Small Within Big

IStock_000002647543XSmall "We need to stay small within big." It was one of the core ideas our founder, Jerry Swartz, preached from our earliest days at Symbol, right through to the point where we had grown to be pretty big indeed (5600 associates, $1.6B top line, $4B market cap). Jerry understood that our ongoing success would depend on maintaining many of the behaviors that come naturally as a small company, but that can fall by the wayside if not continuously reenforced as an enterprise scales.

In may ways, I believe that we were quite successful in living up to Swartz's admonition. I further think this was one of the secrets of our success, and a principal reason so many of us developed and held a deep passion about working there.

Allow me to offer a few thoughts about how to stay small within big…

Keep focused externally, on what matters: customers and competition. Large companies often fall into the trap of getting all wrapped up in their own organizational matters and processes, and fail to pay attention to what's paying the bills.

When focusing on competition, work hard to ensure that your team takes success and failure as seriously as they care about their home town ball team's winning and losing.

Commit to remain responsive. Answer all calls and emails within 24 hours. Manage time effectively to allow responsiveness. Not too long ago, I called to schedule a five minute follow-up phone call with an executive at a major corporation. His assistant offered me two time slots, both six weeks into the future! I thought she was joking; I found out not, and that this sort of thing is routine there.

Use small-as-possible cross-functional teams as the basic organization building block to get things done. One of the things that brings about hardening of corporate arteries is the silo behavior that develops if most work is organized on strict functional lines. Cross-functional teams, properly managed and supported by executive management, break down silo walls. Often, small teams get more done than larger counterparts, especially when it comes to innovation.

Make sure that everyone understands not just what they're supposed to do (priorities), but why it's important (in the big picture). If not, they'll start approaching their work as "just a job", not as a passionate undertaking aimed at big things. You want to laugh at Dilbert cartoons, not become one.

Encourage experimentation and learning (especially from worthwhile failures — those with initial promise that didn't quite work out). Risk aversion is another affliction of companies that have grown too large (in their thinking and behaviors) to succeed.

Encourage unorthodox ideas (and their authors). They are often the keys to breakthrough success. Learn how to manage and nurture productive non-conformists (not easy, but important). You do not want a company of clones.

Put real energy into ensuring that there's a genuine and candid dialogue up and down and all across your enterprise. All hands meetings, online forums, management by walking around are all effective tools. Listening, genuinely listening to what your team is saying is incredibly important.

Don't forget the basic principals that keyed your success and fueled your growth to begin with. Even as you develop and deploy new strategies to address new opportunities and challenges, be careful not to forget or abandon blindly the cultural values and other foundational elements on which your early dreams were realized.

Don't forget to have fun.

Consider using Jerry's "Small within Big" phrase, it worked for us!

I'm sure that there are many other ideas, but the ones above are among those that proved successful in my personal experience. Perhaps they may be of use in yours.

Happy 57th Birthday, Barcodes!

Opening google.com this morning brought a smile, because this is what greeted me:

Snapz Pro XScreenSnapz001
Since, paraphrasing an old SNL skit, "Bar coding's bin berry, berry good to me," I couldn't help but feel great that, on the 57th anniversary of the patent that started it all, the center of the Internet universe tipped its jolly hat to the technology that connects Google's domain (the world of bits) with the physical world in which we all live (the world of atoms). See here for related thoughts.

Happy birthday, my friend!

Whether ’tis nobler..

Returning to our apartment in San Jose, too tired after the flight from New York to drive down to Carmel Valley, but too awake to turn in immediately, I scanned the DVR recordings for options.

I'm partial to Charlie Rose, so his folder was where I looked. His two most recent shows: tonight's hour-long interview with Nancy Pelosi (Afghanistan, etc) and last Friday's solo appearance by Jude Law, discussing the current Broadway production of Hamlet, in which he plays the title role.

I chose the later, and chose wisely. Both discussions involved life, death and politics. But Shakespeare sheds light, and shadows, to illuminate the contours of our condition with sublime insight. He, from the remove of 400 odd years, sees into our state today, as people and polity, and helps us understand. Our present day politicians all too often embarrass with their crass simplifications and muddled thinking, even in their most earnest moments.

An unfairly high standard of comparison, I know, but it's time we hold up tall rulers to our present leaders in light of current circumstance.

A Timely Adage

It's October, and for this long time Yankee fan, thoughts inevitably turn to balls and strikes… and in this case to a connection between them and the world of business.

