At the height of his career in 2014, Dan Springer ’85 stepped away from the daily grind to raise his two sons. Then a dream job with DocuSign lured him back to the office—and personally and professionally, he’s never been happier
Growing up in an era when checks were a part of everyday life, Dan Springer ’85 would balance his mom’s checkbook for her. But his penchant for organization didn’t stop there. “I often created programs for myself and for other people in my family,” he recalls. “I would call them more to-do lists than truly schedules. But definitely, yes, I was a very organized and structured person.”
In its own 21st-century way, DocuSign—founded in 2003—brings organization and structure to the documented agreement process. A $15-billion player in the e-signature and larger Agreement Cloud space, it’s a natural for Springer, who joined the company as CEO in January 2017 after a long and protracted search.
Like millions of others, Springer’s initial exposure to DocuSign was as a consumer. “I thought it was such an amazing product,” he says. DocuSign eSignature is the world’s No. 1 way to sign electronically on practically any device, with more than 560,000 customers in more than 180 countries. “People tell you stories about how they bought their house using DocuSign or used it at their job,” Springer adds. “It’s a great place to work because customers love the product.”
Springer’s initial exposure to Occidental came during a college tour with two high school buddies. It was late in the application season, and the three of them drove from Seattle down to Los Angeles. “For some crazy reason, I had applied to only big universities,” recalls Springer, who was attending Lakeside School, a small private school in Seattle. “One of my friends was looking at Pomona, and the other [Stuart Meredith ’85] was looking at Occidental. I had just been in the Bay Area and got kind of lost at Berkeley and Stanford. When I walked around Oxy, I fell in love with the place.”
In the grand tradition of the liberal arts, Springer changed his major more than once. After taking his first political science class taught by Roger Boesche, Springer says, “I wanted to be a poli sci major. Then I met Woody Studenmund and I wanted to major in economics. I just kept finding professors and getting excited about what they did.” Eventually he wound up as an economics and math double major.
He also became involved in the Blyth Fund, the student-run investment group, and was president of the fund his senior year. Working with an alumnus who was a broker with Kidder, Peabody—the renowned investment securities firm—Springer and his team learned how to evaluate companies with the potential to be successful investments.
Some picks, he says, worked out better than others—Prime Computer falling into the latter category. “We bought it and rode it up very successfully over a year and a half. And then Prime had some challenges in that last year and we saw it come down. It was a great learning experience—feeling really good about a stock and then realizing the things we missed afterward. And for me, it created a huge interest in investing. I thought I would end up working in banking when I graduated.”
After graduating from Harvard Business School with an MBA, Springer landed his dream job as a consultant at McKinsey & Company—first in San Francisco, and later opening an office in Seattle. While he enjoyed developing strategies with various clients for their business, he found himself frustrated by the itinerant nature of his work. “I wanted to be part of the success,” Springer says. “I realized I should probably be in more of an operating role.”
In late 1997, Springer became head of marketing at a company called NextCard in San Francisco—effectively a general manager role at an early-stage startup. He helped take the company public on his 36th birthday in May 1999, and followed that with stints as CEO at Telleo (a San Jose-based startup) and managing director of Modem Media (an interactive marketing strategy and services company in San Francisco).
Those operating roles teed Springer up to take the reins of Redwood City-based Responsys, a privately held email services provider that became the leading provider of cloud-based business-to-consumer marketing software under his leadership.
“Responsys was a great experience for me,” Springer says. When he arrived on April 1, 2004, the company was in need of a turnaround, having ridden a hot streak through the late 1990s and early 2000s, “right before the dot.com crash,” he says. “They had a couple of CEOs that didn’t work out and the company was floundering a little bit,” with shrinking revenues of about $15 million and a diminished roster of some 75 employees.
After Responsys went public in 2011, the company was sold to Oracle in 2014 for $1.6 billion, “which is a very good outcome,” Springer admits. He calls his 10-year run as CEO “probably the formative experience for my career. Whatever management style I might have, it got shaped at Responsys.”
Springer was named the Bay Area’s Most Admired CEO at a public company with revenue under $500 million by the San Francisco Business Times in 2011. “You get way too much credit for something being successful if you’re the CEO, and sometimes you get too much blame if something doesn’t work out. But I got way more credit than I deserved for Responsys.”
