Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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Sometimes Less is More

June 16, 2010

You might have noticed that it’s been a while since I last updated my blog. Since I last posted, I took on the position of President of Atalasoft and I have been deeply involved in launching the next version of Vizit, the company’s universal viewer for Microsoft SharePoint.

I first got interested in Vizit when I was at Captaris. At the time my team was looking to pull together a value added bundle around SharePoint that would add several image centric components and provide a more complete DMS or ECM experience. It was clear to us that Microsoft needed a partner in this area that could provide a broad bundle of capabilities and International support.

Part of our bundle was something we described as RightView. Microsoft’s solution to viewing in SharePoint is to have the user open the application associated with the document. We wanted to eliminate the need for users to have every application, the time to launch these applications, and the hassle of converting documents to accommodate whatever version of the application the user had available. We also wanted to provide the user an experience that was more closely aligned with other ECM offerings.

The RightView plan was to private label Atalasoft’s Vizit , which we believed was the best viewer for SharePoint in the market. It also had a nice “web scan” feature that enabled a casual user to scan into a repository without leaving SharePoint. Unfortunately, we were in deep discussions to sell the company and we never completely executed the plan.

Over the past year Atalasoft has had the first generation of Vizit in the market. As mentioned above, the first version of Vizit had many image centric features that were influenced by Atalasoft’s legacy in imaging and also by my Captaris team. During the last year the company learned the imaging aspects of Vizit are valued by a niche audience, but the broader market truly values the ability to view over 300 different document types without downloading any software or opening a single application. Today the company launched Vizit 3.0 in two packages: Vizit Essential (Universal Viewing), and Vizit Pro (Universal Viewing + Imaging).

Those of you who have been around me for any period of time have probably heard my “Bob” story. Bob is a guy who starts a software company in his garage to serve a customer need no one else is addressing. Usually Bob gets his first product close enough to this need to get at least a couple of customers. If Bob is smart he then listens closely to his customers and quickly adapts the product to fulfill the complete need. This takes him to the sweet spot in the market and he is wildly successful (another great software company is born). Unfortunately the story doesn’t end there.

During Bob’s adaptive stage his developers focus on adding features that the masses really need. Once the need is fulfilled the developers still need to do something, so the company starts developing features for niches. After adding niche feature after feature Bob finds himself with a product that is cumbersome to use to meet the core need he originally set out to fulfill. At this point the next “Bob” comes along and cleans his clock (software is so much fun).

Over the last year Atalasoft learned the SharePoint market really needed a great viewing experience, and many of the imaging functions met only niche customer needs. Unlike most companies they had the brains to not push forward, but to scale back and focused on the core need (a great viewing experience for SharePoint users). This is something you rarely see in the market, and I believe they have created a product that really hits the right spot in the market.

Now obviously I am biased by being part of the company, but keep in mind this is why I joined. I also didn’t make the tough call to scale back. I would encourage you to not take my word for it, but to go and see the product for yourself. The product launched today and you can learn more on the web site (www.atalasoft.com/products/vizit) where you can see and interact with it.

I’ve also been having fun putting together a marketing program around this product, and I’ll talk about this in my next post. I’m finally getting a chance to take a few risks on the marketing side, which you’ll get a small taste of in today’s press release (www.atalasoft.com/company/press-releases/vizit-pr/atalasoft-claims-vizit-saves-the-average-customer ). Atalasoft has a young and energetic team, and I’m really having a great time working with them. You’ll get a better feel for this in the next couple of weeks as we execute around the rest of the marketing campaign.

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Sometimes Its Better To Be Third

June 5, 2010

Everyone seems to think that it is best to be first to market, but I’m not sure I believe this. First means you really have to convince everyone there is a better/different way of doing things. Even when you are right it takes time. You have to fight the fact that no one wants to go first, usually in a company that is completely unknown and unproven.

How many times have you seen a new start up come up with the right idea, bang there heads against the wall, and eventually go under trying to prove they’re right. Then the next guy comes in with the same idea and benefits from all the hard work. In many ways I think this is what is happening in a couple of markets I’ve been close to recently.

In video surveillance analytics there are companies like Object Video and BRS Labs that are investing massive dollars to be able to identify threats within live video. These are heavily VC funded firms that have massive R&D budgets, but little market traction. In the ECM world everything is moving to SaaS but will the players like SpringCM and others who have taken ECM stacks to the Cloud survive long enough to reap the benefit?

These are two very interesting markets as one is trying to take recognition algorithms and tune them for a specific security purpose, while the other is taking mature technology and simply offering it in a different way. My belief is that the surveillance companies will go bust before they refine the technology and establish a market presence. The ECM side is much tougher to call, but I believe once the SaaS business model is proven the big ECM players (EMC, Oracle, IBM, Microsoft) will all want to compete. Will that startup live long enough to get eaten, or will they simply get run over when the elephants start to stomp around?