Snapz Pro XScreenSnapz001 "Hit it where they ain't." That, according to (very) old timer Willie Keeler (Baltimore Orioles 1896 – 1897), is how you get on base and drive in runs in our national pastime. I believe that inside that old adage lies a lesson that every business person should take to heart.

If you want to boast of a high batting average, you should aim for the gaps, not the shortstop, especially if he's Derek Jeter (with apologies to fans of all other stripes than pin). If you want to grow your business profitably into a leadership position, you should plan to deliver unique solutions to underserved applications, customers and markets. These are the "gaps" of business opportunity.

Trying to build a business by doing a little bit better, or just a little bit different, than entrenched competitors is tough going at best. Yes, you'll get a grounder just past the shortstop's reach on occasion, but more often than not, you'll be out at first.

My current company, Intelleflex, has been built from day one on a gap strategy, in marked contrast to many other players in RFID technology. I believe that the principal reason that RFID's breakout success still lies ahead of us is that, lured by the promise of huge volumes, many of those other players have been trying to squeeze one by the shortstop, by, in effect, offering a bit more capability than bar coding, for only a bit higher price. Bar codes are the Derek Jeter of automatic identification technology. Bar coding is flexible, cost effective, proven, and broadly entrenched. Tough to beat that allstar combination with an incrementalist value proposition.

Our strategy is to try to get a hit where bar coding ain't — and where it will never be.

Bar codes are great, but they will never be able to measure and log temperatures. They can't be read at 100 meters distance. Can't be located in large open areas. Can't read through optically opaque materials. Can't store 60 thousand bits of read / write data. We can do all those things. As importantly, It turns out that there are underserved, high value business problems that depend on various combinations of these "extended capabilities". Those are our gaps, and that's where we're aiming the ball. (We may still go down swinging, but it won't be for a flawed gameplan.)

Do you have a clear picture of your gaps? The real, compelling and meaningful differences between your offerings and those of your competition? The customers to whom those differences matter? If not, perhaps it's time to watch a little baseball, and think a little business.

Atoms and Bits…

"This can be a very big company someday, because even if the particulars of our technology will be different in the future, as they certainly will, the problems we're attacking are fundamental, and will never go away. We should make that clear to our investors."

I spoke words to that effect to our founder Jerry Swartz sometime around 1980, as we were discussing how best to explain ourselves in that year's Annual Report.

At the time of that conversation, Symbol Technologies had annual sales of around $1 million, was still a few years away from turning a profit, and had only just taken the first tentative steps toward a focus on the bar code scanning products that would become our growth engine for the following decade… a decade in which we doubled sales every year.

The "fundamental problems" I had in mind were those related to connecting the "world of atoms" to "the world of bits" — the physical world of "stuff" and the computer systems we use to track it, manage it, account for it and control it.

I felt that if we described our vision in those terms, and staked our aspirations to that framework, we might fail, but we wouldn't do so by dint of a playing field too cramped or subject to obsolescence. Regardless of how technology evolved, driven by our efforts or those of others, it seemed clear that solutions effectively linking these two domains would always be important. The markets around the development and delivery of those solutions should grow to be large and valuable. They did.

Starting with that annual report we began to articulate our fundamental purpose in these terms, externally and in our own thinking and planning. We talked about connecting atoms and bits, computers with the physical world. We said that we were "The eyes of the computer" (Jerry particularly liked that phrase of his).

We could have said that we were "The Bar Code Scanning Company" or even "The Hand Held Laser Scanning Company" (both accurate but narrow descriptions at the time). But by laying claim to higher ground, we staked out territory in which to advance what became a much broader agenda.

Fifteen years later we had become leaders not just in bar code scanning, but also in mobile computing and wireless networking — all technologies critical to solutions at the boundary between bits and atoms. A few years further down the road, and the "atoms and bits" articulation of our strategic intent was still valid, despite the fact that our revenues had grown a thousand fold since that day in 1980.

And we were by then solidly profitable, for many years running. One of the reasons why: because we chose to do something hard. Delivering technology that works, and works well, at the boundary between bits and atoms is tough. The world of atoms is inherently messy. Bar codes get dirty or torn. Users drop scanners and hand held computers. RF communications encounter interference. This is, as Jerry use to put it, "blue collar computing." Messy.

You can earn a buck by getting good at any business, but you only get to make a lot of money if you do really hard things (that customers care about), really well. That's what we did. We engineered solutions to the messiness of the physical world. Scanners that read poorly printed and abused bar codes. Computers that could be dropped without damage. Networks that worked in the real world.