At the height of his success, Springer, newly divorced, walked away from Responsys to become a full-time parent to his two teenage sons. “I know it sounds weird to not have a job as a career, but that was the best career decision I ever made,” he says. “I was always a very hands-on dad, but it’s a different level of when you will make that your No. 1 priority. I worked with a private equity firm. I helped with investments. I joined five boards. It wasn’t like I didn’t do anything, but I only worked 9 to 5.”
The big difference about having an operating role vs. a consulting role, he says, is being able to step away from the job each day. “When you’re just on boards and working with a private equity firm, you go to lacrosse practice to watch the entire practice and pick the boys up, you don’t think about work—your mind is all on them. And being able to have that time, it really enriched our relationship to a whole new level.”
“When I think about what makes Dan really special as a parent, he has a tremendous sense of humor with his kids and about himself,” says Lisa Coscino ’85. “He’s such a good listener and doesn’t interrupt someone 20 times even if what he’s hearing is really tough to hear.”
Coscino—an Oxy trustee and executive director at Pacific Art League of Palo Alto—reconnected with Springer through LinkedIn, of all places. “I did not believe Lisa would have remembered me,” Springer says. “I told her, ‘You must be thinking of somebody else.’ And she said, ‘No, I remember.’ And I said, ‘If you can say three things about me that are true, I’ll give $1,000 to your favorite charity.’ ”
Coscino told him three things: “You were captain of the soccer team, you had curly dark hair, and you dated Kathy Witwer ’85 all through college.” Springer made good on his bet, invited Coscino to a Cubs-Giants game, and the two have been close ever since.
Springer lives two blocks from DocuSign headquarters in San Francisco. The company’s biggest office is in Seattle—two miles from his mother’s house. (When he travels there for meetings, he sleeps in his old bedroom and has breakfast with his mom every morning.) Even so, it took some arm-twisting to lure Springer back to the daily corporate grind.
Founded in Seattle, DocuSign relocated its headquarters to the Bay Area in 2014. In October 2015, chairman and CEO Keith Krach announced he was ready to step down from his CEO duties, prompting a search for a successor. Springer’s name cropped up on the short list of candidates—but at the time, he wasn’t looking for a new gig.
In addition to his commitment to his sons, he was “on a total career high” after turning around Responsys, taking it public, and selling the company “for a great outcome,” Springer says. “I didn’t have that need for self-validation in a significant way.”
More than a year later, he was having a conversation with venture capitalist Pete Solvik about a CEO opening in the Bay Area. After a bit of conversation, he learned that the company was DocuSign.
This time, he was interested. “DocuSign had a great industry-leading product—by far the largest in that space, more than double the next biggest player,” he says. Following a whirlwind of conversations—and with the blessing of his younger son, Robert—Springer DocuSigned his job offer on Christmas Eve.
With a largely new management team in place, including a number of his colleagues from Responsys, DocuSign went public on April 27, 2018, at $29 per share. The day after the IPO, Springer scheduled an early- morning meeting with his team. “I wanted to remind everyone we’ve got customers to take care of,” he says. “It’s one of the reasons I try to get people to not focus on the stock price.”
As of this writing, DocuSign was trading within a few dollars of its all-time high of $92.55—but don’t look to Springer as the bearer of that news. “I only look at our stock price on Friday afternoon,” he explains. “I won’t look at it during the week. Stocks tend to be very volatile—I get that—but when people ask me about our stock price, I make a point of saying, ‘I can tell you what the price was last Friday. But I don’t know what it is on Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday.’
“It’s not that I’m not excited that we are building value,” he adds. “But it’s all because we take care of our customers. It’s all because we make this the best place for people to do the best work of their lives. And if we do those things, the stock price takes care of itself. When you start focusing on stock price, companies get messed up because people start thinking about their own wealth creation.”
His own affection for DocuSign notwithstanding, the main reason Springer wanted to get back into general management is his passion for developing people. He likens it to “having kids—when you start to realize I love someone more than I love myself and my focus is on their development.
“I do love it when customers say, ‘I love DocuSign,’ and it makes me feel good that what we do has a lot of value. But the biggest part is watching people grow and thinking, ‘She never would have been able to do that if it hadn’t been for this company. He never would have achieved that goal.’ ”
That's the sign of a true leader.