I did a startup in 2003 with the idea that I would mine massive consumer databases amassed by the credit card companies to understand consumer behavior, and then use mobile 3G technology to determine where a person was so I could customize marketing pitches that fit the moment. I still believe the idea was right, but I was way before my time. Right now there are a whole bunch of companies that just got large amounts of VC funding to chase the same idea. They are in a better position than I was on the mobile front as 3G is established now, and most people have GPS. 3G was just rolling out when I did it. On the down side consumer privacy is heightened after breaches at Facebook and Google and they’ll have to fight this wave. My bet is you’ll see this technology take off shortly and soon you’ll be getting a lot of unwanted ads on your mobile device.

I also think it helps to have more than one person in the market. It adds credibility to what you are doing. I’ve heard many VCs don’t like to back someone if they don’t have a competitor. The logic is simple: “if its such a good idea why isn’t anyone else doing it?”. I think this makes a lot of sense. There is an old saying “be a quick second”. I believe ultimately first and second pave the way for third, and the third guy has it much easier. It’s also much easier to understand what will work when a couple of companies have gone before you.

Next time you have a great idea consider timing when looking at your strategic plan. You can save yourself a great deal of pain and be the guy who reaps the reward if you time it right.

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Jumping to Conclusions

May 22, 2010

I was informed recently that several readers had jumped to a wrong conclusion about the business I described in Chemistry. The stories that I share on my blog are designed to help people manage through difficult situations.

At this point in my career I have been in literally dozens of businesses. Most of the people I send a link out to may only know me from one or two. My profile also does not tell the entire story, as within a company I may have managed many different business units. I also have been routinely asked to help out sister businesses.

I hope I add enough value in each post’s message that the enjoyment you get from reading a post is in its content not in the speculation around what business or company might be referencing.

For the record, those speculating about the Chemistry post are way off base.

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Change vs. Replace

May 20, 2010

I received a question today about my last post. I was asked if I thought you could get someone out of hunker down mode by putting them in a customer facing position? This question touches upon two issues that I think are fundamental to management.

First, many people can’t be saved. Once a person tunes the company out they can be very difficult to recover. I have found however that many people respond very positively if you come in fresh and listen to them. Many times the employees know exactly what needs to be done to turn the situation around but no one is listening. If you aren’t making a sweeping change be very careful trying to change a person.

I wrote in a previous post that you can’t fundamentally change a person. If a person is hunkered down they most likely didn’t have an outgoing personality to begin with. If they did they would most likely have flamed out versus hunkered down. Matching the personality and core skill set to the job is critical. If the person doesn’t have the right personality or skills don’t give them the job.

This leads right into my second point, which is personality really matters in customer facing roles. I’ve found that a lot of companies don’t seem to recognize that people in customer facing roles are the face of the company. You have to be real selective with people on the fringe (this being the space between the company and its customers). I believe you need to hire people who are naturally outgoing and positive. There are more than a few companies that use personality profiling for this very purpose.

Once a person tunes out the company you have to decide how much effort you will make to save them, versus simply replacing them. My experience is the odds of success replacing a person is much greater than changing them. This isn’t to say that hiring a new person is easy, but it is easier than changing a person that has tuned out. My best advice is focus on hiring people who come recommended from a person you trust. You also need to act quickly once a person tunes out otherwise they poison the well (see my last post). Changing a person is not the fast or sure path.

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Uniqueness

April 16, 2010

I find it strange that most companies don’t focus on developing some form of uniqueness. To separate yourself from the pack you need to do something different. Most companies seem to want to standout, but they try to do so by following the latest trend in their industry. This path is me-too thinking, as generally everyone is taking it.

Another challenge with uniqueness is getting your employees to recognize that it only matters if the uniqueness is valuable to customers. Ask the people you work with what the company can do to be innovative and you’ll likely get some very stale ideas, followed by something completely off the wall ideas that are completely unrelated to the customer you serve.

You develop uniqueness through innovation. Innovation is a highly misunderstood concept. I worked at one company that was very process driven, and they attempted to put in an “innovation process”. It was like they thought they could bottle it. The process did more to stifle innovation than it did to foster it.

The first thing you have to realize is that a good idea can occur at anytime and can come from anyone. Don’t assume the people with the titles will be the innovative thinkers. In reality their job is to spot the innovative idea when it emerges and to prioritize it highly.

One method I’ve used to get the creative juices going is brainstorming. I like to keep it simple, I always start out by talking about customer needs, and then try to get others to engage in how we better serve them. Once they get the feel for the openness of the conversation they engage.

I did this a year or so ago with a group in Germany. I’ve been told that Germans can be very difficult to engage in a brainstorming conversation, but I got one of the best ideas I’ve heard in a long time from the group. If you get people to drop their guard and think in terms of customer value, you’ll be surprised by the good ideas that just popup.

The leaders job is to recognize the good ideas, capture them, and then make sure people focus on making them a reality. My belief is the execution is the hard part. There are an abundance of good ideas out there if you know how to look for them, just open your eyes.

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Update

April 5, 2010

You might have been wondering if I gave up writing this blog already. The answer to that is no. Since selling Captaris in the Fall of 2008 I took some time off to enjoy life, and I also explored a couple of startup possibilities. Going into this year I thought one of the startups was about to take off, and I was locked and loaded on making it happen. Unfortunately, it was dependent on third party IP that never materialized.

