up learning software development and really getting deeper into software development and getting a job as a software developer. So that journey was about five plus years, and after that I decided to start a software company, which failed as well, and took me ultimately, to Toptal.
Dawn Tiura: That is amazing. Failed young—but never stop pursuing your dream. First off, what gave you the tenacity? Were you just born with it?
Taso Du Val: I'm not sure if I was born with it. I certainly grew up in an environment where I was less successful than a lot of people around me. And I attribute that a lot to my drive and motivation. If you looked at some of my family members, they were born well off, and I had two parents who were very loving and wonderful, however they weren't of the economic status as some of, let's say, my peers and some of my other family members. So, I think I always had some sort of complex that made me feel like I was inferior, either economically or socially, or something of this nature, and I sort-of always wanted to prove myself. I suppose, I can only guess. When you grow up in an environment where you're always naturally having to level up yourself in order to be at the same level as everybody else, you just make that the status quo.
Dawn Tiura: Oh my gosh. I love that that was your fire in your belly, even though maybe at the time you didn't recognize it. It's amazing. But can we take a slight detour, because you started something that I think is incredible as well, Artsy. Can you tell me about that, because that's obviously very different than Toptal.
Taso Du Val: Yeah, sure. My neighbor, Carter Cleveland, who is the founder and CEO is the true founder of the company. I just helped him get it off the ground through some of my connections that I made in Silicon Valley, and actually my software knowledge, helping him architect it, and get the company off the ground. So I was his neighbor, and we happened to cross paths quite literally. He was walking down my street, and lo and behold, he was working on a software company, I was working on a software company, and it turned out that I could be quite helpful to him. I guess we could say, partnered in essence, and I helped him write some software, I helped him gain some connections, and ultimately that company ended up being a tremendous success. I did receive some upside from it, and we certainly kept in touch and are on extremely good terms. Yeah, that was a great story.
Dawn Tiura: It's a fantastic story, because along the way, for you just to creating such an amazing company as Toptal, you also helped create another amazing company. A huge win. Now you decided to start Toptal. What was your motivation?
Taso Du Val: I noticed that was a gap in the market in regards to the talent market. And so, if you looked at, in 2010, Odesk, Freelance, freelancer.com, labor market places that existed on the internet—they all had a very bad reputation. And that reputation is really all about scammers, and all about poor experiences, and all about low quality talent, and that's what I kept hearing from people, time and time again. So when I actually went to go use them, I found out, wow, I had actually a really great experience, and that was very contrary to what everyone else was telling me. Why is that? And the reason was, was because I knew what I was looking for, as a software developer. I could gauge them as a software developer, and I could do that quite easily.
Taso Du Val: To put it into perspective, the company I was previously at, which was Slide, as a software database architect, was acquired by Google pretty much solely for its engineering prowess. And so I was exposed to really good engineers, and in that environment for quite some time, and when I left, being able to gauge engineers remotely was second nature to me. So, when I started gauging them, and doing it on my own, I could sift through the dirt, let's say, and find gold. Whereas, the platforms weren't very conducive for that. Actually, there really is no conducive way to do that unless you structure it in a very sophisticated way for scale. That's ultimately what Toptal ended up being.
Dawn Tiura: When did you start Toptal? What year?
Taso Du Val: In 2010.
Dawn Tiura: So now you're one of the largest platforms for acquiring new talent. That growth must have been phenomenal for you.
Taso Du Val: Yeah, actually I would argue we're the most valuable labor marketplace in the world for freelance talent for short. That's hard to justify in a sense, because we don't have, let's say, an outside valuation from an investment firm. But there was a notable freelance platform that just went public, and I can tell you on a year-by-year basis, we are way larger than them, and have grown significantly faster than them, in large part due to our quality and the trust that we have with both our talent and our clients.
Dawn Tiura: It's amazing. Your reputation out in the industry is phenomenal. So I have to applaud you on that, and when you say you are the most valuable, you know what, you're the CEO and I take your word for it, because I'm hearing nothing but great things about you from our members.
Taso Du Val: Well, happy to hear that.
