Brunch with Sifted: Daniel Dines, cofounder of UiPath

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    Walking through the streets of downtown Bucharest to UiPath’s Romanian headquarters, after a year of few face-to-face meetings, to grab brunch with Daniel Dines is a surreal experience.

    It’s not just that Dines, 49, is now the country’s richest man, or that the company he cofounded, and for which he is CEO, listed on the New York Stock Exchange in April for just shy of $36bn.

    It’s that the technology that UiPath has pioneered in recent years is perhaps ideally suited to the new world we now find ourselves in, where businesses are reassessing their structures in everything from office spaces to employee mental health and the role of automation.

    As one of the key players in the booming, global robotic process automation (RPA) industry, which is focused on automating repetitive office tasks, UiPath is already a winner. But that success is likely only the beginning.

    “I don’t see the current way of performing operations will exist 10 years from now,” says Dines.

    “Automation will change completely how people work. What’s the point in doing low value manual repetitive tasks that we are not really well equipped for? It’s tiring.”

    Greek food in Romania

    Now a public figure in Romania, Dines seems to have become increasingly comfortable in the spotlight, and happy to delve into his own past and some of the life lessons he’s learned along the way.

    With Romania still emerging from lockdown restrictions, brunch is held in one of the spacious meeting rooms at UiPath’s Bucharest headquarters, with the meal put together by a young Greek chef that Dines employs as his private chef.

    As we make our way to the meeting room, the building — a large modern edifice sandwiched between old villas down a quiet side street in the Romanian capital — is still largely empty, with most of the staff yet to return to the office.

    Settling down across a large table from each other, plates of food start to be brought in with steady regularity, starting with spinach salad with foie gras wrapped in lettuce and followed by grilled Greek manouri cheese with almonds and apple and fig jam.

    “I like good food, I like drinking good wine or whisky,” Dines says between bites, adding that it’s one of the perks of travelling a lot for work — or was until Covid hit. (His last meal, if he got the choice: Kobe beef steak or sushi with a nice Macallan whisky to wash it down.)

    Since the pandemic began, however, life has been very different. On the personal side it’s been largely positive.

    Pre-pandemic, Dines was spending almost equal time on the major continents, never staying more than two weeks in the same place. He was in New York when the pandemic started, returning to Europe last July and has been here ever since. “I stopped the travelling regime that was taking a toll on my body. I was 10kg heavier. I started playing sports more,” he says.

    “Our investors told us missing your targets by 30% will be the new norm, 50% will be average.”

    Now he plays tennis most days, and has a better work-life balance. “I am able to disconnect. If I feel tired, I can rest. I get to make my own schedule, people make their schedules after my schedule,” he adds with a smile.

    However, for UiPath the pandemic was initially mixed, coming at a challenging moment for the company in terms of growth. “Not being able to be in-person was tough,” says Dines. “Our investors told us missing your targets by 30% will be the new norm, 50% will be average. I said: ‘If we’re missing by 50% we’re dead basically, we’d have to fire half of the company to survive.’”

    Communist upbringing

    Dines was raised in a small village in communist Romania, the son of a teacher and civil engineer, though he says he was brought up largely by his grandparents.

    “It was the happiest time of my life,” he says of his childhood, with days spent playing football and tennis, as well as swimming. As he got older he became an avid reader, even trying to write a Kafka-esque novel when he was 17.

    In 1990, Dines moved to Bucharest, months after the revolution that ended Romania’s communist rule, ostensibly to study maths and computer science at university.

    “I went to a few classes, it was terrible,” he says. “These communist teachers, this atmosphere, you can’t imagine how dull everything was. They were just writing formulas on the blackboard. It was really uninspiring so after a few weeks I didn’t go at all. I got my degree but in practical terms I went only for exams.”

    Instead, he started playing competitive bridge, going to tournaments and making a bit of money.

    Not the American dream

    Our starters are replaced by a first course of lentils with pesto Genovese and butternut squash, sour cream and sesame seeds, and a boiled egg with beluga caviar and parsnip crisps.

    Dines did eventually return to studying, becoming, in his words, a theoretical programmer. And in the early 2000s, he moved to Seattle to work for Microsoft.

    Yet, rather than the American dream, the US was a difficult adjustment. He was 29, and had learned English largely by studying books on bridge.

    “When I first got to Seattle I barely understood people when they were talking, and was even less able to articulate,” he says. “It was tough.”

    “I never went to the US with the idea that I would stay forever.”

    At the same time, while many eastern Europeans were actively trying to emigrate for a better life, Dines says that he had come from a good place and salary in Romania. “I never went to the US with the idea that I would stay forever.”

    After three years, he decided to return to Romania, but worried there wouldn’t be any companies he wanted to work for back home, he took another two years to finally make his move. His solution: to set up his own company.

    UiPath was born

    Our conversation is interrupted by our second course. Sea bass with mango and salsa, accompanied by cauliflower with lemon and capers sauce, raspberry pickled onions and saffron and cauliflower mousse and green asparagus. We greedily tuck in.

    The initial idea for DeskOver — as UiPath was initially called — came in the US. Dines was able to secure a few software outsourcing gigs before leaving, which kept the company, cofounded with Marius Tirca, who is UiPath’s chief technology officer, afloat in its early days.

    Still, it was a difficult time, and Dines says he didn’t enjoy the early startup period, working out of a small apartment with little money.

    “It was a terrible stage. I was not built for this type of struggle and hardship. It was a long process, very painful at times. It always felt very dangerous,” he says.

    Dines describes the first years of his startup as his real college. “Always having these experiences like you don’t have the money, how do you tell these people [employees]? You feel responsible for all of them.”

