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Lessons learned in building a tech company

Quite often I get the question from early stage entrepreneurs "what’s the secret sauce for building a successful tech company?". And then I have to disappoint them, there is not a single magic formula in my view, you actually need to do a lot of things right. Since SYKES Inc. acquired Qelp in July 2015, the company I founded, I’ve been asked to do a presentation or interview from time to time. Here are some of my lessons learned when going through Early Stage, Growth and the Exit process of a company like Qelp. Let me add that before founding Qelp, I co-founded ThreeFive Photonics, a venture capital backed optical chips company. I benefitted enormously from that experience when building Qelp. 

Early stage
  1. Follow your passion aggressively, regardless what others tell you
  2. Entrepreneurs are typically early with their idea, sometimes too early, timing is critical
  3. Finding a launching customer often requires a long deep breath
  4. Friendship can take you through the toughest times
  5. Limited funds can be a blessing in finding creative solutions
  6. Hire hands-on people, no corporates
  7. Read the signs of the time, such as trends: SaaS, mobile first, cloud, analytics, IoT
  8. Run your company digitally, end-to-end
  9. Get input from coaches, boards, advisors, investors, but you make the decisions
  10. Try to bootstrap your company as long as you can, venture capital has it’s pro’s and con’s, winning venture capital does not equal success
Growth
  1. Ensure you have the right business model before accelerating growth
  2. Invest in growth, but profitable growth
  3. Think globally from day 1, break out of your national market, but start with a narrow geographioc focus
  4. Select people on growth potential, changing business requirements will require them to change and grow into new roles and responsibilities
  5. Choose a mission, vision, core values. (Mission Qelp: Helping people outsmart technology; Core values: passion, personal growth, end-user focus, can-do mentality, openness) 
  6. Designing and rigorously implementing processes is critical to make your company scalable and profitable
  7. Building a great company is not something trivial, it takes a lot of time, hard work and making a lot of “right” choices.
Exit
  1. Ensure alignment of the interests of shareholders, management, employees
  2. It’s a marketing and sales job and you are the product
  3. Be prepared for a 6 – 12 months roller coaster, with a lot of twists and turns
  4. Share the success with your employees, share- and stakeholders.

Launching customer

While I was in London Friday and Saturday for a number of Qelp business meetings, I selected these days in particular to be able to join Andrew Snoad and Tony Bicknell in celebrating the 10th anniversary of their firm Decision Tree Consulting (DTC). They invited all those who worked with DTC in the first 2 years of starting their company for a dinner tour on the Thames. Andrew refreshed my mind telling me that in fact I was their first large customer. I had them conduct a survey in 24 countries about the decision making process for videoconferencing equipment in multinational companies. I was working for Sony in those days, setting up their European business for videoconferencing systems and combatting with PictureTel who was the market leader. Sony had spotted videoconferencing as a potential mass market( it’s still a niche unfortunately), but had little experience in the telecoms market which is why I was brought in. DTC won the assignment for the survey while in competition with Anderson Consulting and Coopers who should have been able to leverage their international presence but didn’t.

Earlier that Friday I met for lunch with Osman Mardin, who supported me while I was conducting a tough financing round for ThreeFive Photonics in early 2003. Guess what? He reminded me that I was his launching customer after he left investment bank Robertson Stephens and started Sardis Capital, his current financing firm. Do I have a preference for selecting start-ups? Not necessarily –although I sympathize greatly with them- but if you award them the business you are more likely to get the undivided attention of the entrepreneur which can lead to more value for money. You don’t forget your first date, you don’t forget your first customer – it does create a special bond.

New episode

Five years after founding ThreeFive Photonics, it’s time to move on. It has been a roller coaster of ups and downs, but first and foremost a tremendously valuable experience in entrepreneurship. So much that I think I got addicted to it. Most of 2005 I have been working part time, to build a new company in parallel, Qelp Mobile Solutions, thereby leaving the semiconductor industry and going back to my mobile roots. For the past 2 months I had to get full time engaged again to work on a management buy-out for ThreeFive. Have not been able to complete the MBO before September 1 unfortunately. Good luck guys, I hope you will be successful in finishing the process quickly.

Into the night

Labour unions and politicians are known for negotiating into the night. If you don’t do a deal in the middle of the night or even early morning, it can’t be a deal you fought for: "you left money on the table". We closed a deal today at 1.30 am and it feels good after a rollercoaster of more than 4 weeks. Now there are two more weeks needed to get from signatures to a closing. Then I will unwrap what it’s about. Before that, time for some relaxing with the family: vacation!

Part-time (sort of)

Since a couple of months I have been working only part-time for ThreeFive Photonics, to be able to establish a new mobile venture. Yet, this week it became clear that I will have to increase my involvement with ThreeFive unexpectedly, at least until September 1. More about that later, when the news is "fit to print".

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