Cedar - From Baklava Salesman to Serial Start-Up Founder: 3 Career Lessons From Forbes’ Head of Digital

From Baklava Salesman to Serial Start-Up Founder: 3 Career Lessons From Forbes’ Head of Digital

Last month, Cedar was honored to host Salah Zalatimo, Chief Digital Officer of Forbes Media, for an engaging discussion about his varied career path and lessons learned along the way. Zalatimo’s impressive background includes Ivy League academia and storied consultancies like Bain and McKinsey. However, it wasn’t until stumbling upon entrepreneurship that he found his true calling ‒ and what ultimately led to his success heading up digital transformation at Forbes. Whether you are an entrepreneur launching a new product or looking to drive more impact at a larger organization, savor these valuable career lessons from a tech disruptor who has practically done it all. 

#1: Keep your eye on the mission and success will follow.

While management consulting was a great way to build analytical skills and learn how to think through complex problems, Zalatimo discovered fairly early on in his career that he preferred the front lines of product development and innovation. In the early 2000s, he helped develop new business models for Sony Music when digital music was in its infancy. He also sold baklava for the family business, Zalatimo Sweets Company.  From there he went on to lead several tech start-ups ‒ including digital photo company Camerama, which was ultimately acquired by Forbes. His biggest lesson throughout this journey of ventures: the importance of defining a mission and explaining why people should care. “Whether you are shopping a new idea to national retailers or trying to sell a $25 tray of baklava to the corner store, you can have the most thoughtfully designed product but if you can’t sell your idea and the why behind what you’re doing, you won’t be able to inspire people to act.” 

Zalatimo added that the same theory holds true for recruiting talent. “By being an entrepreneur you learn how much more personal and human you need to be to have an impact. I think that’s what has driven my digital innovation processes at Forbes over the last four years. Ultimately the growth and transformation is about the people and shared mission. You can’t forget that.” 

#2: Forget work-life balance; build a culture that celebrates life.

Zalatimo isn’t a fan of separating work and life ‒ to him, they aren’t mutually exclusive. At Forbes, he invites his team to share their individualism as a way to foster an inclusive work culture, even as early as the interview process. “I’m a big fan of the Myers Briggs personality test, for how people perceive the world around them and make decisions.”  One of Zalatimo’s favorite questions to ask a candidate is where they went on their last vacation and who planned it. “There are two kinds of people in the world: the ones with the detailed itinerary spreadsheet, and the ones who just show up and go along for the ride. There are jobs for both of those people, and having that balance makes the entire team better.”

Personal show-and-tells at all-hands meetings are also a chance for employees to bring their outside life into work and build bonds with colleagues. “I don’t care if it’s a hobby, a new pair of shoes or a side business—you just have to be passionate about something.” 

#3: Data is the way forward—use it!

Just as in healthcare and other industries, the media industry has seen a major shift in how data is informing business decisions. Whereas the magazine cover on the newstands used to be the biggest driver of sales, media is trending toward an online subscription-based model which warrants a new level of tracking performance metrics. Digital content can now be tracked by when, where and how many times each article has been downloaded, read, clicked on, shared. “This level of analytics is at the heart of digital media customization—we have an opportunity to leverage data to help optimize the quality and integrity of our content like never before.” 

The challenge to embracing data at traditional media companies lies in shifting the mindset of senior leadership who are largely trained in traditional journalism. “It’s a generational gap, really. The digital business acts like a start-up, and presents new challenges due to the sheer volume of data literacy required. Part of my job in digital transformation is to bridge that gap, to make everyone at the organization feel really comfortable with data and leverage it in a parallel manner.”

With Zalatimo’s entrepreneurial spirit, mission-driven leadership style and homemade baklava to keep his team going, it looks like Forbes has found just the right visionary to lead the charge. 

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