Dawn Tiura: So you've been there for eight years, seven and a half, eight years now, I'm not going to ask you about your plans to IPO, or anything like that unless you want to share it. But what's next for you? Obviously, failed; failed young; got that out of the way; success; success.
Taso Du Val: We are certainly going to go into many more verticals and many more industries. We've started with technology because that's really our bread and butter. That's what I know, that's what the founding team knows, and really, that's what we've been doing for quite some time now. As we move forward in regards to new verticals, we're going to be looking at new industries that we haven't really touched before, so you could think of obvious ones.
Taso Du Val: Legal. There's really no legal marketplace today. That is, let's say, of the highest caliber and represents the highest quality, trust and integrity that you could find at a law firm. We're going to change that. We're going to do the same with writing. We're going to do the same ideally, in every industry. So if you look at the software, the operational playbooks that we've created, all of the different infrastructural components within the company, that's what's really got us our success today. That's what's going to get us to success in the future verticals. It gives you a good idea of how we think about this. It's very methodical, and we have a stack of software and operations that allows us to compete out in the market.
Dawn Tiura: That's awesome. You've got an incredible opportunity to branch out. You did a lot at a young age, and you've achieved a lot. But this might be sort-of a funny question, but if you were just to go back 10 years, is there anything you would have told your younger self to do or not to do, or you wish you had known?
Taso Du Val: I really discounted experience previously. And I think that was a big mistake. What I mean by that is I always thought, and still do to some degree today, but much less so, that intelligence and hard work will just get you there, and it's purely merit based, and if you can't figure it out on your own, then basically tough luck. And that's an incorrect perspective in life, as I've come to know. There are a lot of people out in the world who can give you a lot of advice, advice that's extremely difficult to get, and the more you can surround yourself with knowledgeable, experienced people, the better.
Taso Du Val: If you look at the founding team of Toptal, a lot of the earlier employees I should say—they were very young, simply intelligent, and we got very, very far. But I must say, bringing on extremely experienced people has been a game changer for our company. And it's been a game changer for how I run business. Because it's giving me a perspective that I previously didn't have. I would have interviewed people for their intelligence, their diligence, their ability to think through problems, and I really discounted the experience. Now, it's not to say that I don't value that any more, I certainly value that. But now I couple experience into the equation a little bit more strongly than I would have previously.
Dawn Tiura: I like that. So it's not just grab only millennials. You're looking for people that have been around the block a few times and know something.
Taso Du Val: Oh yeah, absolutely. And that's in all areas of life, not just actually Toptal, but my personal life as well, and whatever hobby I go into. If I'm into, let's say cooking, which I'm not into, but just let's say I was. I wouldn't take my 25-year-old route, which would have been, go on the internet, figure out how to cook, fail a bunch of times, and continue that for a few years.
Taso Du Val: Maybe that's how I might start, maybe for the first month or two to get my feet wet and try to understand it, but then I would quickly surround myself with expert cooks, and people who want to see me progress in my career as a cook, or who want to up-level my skills as a cook. And so it's a different route—one's a little bit more hard-lined, and I'm going to do it solely based on what I think I can do, and my potential. The other is I'm going to allow people to up-level my own skillsets and allow them to accelerate my ability to do whatever I want to do, and in this case, cooking.
Dawn Tiura: I like that story, that is fantastic. How do you feel when they're surrounded by your relatives and your better-off friends that you grew up with?
Taso Du Val: That's a really great question. I think for this interview, I'm going to pass on that question.
Dawn Tiura: Thanksgiving. You might have some issues over some family dinners if you don't, yeah. But when I see you in person, I'm going to get that answer. I'm going to get it. I may not record it, but I'm going to get it. I think your story's amazing, and just the fact that you believed enough in yourself, and have the tenacity to allow yourself to fail and yet still believed and picking yourself up and go again, that says a lot, because a lot of people are first afraid to try, and then failure just knocks them out for good. And it crushes the spirit. So your story is fantastic, and I hope everybody listening understands that if you don't try, you can't succeed, and it's just so important to keep trying. On a personal level, do you have a good work/life balance these days, or are you still running around like crazy?