We did these hard things well, better than others. Our unique skills and focus held off competition many times our size, and allowed us to grow profitably for many years.

I read somewhere that the great majority of life on Earth exists at boundaries (between air and sea and land). I've often thought about how this is suggestive of the richness of opportunity at the boundary between bits and atoms. It's a good place to do business.

I was attracted to Intelleflex, where I'm currently serving as Executive Chairman, precisely because we've challenged ourselves to do a hard thing ("Extended Capability RFID") well (delivering rich functionality, robust performance, great price point) along that same atoms-to-bits boundary. I like our chances for significant success.

So, this little story has been about the importance of choosing a sector in which to do business, and of the articulation of a vision that enables long term growth and value creation. Symbol's founders (I wasn't one) set our initial targeting. Debate, rigorous enough to break up that founding team, set the trajectory beyond our earliest beginnings. And our chosen way of answering the question, "What business are we really in?" provided scope to grow an interesting, large and successful company.

Choosing and appropriately defining your playing field doesn't ensure success however. Next time I'll share a few thoughts about what separates hits from misses, making reference to our national pastime…

Passion

How does a company grow from an entrepreneur's idea to a $4 billion player in a market space that it not only emerged to lead, but played a dominant role in shaping? What combination of people, strategy, circumstance and luck made it possible? What was it like to be part of that experience?

These are among the questions I'll try to address in a series of posts about the company where I spent a quarter century of my career: Symbol Technologies.

As I noted in an earlier introductory comment, for me this is something of a love story. While not everything about my time there was perfect (far from), it was an experience defined by learning, growth, winning and passion — I believe for the vast majority of us that called it home for so many years. I'll never forget it.

So how did it happen?

I believe that the central theme to the story behind the answer to that question is all about people and passion. If a group of capable folks can be attracted to a business, engaged in stimulating work with team mates they enjoy and can learn from, and given a taste of challenge, winning and personal growth — passion emerges.

A culture characterized by passion creates a powerful flywheel effect: Everyone works harder. Group energy is largely focused on what's important and on team results, rather than on unproductive or politically-driven activities. Customers recognize it, and want to buy from you. Partners see it and want to be part of it. New talent hears about it, feels it — and wants to join the team. All of which leads to accellerating success — and more passion.

Swartz

Passion broke out early at Symbol, and never left. Our founders, Jerry Swartz and Shelly Harrison, planted its seeds. The early glimmers of what might just be possible kept it growing through the initial years of struggle. Perserverance (THE defining word for Jerry Swartz, pictured here) through those struggles bred confidence — passion's close companion. Pivotal wins and market coups fanned its flames. Rapid growth, continued years on end, added further fuel. Pride in our success and emergence as the leader in our industry cemented it in place as the central character of our culture.

Passion is what drove us to do our best: Design the most innovative products. Close the biggest deals. Even throw the best parties! Do enough of those things, and you can grow a $4 billion company.

Even when other, less noble human factors came into play, the dominant sensibility was defined by passion to win. Yes, as in most any enterprise involving those organic, imperfect, squishy things we call people, greed, ambition and ego also played roles in this story. But even in the darker passages of our shared history, they were undercurrents, not the dominant themes.

Passion. You show me a company with a passion-infused culture, and I'll show you a winner. Show me one lacking it, and you'll have found an also-ran or loser. Passion is both cause and effect. It creates the basis for success, and grows still stronger with that success.

I'll return to this theme of people and passion frequently as I tell this story in the days and months to come. But of course there's more to this tale. In my next post I'll say a few words about what was special about the fertile ground in which Symbol was planted.

Saturday, late afternoon, Carmel Valley.

Background jazz (Martin Headman — don't think that you'd know him, a local). Weather perfect now, after morning fog and some midday scuttling confusion. Soft breeze, sun.

Evening plans set: local bistro, just about reachable down the hill in neutral from our place.

All caught up on last week's work. Closure still elusive however.

Thinking about making the turn onto a different road ahead… one whose on ramp is still unmarked for the moment.

Sundowner

Never Again…

I was on a plane, third in the queue for take-off to the northeast from Laguardia Airport, when the second tower was hit. From my window seat on the right side, I had a straight line of sight view to downtown Manhattan, and the resulting explosion.


Just a moment later, our captain came on the PA and said simply and quietly, "It's a sad day for America, we're going back to the gate."


My wife Ellie had dropped me off about 45 minutes earlier, and was on her way to her parent's home on Long Island at the time, without a cell phone in those days. It took about an hour to reach her with reassurances that mine was not one of the planes involved in the tragedy.


