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Changing Course After 9/11: 4 Business Lessons from an Unplanned Pivot

Although 20 years have passed since the September 11 attacks, we carry powerful memories of that day and continue to mourn those we lost. Each anniversary marks an opportunity to pay respects to the victims, first responders, and affected families — and a reminder to carry their memories year-round.

For many of us, the date resurfaces thoughts of where we were that morning — especially those removed from harm’s way. Perhaps an early appointment, a traffic delay, or a sick child at home was the divine occurrence.

I am one of those people. In 2001, I was working on Wall Street as a consultant at Lehman Brothers, and many of my colleagues were located on the 40th floor of the north tower at the World Trade Center.

But on the morning of September 11, I was in New Jersey on my way to the ferry. I do not recall hearing the collisions, but I vividly recall seeing the second plane smash into the south tower against a cloudless blue sky. My Lehman coworkers were fortunate to escape from their tower before it collapsed.

Life, as we learned that day, can end at any moment. And it reinforced the notion that time is too precious to spend our waking hours unhappy or adrift.


For me, the unthinkable tragedy was a catalyst. Shortly after the attacks, I left Lehman to work for myself — a dream I pursued part-time for years. Today, my company, AvePoint, is the largest data management SaaS solutions provider for Microsoft 365, and we help millions of users worldwide. It’s a journey I still trace back to September 11.

My story is just one of countless lives that changed that day, and it isn’t intended to overshadow anyone else’s. But I do believe that deep self-evaluation in a time of crisis can be a powerful motivator to identify what matters most in one’s professional and personal life.

Here are a few things I learned after the events of September 11 led me to suddenly change gears:

1. There May Never Be a “Right” Time to Make Big Decisions

Growing up in a first-generation immigrant household, I was strongly encouraged by my parents — who came to America as exchange research scientists working for the federal government — to follow a reliable trajectory: Go to the best schools and work for the best companies. In other words, keep your head down, study hard, and play it safe. And I did for years.

But on September 11, I realized how little of one’s life is under our own control.

A life-altering event that shook the economy and our emotional cores was what it took for me to leave a stable, well-paid job on Wall Street and to enroll in a part-time MBA program (and later, PhD studies) at New York University. I had also reconnected with a former friend and colleague from Bell Labs, Kai Gong, and decided to dedicate my full attention to AvePoint with him.

It was scary, but we knew there was no “perfect” moment to take a risk.


2. Be Prepared to Sacrifice Sleep, Salary, and Security

Working for yourself provides a rush, but it doesn’t always pay the bills.

We started AvePoint — originally a backup solution for Microsoft Exchange — from a public library in Somerset, New Jersey. Kai was sleeping on a couch in his friend’s basement. It wasn’t glamorous. We struggled. AvePoint did not make a single dollar for three years, and it wasn’t for another decade that I could pay myself more than my Wall Street salary.

A lean and mean mindset, where we invest every dollar of profit back into the business, kept AvePoint debt-free as we grew into a global player — and, as of July 2, a publicly-traded company on Nasdaq. We resist acquisition offers and keep investors in the minority to maintain control of our own destiny.

Unexpected events that rattle markets and customer confidence, such as the continued challenges of COVID-19, will occur. You can plan for some hurdles; others simply can’t be forecasted. Thus, it’s imperative to build strong business or personal finance fundamentals to weather the unexpected.

3. Share Your Story and Speak Up Often

The software world, like many fields, is crowded. Delivering world-class solutions and service is the baseline. Leaders must be ready to promote their brand. You never know who’s listening, so always have your elevator pitch handy.

I often recall my attendance at a TechEd conference session held by Microsoft, which had just unveiled SharePoint 2003 (aka version 2.0) and was receiving — let’s call it passionate — feedback from partners and customers about the lack of a migration path from the prior SharePoint version.

I stood up right there, waved my hand and said, “We can do it; we can migrate you.”

It was a transformative moment. As AvePoint developed that migration product over the subsequent weekend and garnered an endorsement from Microsoft product executives, we won our first product contract with a large enterprise customer and established our credibility.

Speaking up can be a risk, but it’s often one worth taking.

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4. Always Be an Entrepreneur, Even as You Grow

Today, more than 17,000 customers worldwide rely on AvePoint solutions to make digital collaboration safer and more efficient. But we continue to look forward by listening to our customers and innovating from the field. What problems are they still facing? What untapped markets should we pursue?

Those notions lie at the heart of our product development and marketing as we expand our own services — most recently, SaaS products that support Google Workspace, remote learning and assessment for higher education and corporate clients, and Microsoft 365 license management.

Amid this big transformation, I remain humbled by our beginnings and the events that led me to this path. Never forget your origin story; make sure it remains a part of your business DNA, no matter what happens next.

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Dr. Tianyi Jiang (TJ) co-founded AvePoint in 2001 and has served as the organization's Chief Executive Officer since 2005. TJ is responsible for overall strategy and direction of AvePoint, which includes product innovation, investor relations, and business development. He is focused on delivering value to customers, partners, shareholders, and the AvePoint team, every day. A recipient of Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award in New Jersey in 2010, TJ received both B.S. and master’s in electrical and computer engineering from Cornell University, and a Master of Philosophy and PhD in Data Mining from Department of Information Systems, Operations Management, and Statistics, Stern School of Business, New York University.

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