A True Story (Featuring: Drama, Tragedy and a Boiled Frog)

It was wrong. That’s important to get out up front. It was wrong, and by the time it was done, I knew it was wrong.

It was a wrong that flowed from inexperience and a misplaced sense of duty on my part, rather than from any hope of personal gain. Doesn’t matter.

It started out as something else, entirely legitimate, but, while only slowly, eventually evolved into something wrong.

Not then, but over two years later, it had a profound impact on my life, and on the company I loved.

I continue to live with its consequences today, and likely will for the remainder of my years.

It began one Spring day, in early April of 2001. It was only three weeks into a new assignment as leader for the Western Area of Symbol’s “The Americas” sales region, a position into which I was placed by our newly minted CEO, Tomo Razmilovic. I had tried to discourage the move, but, having turned down a posting to run the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region some six months earlier, Tomo was adamant. The entire conversation, by phone, lasted perhaps ninety seconds. Tomo didn’t like hearing “no”, and didn’t leave room for debate.

It was the first time in my career that I held a straight-out sales job.

“Rich, can I see you a moment?” That was Paul, one of the sales guys from the Western area, at the door to my office in San Ramon, California. (The office in fact still felt like it belonged to my predecessor, Mark, whose sudden decision to leave the company triggered my assignment. His artwork hung from the walls, not mine. Ellie’s picture hadn’t yet made it to the desktop.)

“Sure Paul, come on in.”

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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…


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…

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Looking back to look forward…

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Socrates said, "An unexamined life is not worth living." My take on that observation: personal development is only possible via cultivated and concious self-awareness, and that without development and growth, life's not worth much.

It seems to me that one of the most important times to look inward at yourself, and backward over your past, is when contemplating new life directions. When setting new goals, and approaches toward their attainment, it's sensible to take a look back at past accomplishments (and failures), and to learn from them…

  • What made you happy, in genuine and lasting ways?
  • Which approaches worked for you, and which didn't?
  • What was it about the best times that made them so?
  • Which of your strengths really were, and which not?
  • In which circumstances did you grow, and realize best progress toward your potential, and in which did you disappoint?

Agree? Hold that thought… while I digress:

I enjoy discovering and using well-designed software, crafted with excellence in both utility and esthetics. I recently (via a Tweet by @GTDGuy) found an application fitting that profile. It's called PersonalBrain, developed and offered by TheBrain. (I know, branding may not be their strength.) While at first look similar to a simple mind mapping program, it's much more.

I've used MindManager for years as a personal brainstorming / idea development tool. It's great for that purpose, allowing a graphical / visual form of idea organization that seems to promote different modes of thinking than if working only with text outlining — which I also use regularly. When the web of relationships between the ideas you're working with becomes very rich however, MindManager and tools like it get cluttered and cumbersome, and simple outlining just can't cope.

Not so with PersonalBrain.

Its ability to handle very large, complex, and richly interconnected idea sets is outstanding. Add in its ability to further connect to external artifacts (web sites, files on your computer, email messages to name a few), and you have one powerful tool for organizing and analyzing information.

I believe that I'll find myself using it for many tasks. The first however brings us back to the point of this post…

I noted in various references its use as a means of organizing autobiographical information (people, experiences, places, life themes, etc.). So, when I downloaded my trial version (since upgraded to full license), that seemed like a good place to put the program through its initial paces. Not only did the program pass muster with distinction, I couldn't stop building on my autobiographical map. (I guess we all find ourselves interesting!) I recalled people and events not thought about in a long time. I found connections and themes I never realized existed. I had more than a few aha(!) moments.

That's when Socrates came to mind, and how just the kind of far-ranging retrospection made possible, and indeed even fun, by PersonalBrain might help toward the personal plans I'm now exploring and developing.

Snapz Pro XScreenSnapz001 While still early days in the process, I'm finding that recalling (often for the first time in a very long while) and exploring the events, themes and story lines of my past is providing an illuminating perspective on future alternatives.

We'll see where all this leads, but so far the journey itself is proving valuable. Socrates believed that it was folly, neigh dangerous (think Icarus, Adam and the apple…), to try to achieve "ownership" over the absolute truth, but that striving toward what is true (including about oneself) is the means of achieving our humanity and its manifold promise.

Enough deep thought for today. I am in Maui after all, and this is supposed to be a vacation too. Off to the pool…

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Maui and Transition…

In Maui for the next week. Occasion: our 31st anniversary. Opportunity: use the downtime to think about what comes next in my career.

Intelleflex, the company I've led for almost four years, will almost certainly be sucessful in the end. It has a coherent and differentiated strategy connecting our unique capabilities with unmet high value customer needs. Together with attracting a strong team and creating a culture of execution and customer success, that's how you build a great company: solve customer problems they care about in ways uniquely tied to your sustainable advantages.

In order to secure ongoing funding support in this very tough economy however, we've had to cut it back to where Intelleflex is essentially an engineering team working on a second generation product set. Full stop. Back in January we eliminated our sales, marketing and business development teams. I've been handling those functions, in minimalist maintenance mode, ever since.

We also slashed expenses everywhere possible, including in our own compensation. I'm now working for less than I received for my first junior engineering job, in a 5 person start-up, in 1978.

Our plan is to remain in this posture until the new products come on line around May of next year, when we'll then slowly expand. Market focus will remain largely centered on a handful of strategic customers.

Last month, after wrestling for some time with how to balance company interests with my own, I effected a change in role that allows me to keep faith with my commitments to investors and team, continue to help guide Intelleflex to success, while moving on to seek new opportunities that align to my experiences, skills, interests and financial goals.

With Board approval, I became Executive Chairman, and handed over president and CEO responsibilities to Peter Mehring, formerly our Chief Product Officer. That transition now almost entirely complete, I'm beginning to turn my thinking to the future.

This week on the beach is therefor most timely, allowing me the opportunity to clear my head and get focused on what comes next. The change of scenary and open calendar help. Time to talk things over with Ellie does too.

But I'm also finding that another project, started recently with no focus on career planning, is also adding powerful perspective… But you'll have to wait for tomorrow's post to learn about that. Because now, I'm going to walk out onto our lanai, have a cup of coffee, and take in this view…

View from our lanai