We had spent the night of 9/10 in Manhattan, at our favorite hotel, and woke up on that terribly bright, cloudless Tuesday fully convinced that the most memorable thing about our visit would be having had drinks 6 feet away from Paul McCartney in Bemelman's Bar the prior evening.


Instead, my memories are of the experience related above, followed by several days of shocked numbness, TV running round the clock, with one thought surfacing again and again, "Our world has changed."


It had, but excepting for the victims, life would go on. A week after the events, Ellie and I were back on a plane, headed home to California. I've flown something close to ten million miles over the years, and it's been a long time since I've been a nervous flier (if I ever was). I'll admit however to having a start at each and every bump on that flight, and to looking at my fellow passengers with a different sort of curiosity than ever before.


Exactly six months later, we were back in NY, on the night the pale blue memorial towers of light were lit.Twin_towers_tribute_of_light

We were there a month later too, when they were extinguished.


Two 9/11's ago I flew home from NY to Oakland on Jet Blue, and spent the majority of the time watching the readings of the victims names, broadcast from Ground Zero, on the seat back TV, unable to stop watching, or crying.


The most affecting moment for me however came not on a 9/11 anniversary, but in the summer of 2002, when we were looking for a home to purchase on Long Island. One of the nicest we saw was on the north shore of Nassau county. It was a large, old place, with tons of character and the kind of warmth that comes from being a home to a nice family. Swing set in the backyard. Family pictures arranged on tables throughout the living room. Bar set in the butler's pantry, ready at hand for an end-of-day drink…


A drink that would never be enjoyed, we learned however, because at that point in our tour the realtor answered one of our questions, gaze averted, by explaining that this house was being sold by a 9/11 widow. I can still picture the monogrammed glasses, the half full carafes of scotch and gin, the silver tray… and it all comes back.

Advice

Sometime around 1988 or so my boss at the time, and then president of the company, Ray Martino, decided that he needed to bring in a seasoned sales and marketing leader to help take Symbol to the next level.

We were just about to pass the $100 million revenue threshold, one of those milestones whose crossing often leads to failure for companies who don't recognize and address the challenges brought on by scale. In addition, we were about to expand into an entirely new line of business and acquire another company of equal size to our own.

I was responsible for marketing at the time, and would report to the newcomer, Paul Kemp, joining us as SVP, Marketing and Sales. Twenty five years my senior, Paul brought a wealth of experience and past successes in high tech.

While I liked Paul immediately (impossible not to — meet him sometime and you'll know why), I wasn't crazy about a move that felt like I was being pushed down in the organization, and one step further removed from senior leadership. And I was…

Continue reading

Prelude to a Story

In late May of 1978, the day following my graduation from The State University of NY at Stony Brook, I joined a start-up company called Symbol Technologies, as its fifth employee.

I learned only later that, as of that first day on the job, Symbol had negative revenues for the year — the result of a customer returning a system shipped the prior year, and no new sales yet recorded in '78. I didn't know enough to be concerned by this fact. I was getting married in three months, and I had a job!

By the time I left Symbol, twenty five years later as its Vice Chairman and CEO, annual revenues had increased to over $1.6 billion, our team was 5600 team strong, Symbol was the acknowledged innovation and market leader in our industry and Wall Street valued us at nearly $4 billion.

There are many stories to be told about the years between those points in time. Some funny, some sad. Many instructive about what to do in trying to build a great company (I believe it's fair to say that we were), and what not to do (we came close to disaster on more than one occasion). Stories about technology, innovation, strategy and leadership yes, but mostly stories about people. People whose ideas and inventions led Symbol to be awarded the National Medal of Technology, people who our customers trusted to bring them the great products and ideas that would help them lead in their industries… and others whose failings nearly resulted in the company coming undone.

Symbol_logo_lg Perhaps these stories will cohere into a book at some point. For now, I'll use this blog to share a few of them with you from time to time. I hope that you'll enjoy my recollections, and perhaps take away a point or two of insight or even inspiration on occassion.

I have a great affection for Symbol still (though now it's part of Motorola), and especially for the people who worked there over the years. Many among them remain close friends to this day. Even though my career there didn't have a traditional Hollywood happy ending (we'll get to that at some point), my memories are almost universally fond ones. I'll try not to embellish or romanticize them however, though that may be tough… because, in the end, this is a bit of a love story.

First installment coming soon to this space. But first, tomorrow, a story about some long-ago advice, and a journey toward following it. It's not about Symbol, but it is about someone I came to know there, and how he touched my life, twice.