When the startup fell apart it was only a couple of weeks from the Olympics. A life long friend and his family were going to joining my family on our Olympic trip. I decided to throw all my energy into making it the trip of a lifetime, and it was.

Now you’re probably wondering what does this has to do with the blog; I’m getting to that. I also promised myself I would start writing a blog and begin looking for the next interesting challenge on the other side of the trip. Last week the second part of that promise was realized.

For the next nine months I’ve taken an assignment as the Interim COO in an early stage company (I’ll share the name when the contract gets finalized) that has developed cutting edge digital video surveillance and analysis technology. Like many early stage companies they have interesting technology, but haven’t found their niche in the market. My job is to determine the right market fit, package the product, and bring focus to the company. This is a role I have played several times over my career, and it should make for interesting new blog postings.

Unfortunately the job isn’t local, so last week I spent a fair amount of time planning an extended commute. The good news is the job is in Michigan where I have lots of family. I start tomorrow, so you should be hearing about it soon. I look forward to getting this company to the next level of success and sharing what I learn with you, so stayed tuned.

I’ll try not to have such a big gap in the future, but last week was very busy.

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Size Matters

March 19, 2010

A common mistake organization’s make is to assume if someone can run a large organization they can run a small one and vice versa. In my experience this is rarely true. The size of an organization plays a big role in determining the proper person to lead. I’ve been fortunate to have leadership roles in businesses as small as startups to as large as Fortune’s Top 50. I’ve personally experienced the demands on senior management at each level and can testify that it is very different depending on the size of the company.

When I started my first business I was the only employee, so I needed to do everything. In this environment you quickly find yourself moving across disciplines like finance and accounting, sales and marketing, and product development. Most people can’t do all of these jobs and hiring or contracting people eats up cash. Cash is like air in a startup; without it you die. The CEO’s ability to do multiple jobs conserves cash and this is absolutely critical.

Now contrast this with a large company. The biggest business I ever managed was a couple hundred million in revenue and was part of a $1 billion dollar company. At this company I worked for someone who, prior to joining the company, ran a large high-end consumer goods company (Fortune Top 50). This person was extremely intelligent and very well respected, but he struggled to lead the billion dollar company towards his vision.

He believed his vision was clear and couldn’t understand why the organization wouldn’t follow his leadership. I was on the senior team and had a firsthand view of what was happening. My belief was that he simply didn’t understand that a vision alone would not suffice. A company this size requires the CEO to develop a clear plan that can be executed, a high level vision is not enough. Strangely, the problem wasn’t that he couldn’t develop the plan he simply didn’t recognize the need to do it. In the consumer goods company the vision alone enabled his staff to execute. In a smaller company more is required of the leader.

To illustrate this point further let’s look at another company I led as CEO that was approximately $20 million in revenue. I had a competent CFO and CTO, but as CEO I was required to be the chief product strategist, marketing department, and get directly involved in sales. I also had to manage outside investors and a law firm. This was a very mature business, which made the Board and Investors easier to manage. If the business had been a startup that rapidly achieved the same revenue the Board and Investors would have been pushing for a liquidity event. Driving for a liquidity event is like taking on another whole job. You still have to do everything above, but you also must find a willing buyer and negotiate the sale. This is burnout central for most executives.

From the above I can see how you could come to the conclusion that it is easier to run a larger business than a smaller one, however this isn’t necessarily the case. Running a large highly complex business is very difficult and very demanding. There are lots of moving parts and understanding the business and competitive landscape is a real art form. You have to have excellent business instincts and the ability to digest and analyze enormous amounts of information. You also have an incredible amount of noise coming from outside of the organization in the form of Directors, Investors, Banks, and even the Press. Everyone has an opinion and everyone is playing backseat driver. This is why they get paid the big bucks. In a small company there isn’t anywhere near the complexity or noise and you are free to focus on executing a core vision.

The maturity of the market and organization also plays a big role in what is required of management. Early stage companies are all about growth. Late stage companies in more mature markets are generally earnings driven. Early stage companies focus on exit strategies while late stage companies focus on growth through acquisition. Acquisitions also require integration planning and implementation skills.

Hopefully you are starting to get the picture. The entrepreneur that starts a business, achieves rapid growth, and then drives towards an exit is not a likely candidate for CEO of a Fortune Top 50. These two jobs require very different skill sets. This is why when BigCo acquires SmallCo the CEO of SmallCo stays a year and moves on. They are simply a fish out of water.

The thing I don’t get is why no one seems to recognize this when they are searching for the next CEO. SmallCo always wants BigCo’s executive and BigCo always wants the SmallCo entrepreneur. This is because SmallCo thinks the BigCo executive knows what it takes to get big, and BigCo thinks the SmallCo entrepreneur knows how to innovate. I’ve got news for you, the BigCo executive knows how to manage it when it’s big not how to get there, and the SmallCo entrepreneur is more likely to suffocate in BigCo than innovate. The lesson here is: If you want to find the right person don’t factor out the environment because size really does matter.