What I’ve Learned From 25 Years in the Tech Industry
Building and running a successful startup in America’s fiercely competitive tech industry is never easy. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution or manual for how to go about it. But as they say, experience is the best teacher. So it’s my pleasure to share with you some of my own experiences and observations in building and managing tech companies.
I began my journey in the tech industry over 25 years ago, working my way up to senior management roles in IT companies such as LoudCloud (renamed Opsware), NorthPoint Communications (which was later sold to AT&T), and IBM. For the last 10 years, I’ve served as the CEO of MetricStream, a Silicon Valley-based governance, risk, and compliance (GRC) company which I helped build from the ground up.
I’ve learned several important lessons—not only from my personal career journey, but also from the challenges and successes of my clients and peers in the industry. Here are a few key lessons which have stood me in good stead:
Innovate! Then, Protect Your Innovations
When we first formed the new MetricStream in 2004, our aim was to offer a robust compliance product built on an enterprise platform for end-to-end compliance management, to help companies better manage their risks. But we soon realized that customers were struggling with a wide range of compliance process issues across many regulations. So we extended our platform to address broader requirements around risk management, audits, supplier governance, and IT GRC. Given the new focus, we detected a need for collaboration and training. We launched ComplianceOnline.com, a portal for GRC professionals. And today, we continue to innovate, developing GRC products around social media, mobility, big data, and the like.
If you want to stay relevant, you have to innovate. The good news is that startups are great places for innovation because there are fewer stakeholders and more openness to ideas. But a word of caution: protect your ideas. Take a cue from Blaze Mobile, a leader in near field communication (NFC) technology. At a time when resources were scarce, Blaze Mobile invested in filing multiple patents for things like NFC mobile payments, NFC stickers, mobile ticketing, and more. Today, the company has over 30 patents and is well-positioned not only to effectively protect its intellectual property, but also to generate revenue by licensing out and monetizing its patents.
Be Quick and Agile
There was a time when Kodak dominated film and camera sales in America. Then came the digital revolution. Photography started to shift away from traditional analog film, but Kodak didn’t evolve quickly or effectively enough. And by the time they did, it was too late—the market had been taken over by other players with more advanced technology.
Speed and agility are two of the biggest advantages that tech startups have over their larger, more established counterparts. But it’s easy to get complacent, especially after you’ve tasted some measure of success. Meanwhile, markets will have moved on, customer expectations will have changed, and the competition will have caught up. So, if you want to stay ahead, you have to always be on your toes, anticipating consumer demands and industry shifts, and addressing them before anyone else does.
Keep your finger on the pulse of the market. Monitor social media conversations. Implement Google Alerts to track industry news and trends. Evaluate how these trends matter to your business, and how you can address them in line with your core vision and mission.
Metrics are another key element to staying agile. Consistently measure the progress of your activities. Figure out what’s working and what’s not, and make changes proactively.
Keep the Customer Front and Center
Buffer, a startup that provides a social media management application, is well-known for its “Happiness Heroes”—customer service agents who proactively respond to all support requests, suggestions, and ideas. In June alone, the team delivered over 9,000 responses to e-mails, answering 81.4 percent in under an hour, and 13.2 percent in 1-6 hours. The team also delivered 6,000+ responses on Twitter, answering 61.6 percent in less than 15 minutes, and 18.9 percent in less than an hour. Buffer even publishes a “Happiness Report”—a monthly roundup of how happy its customers are.
Many startups tend to focus all their time and effort on building a great product or service with the coolest features or the slickest interface. But the ones that succeed are those that focus on their customers. Creating a positive customer experience enables you to differentiate yourself from the competition, generate more buzz around your products and services, and drive greater profits.
It’s about actively engaging customers. Today’s age of social media has given rise to a more empowered consumer. So instead of going out to find prospects, you have to enable prospects to find you. Be present where they are. Engage them continuously to find out what they want, and how they want it. Find solutions that resonate with customer needs. Ultimately, happy and loyal customers can be your best brand advocates.
Hire and Retain the Right Talent
A great product, a growing market, and a well-thought out business strategy aren’t enough if you don’t have the right talent. Implement good hiring processes. Evaluate if your organization’s culture and values align with those of a potential employee. Simulate work situations and challenges to get a sense of the candidate’s work abilities and their fit in your company.
But remember that the hiring process is only half the job. The other half is about cultivating a workplace culture that people will want to be part of. Cloudability, a cloud cost analytics startup, offers employees and their families 100 percent paid healthcare, generous stock options, and no formal vacation policy. Hyland Software encourages a “one-team” mentality, flexibility with compressed work weeks, and fully paid sabbaticals. Crowdtap, which produces a social influence marketing platform, believes in eliminating micromanagement, fostering a safe and comfortable environment where every concern can be voiced and resolved immediately, and maintaining an open, collaborative office space that empowers everyone to innovate.
It’s no wonder that these companies rank among the best places to work. When you have a great workplace culture that values its employees, it becomes much easier to attract and retain top quality talent.
Developing and managing a tech business can be challenging even for the best of people. But it can also be the adventure of a lifetime. The key is to keep an open mind, learn from your successes and failures, and move forward.