    Tough decade

    In fact, for almost a decade it was touch-and-go. The first product they created — a simple tool for Windows that let users extract a word or sentence and search with one click — didn’t go anywhere.

    Others would follow.

    In 2012, when a former manager of his at Microsoft moved to Amazon and pretty much offered him a job, Dines considered giving up.

    “It was one of the most difficult moments, because we had a bit of fatigue after seven years,” he explains. “Nothing was really looking like a big opportunity. We were in the beginning of developing UiPath. The real technology that is UiPath, we built it after 2012,” he says.

    In the end Dines decided to stick it out, hoping that their luck would change. In 2015 they rebranded the company UiPath, and later that year received their first round of funding, a $1.6m round led by Earlybird’s Digital East fund.

    “After 10 years of no luck we had all the luck in the world. Like flying on the back of a unicorn.”

    “We always had good technology, we knew this. After 10 years of no luck we had all the luck in the world. Like flying on the back of a unicorn,” Dines says with a smile (arguably those early investors were even more lucky).

    Take a billion, spend it, I’ll give you another

    With hindsight, Dines can look back and smile at some of the moments in their journey. But at the time it must have felt soul crushing.

    He tells the story of one investment firm who he met with at Seedcamp in London in 2015.

    “I talked to this guy, a pretty big one in London. He sent me an email, which I still have, saying he’s passing because he feels we can’t keep our technology advantage. He dismissed a bunch of Romanians being able to beat UK or American companies. That was the sentiment.”

    Later, UiPath was in the position to choose who to accept money from, including refusing a large sum from Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank in 2018.

    “[Masayoshi Son] said: ‘Daniel, take a billion from me, and when you spend it I’ll give you another billion.’”

    “He wanted too much of the company,” explains Dines. “I never wanted to give one investor a disproportionate size, I always wanted to build syndication, to have more people helping you. But it’s true, he said: ‘Daniel, take a billion from me, and when you spend it I’ll give you another billion.’”

    (SoftBank would later invest $300m in UiPath’s rival Automation Anywhere.)

    Forced to learn

    Dines makes it clear that he’s an avid learner, though sometimes this has been forced upon him.

    In 2014, when UiPath was looking for its first outside investment, the team didn’t have the money to hire a lawyer to go over the term sheet and other documents. “I learned all the legal terms. I wouldn’t have done that if I could have afforded a lawyer, but it would have been a mistake because now I understand much better this type of document. It was fascinating to understand the [recent] IPO process,” he adds.

    Romanian roots

    Despite having offices in over 40 countries, and a main headquarters in New York, UiPath has kept firm ties to Romania. A quarter of its employees are Romanian, and Dines says they’re contemplating making Bucharest a bigger centre for European talent.

    This is in stark contrast to most of the last 30 years, with so much talent having left the country. “At least half of the people I grew up with left Romania,” Dines says.

    Romania today is a great place to live, he says, “and we have a slight advantage over the big American companies that are established in Europe. Usually they don’t do their coolest projects in Europe, we do.”

    (Another selling point: Romanian soups. “Next to Vietnam I think Romanians have the best soups. I was thinking I could open a restaurant that only serves soup,” he says.)

    At the same time, despite a booming startup scene, most Romanians are still too risk averse, he says, telling a story to illustrate his point.

    “Our VP of engineering in Bucharest used to work with a guy and begged him to come here. This was 2017, 2018. This guy was making €2000, €3000 a month. He didn’t come. Do you understand how much money this guy would have made if he’d joined UiPath? If I were him I would look in the mirror every day and say ‘What the fuck did I do?’”

    The best thing that money can buy

    Despite his wealth, Dines says he hasn’t spent lavishly on objects. “I discovered the best thing that money can buy in this world, and it’s not goods. I like inexpensive sports clothes. The best thing is the mentorship and advice of great people.”

    “I discovered the best thing that money can buy in this world, and it’s not goods. It’s the mentorship and advice of great people.”

    It’s having access to things like the best surgeons, lawyers, tennis coaches, he says. “I had the privilege to play tennis with Victor Hanescu, who was 26th in the world. It’s a big thing.”

    I ask him, given his daily tennis, whether he could beat Ion Tiriac, Romania’s former richest man, who won the French Open doubles in 1970 and reached three Davis Cup finals before becoming a successful businessman. Tiriac is now 82.

    “No, he would beat me even in his 80s,” says Dines, with a smile. “He was a great player, and is still in great shape. I wouldn’t stand a chance.”

    Dines also likes to share his own, hard-fought experience with the younger generation. “One of the things I enjoy is talking to other founders. I think I can give them good advice. I’m a guy who got success at an older age, I’m 49 now,” he says.

    Rich man, poor man

    With stomachs bursting, we both pick at the dessert, a rich chocolate, caramel and hazelnut cake, leaving most of it on our plates.

    Dines says that UiPath is now in a very fortunate position. After so many years, it has its destiny in its own hands. “We have a large development team. We aim to get the lion’s share of this huge industry,” he says.

    At the same time, the title of Romania’s richest man has only created downsides for him personally, he says.

    “It’s what the Romanian press focused on. They didn’t realise how big UiPath was. They didn’t understand that it’s the biggest company in Romania,” he says, adding that money doesn’t mean that much to him in the larger scheme of things.

    “After returning to Romania, I lived off of €2000 a month for the next 10 years.”

    “I lived very poorly in my 20s, then at Microsoft I lived like a middle class American, after returning to Romania, I lived off of €2000 a month for the next 10 years. It’s not worth struggling all your life to get money if you want a nicer vacation, that’s the stupidest thing in the world.”

    Ultimately Dines says he doesn’t believe in building dynasties, and plans to give much of his wealth away.

    Two years ago UiPath started a foundation to help underprivileged kids in Romania thrive. “It’s like paying a tax,” he says.

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