Remember Danny the next time you get online – opinion

He was a mensch, a stud and a genius whose legacy is front and center today, as our lives move online courtesy of corona.

A businessperson working at his computer (Illustrative) (photo credit: PIXNIO)
A businessperson working at his computer (Illustrative)
(photo credit: PIXNIO)
The only thing normal about him was his height.
Danny was scary fit and rock solid. He would greet you with a shot to the shoulder or a bear hug that would take your breath away. He was quick to laugh and compliment a friend, but also quick to anger and intolerant of hypocrisy. He was a mensch, a stud and a genius whose legacy is front and center today, as our lives move online courtesy of corona.
Allow me to explain.
I met Danny when he was 16, at Samson’s Gym in Jerusalem. He was squatting ridiculous weight, earning extra shekels by sweeping up, and showing me cut-out op-eds from The Jerusalem Post. Brought to Israel a few years earlier by Zionist parents from Denver, he relished what was good, and quickly saw what was messed up. The two-year wait to get a phone line incensed him; the slow pace of classes bored him; he was thinking about knot theory.
In the early days of the Internet, Danny called it the “World Wide Wait” and decided to do something about it, starting when he was a student at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and working part-time at IBM, and then as an MIT graduate student developing algorithms with Prof. Tom Leighton that were designed to make the Internet lightning fast.
Some of you know his story. Danny was the first person murdered on 9/11 on Flight 11. A captain in Sayeret Matkal, his reaction was innate: He saw the hijackers and fought back. At the time, his company was fighting for its life and he was staying up late devising ways to save jobs.
Danny was a founder of the Start-Up Nation before we knew the term and it became part of our identity. The company he co-founded, Akamai Technologies, is now soaring, both in terms of its stock price and its critical role in delivering secure content on the web.
And Danny? I have been thinking for two decades about what made him so special and so successful. In that time I have worked with and mentored many top business leaders, but Danny was uppermost in my mind as I developed my thinking on how to succeed in business which is the subject of my new book, Primitive.
In my view, just like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey and Arianna Huffington, Danny was the ultimate “primitive.” To me that means reclaiming what’s pure, positive, intuitive and instinctive; retaining child-like wonder and curiosity and spontaneity; eschewing cynicism. Business as usual is the “civilized” rulebook, and it won’t often get you very far, especially today.
Like our ancient ancestors, Danny was always on the move, always “ROAMING” - an acronym I use to help people tap the traits that can boost their businesses and careers.
DANNY WAS relentless. That didn’t just mean working hard or not giving up. It also meant never losing sight of the big prize and not letting mediocre minds slow him down. When he was frustrated that his team came in 6th place in an MIT entrepreneurship competition, unlike what conventional wisdom advises, he took it very personally indeed. The chip on his shoulder grew, and in a short time it was put to good use as the heart and soul of Akamai.
Danny was oppositional. He relished debate of all kinds, and wasn’t afraid to say “you’re wrong.” He would have supported diversity and inclusion efforts in business today, but would also remind us that this must also include diversity of thought, which means cherishing independent thinking rather than aiming for the lowest common denominator and succumbing to risk-averse group-think. He had no problem dressing down even the CEO of a Fortune 500 company if he thought their ideas made no sense.
Danny was agnostic. He was not tied to any one operating system, device or field. He was a master juggler, a decathlete who wore many hats well. In this age of domain expertise and specialization, Danny not only mastered the technology and engineering and mathematics, he could outsell any salesman, convince Wall Street better than the most seasoned investor-relations ace, and recruit talent better than the top headhunter.
Danny was messianic. Not in the Jerusalem Syndrome kind of way, but rather in seeing his work as his divine calling, as what matters most and must make a high impact (“nothing short of world domination” is how he put it to his team - and he wasn’t kidding). He was on a mission. I remember getting a hand-written letter from him during another period when Israelis were forced to stay in their homes, during the first Gulf War, declaring that he was going to get a PhD at MIT - before he even took his first class at the Technion.
Danny was insecure. Yes, the type worth emulating. If you looked beyond the confidence and bravado, Danny could also share his vulnerability, sometimes doubted his decisions and always was aware of competition. He would bristle at modern phrases like “it’s all good.” Danny was concerned someone would try to eat his lunch. He’d sign off emails saying, “you’re behind.”
Danny was nuts. The good kind of crazy. He did what you’re not supposed to do. American immigrants aren’t supposed to try to get into the IDF’s most elite unit. He was impulsive, eccentric and marched to his own drummer. He would promise customers the Moon, freaking out his team - and then they’d figure out how to do it.
“Sometimes you’ve got to be the craziest dog in the fight,” said one of his original investors, Todd Dagres, now of Spark Capital. Danny was that crazy dog, especially when he decided to take the company public less than a year after its founding, in 1999, with virtually no revenue, leading to one of the most successful IPOs ever at that point.
Danny was gallant. He embodied the fact that responsibility in Hebrew (achrayut) is related to the other (acher), as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us. Whether it is secret IDF operations to save lives behind enemy lines, or being a loyal son and nephew who would schlep to NYC to visit his aunt, or a caring friend who would boost my spirits when I was down, Danny was there.
Danny Lewin would have been celebrating his 50th birthday next month. He would have been as primitive as ever. My book is dedicated to his memory and his indomitable spirit.
The writer is the author of Primitive: Tapping the Primal Drive That Powers the World’s Most Successful People (Hachette, 2020) and co-founder and president of Thunder11, a New York-based strategic communications firm that works closely with CEOs in the business and not-for-profit sectors. He has taught marketing at New York University and entrepreneurship and public relations at Fordham University.