If you want to hunt buffalo then dress like a buffalo

I joined Scientific Time Sharing Corporation (STSC) in December 1969 as a programming elf. I was in the Army, stationed in Northern Virginia, with excess time on my hands. In grad school I had adapted a prototype Fortran implementation of the programming language APL to run on the college’s new SDS Sigma 7 mainframe computer system. I fell in love with the language, so it was only natural to see if I could moonlight for one of the three startups that were commercializing the IBM version of the APL timesharing system. In school, my graduate advisor and fellow grad students were convinced that APL was the greatest invention since sliced bread but… “It’s a shame that it will never make it as a commercial success.” (The APL language was known for its extensive use of Greek and mathematical symbols, a major departure from “English-like” languages like Fortran and Basic.)

The first startup I visited, The Computer Company, didn’t understand how someone who knew how to program in APL would be of any value. They said they would check with corporate HQ in Richmond and get back to me, which they never did. I repeated to myself, “It’s a shame APL will never be a commercial success.”

The second startup I visited, APL Washington, set my teeth on edge. They were operating from a plush office with a receptionist/secretary right out of “Mad Men.” They had a room full of expensive terminals but no users. The manager not only didn’t appear to know anything about APL, he also didn’t appear to know anything about computers and programming. It was clear to me that they were investing their startup dollars in the wrong things. Depressed, but not overly surprised, I repeated to myself, “It’s a shame that APL will never be a commercial success.”

The last startup I visited was Scientific Time Sharing Corporation, located at 2101 South Street, Washington DC. I walked in the building and asked where the president’s office was. The office was clearly upscale, with quality carpeting and furnishings. After asking around, the receptionist told me that I needed to climb the stairs to the top floor. By the time I reached the the top floor, the decor changed. No rugs, polished wood, fancy new desks and file cabinets. There were stacks of STSC-written user manuals crammed in every corner. And the president himself, Dan Dyer, invited me into his office of mismatched furniture with even more manuals and other marketing material in every corner. Dan invested the next couple of hours sharing his business plan, how he had left a successful IBM sales career and built this startup around a core of six technically astute APL fanatics, and, how one of the investors gave him the use of this office free. I left with the belief that this was the company that would succeed. In exchange for free computer access, I did freelance programming for STSC, and when my tour of duty was over in 1971, accepted an offer to be the Computer Center Manger for STSC’s datacenter.

STSC looked and acted like a startup that would focus its resources on what was important to its clients and long-term success. I believed that they would succeed and were worth risking my career with. I also sensed that prospective clients would reach the same conclusion. STSC’s initial users were looking for a partner that would be passionate about solving their problems. They wanted a vendor that was worth risking their careers with. (In a very real sense, a customer takes a risk every time they team with a new vendor.)

Many years later, the executive I learned marketing from had a catch phrase, “To hunt buffalo, you have to dress like a buffalo.” A startup needs to look like a startup. On the other hand, a well-established company has to look that way. (I remember a lunch I had with Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle, when he apologized for the new luxury car he was driving. “The Board said that as we get ready for our IPO I needed to project a very successful image. It isn’t me but a successful IPO is all about marketing the company.”)

Over time a company grows, its markets evolve, and stakeholder expectations change. There is no such thing as a static strategic plan. Every company needs a strategic planning process. There needs to be a regular forum for identifying and dealing with issues as seemingly mundane as the corporate headquarters look and feel. For more insight on strategic business planning and implementation attend one of my webinars on the subject or read the first two chapters I wrote in the Business Expert Guide to Small Business Success.

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