Taso Du Val: I believe I have a really good work/life balance. I do work a lot, but work is so integrated into my life that it's sort of seamless—especially running a fully remote company. It's something that just happens daily, weekends. It's very easy for me to manage. However, it is quite busy, but I do enjoy it.
Dawn Tiura: That's good. You sound fantastically happy, and I just really want to thank you because I know our members have really said a lot of good things about you, and if I meet your relatives, I'm sure going to say, look at him. I guess he one-upped you. But you can't say it.
Taso Du Val: You shouldn't antagonize them (laughs).
Dawn Tiura: I guess maybe I'll check their resumes first to see if I should or should not. But I certainly want to brag on you. I'm just really excited to have you as part of this podcast series, and so any advice you'd give someone starting out, because we've got a lot of millennials that do listen into the podcast. Surround yourself with people with experience, but anything else that someone starting out in the sourcing industry should know.
Taso Du Val: Yeah, absolutely. And I think this goes beyond the sourcing industry. Anything that you do in life, you should always do it with authenticity, and commitment to be great. That does not mean the outcome will be that you're rich, or that you will achieve greatness, or that you will have an outcome that makes you financially or socially successful. However, that attitude will surround you with the right people, and no matter how your journey takes you, or where it takes you, your mindset will attract the right type of people, and there are so many people, so many great people in this world, who recognize that mindset. When you are authentic, and you have a commitment to be great, people resonate with that who also are of a like mind.
Dawn Tiura: They like to be around those kinds of people. You're right.
Taso Du Val: And that's so important, because at Toptal, we never have the aspiration to be rich, but we always have the aspiration to be great. And that's a completely different mindset. We keep going, we keep going. If people ask us to acquire the company for a billion dollars or something like this, it's not really at the core of what we're focused on. A billion dollars does not equate to being great. I know a lot of people who are born with billions of dollars. I can tell you they're not great. They don't accomplish things. Accomplishing greatness goes far beyond being rich, it goes far beyond simply something on your resume that says you sold the company or you did something that was producing economic value. It takes a lot to do something truly great in the world, especially for benchmarking yourself against some of the greatest people, greatest innovators today, from the Bill Gates, to the Ray Dalios, et cetera, of this world. You should really gauge that as great, use that as a sounding board for your mindset, and always aspire and shoot for being great, because that will get you very far and you'll be very satisfied with your life, even if you end up broke. At least you tried to achieve greatness. You've tried to become rich and you end up broke, you certainly failed.
Dawn Tiura: I think that's great advice, because I think so many, especially based in the Bay area as I was for most of my adult life, it's always the race to be who's the millionaire first. And it wasn't the race to being who's the best person and achieve greatness. So I think that's really sound advice in today's day and age.
Taso Du Val: Absolutely, and I always think back. If I was a music producer, and I made it as a music producer, would I be satisfied with my life? Because I would have been significantly less wealthy than I am today. And my answer is yes, I know, at least myself. I suppose there's no empirical data to support this, because I can't live two parallel lives. But I enjoy writing music so much and from the beginning that I started writing music, always wanted to write the best music in the world, and that was my single goal.
Taso Du Val: I failed at it, but I'm still very proud of the fact that I went for it, I gave it my all, and I still write music today, with lots of joy, still working to be the best producer in the world, or a great producer who is on par with some of the greats today. And so does that mean that I'm doing it for economic success? No, it doesn't. And at this point in time, actually it doesn't even matter. So why am I doing it? I'm doing it so that I can push the envelope, I can prove something to myself, and I can actually push the boundaries of what I know I'm capable of and continue that progress. And as I think Tony Robbins says, as long as someone's making progress every single day, that will amount to them being happy. So I think that's a very important note to end on.
Dawn Tiura: I think that's great. Well Taso, I want to thank you for your time, and I've loved this podcast and getting to know you on this level. Thank you.
Taso Du Val: Thank you very much Dawn, it was a pleasure.
Dawn Tiura: I'm signing off, with Taso Du Val, founder and CEO of one of the greatest companies out there, Toptal. So thank you and have a great day, and listen to us very soon

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