Lessons from CEOs

Whatever part of the technology business you’re in, there are secrets to making it work. And some stand out because so many successful people point to them as keys to their success.

I’ve talked with the chief executives of quite a few successful technology companies in Canada and the U.S., and even one or two elsewhere. Especially, in the last couple of years, small to mid-sized firms that survived the dot-com bust and have seen rapid growth since then.

It’s interesting what comes up again and again.

Ask these executives what mistakes they’ve made, and by far the most common response – apart from something along the lines of “too many to count” – is that when they made bad hiring decisions (as everyone who runs a company does sooner or later) they didn’t correct them soon enough.

“Those few people that we have terminated our relationship with, it’s taken too long every time,” says Brian Cohen, who was chief executive of SPI Dynamics, a maker of web security tools, before Hewlett-Packard acquired it in the summer of 2007. “The problem is really in hindsight. When you look at it, you say ‘I should have gone with my instinct because I thought two months ago that this wasn’t working out, and sure enough it’s not.’”

When someone doesn’t seem to be working out, it’s natural to want to give him or her one more chance, and it’s hard to admit you made a bad decision. But a bad employee can do a lot of damage, making customers and co-workers unhappy, in a short time.

Another thing people who built successful companies often say is a variation of Wayne Gretzky’s axiom about skating to where the puck is going, not to where it is.

Businesses have to do the same thing – see where the market is headed and aim not to follow it, but to be there when it gets there.

One example is Asigra, a Toronto company maker of remote backup software. Remote backup isn’t a new idea today – but David Farajun started Asigra in 1986. At first the idea was a hard sell, but Asigra got an early start in its market. IDC Canada named it one of its 10 Canadian software companies to watch last year.

In the late 1990s, Turning Technologies developed audience-response software that integrates with PowerPoint. A few years ago the Youngstown, Ohio, company saw the audience-response market would move away from proprietary hardware to letting audience members provide feedback through their own laptops and cellphones – so it developed software for that. Now it’s moving to a web interface, because CEO Mike Broderick believes that’s where the market is headed.

There are other bits of wisdom you’ll hear from many successful bosses, but we have room for just one more, and that is, always talk straight with customers.

“As long as you’re truthful with customers – you tell them what you can do, what you can’t do, when you can do it, when you can’t do it, and make sure that you’re right on board and you deliver when you say you can and what you say you can,” says Bob Heard, founder and CEO of Dallas-based security company Credant Technologies, “then it’s my experience that most if not all customers will partner up with you and they’ll work very closely with you.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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