(Editor’s note: Gene Tanski is CEO of Demand Foresight Software. He submitted this column to VentureBeat.)
Things were getting heated at the sales meeting. The cause of my anger was an old theme: Industry-wide, client expectations for business software were so low that stories about the failure of big enterprise projects had practically become wallpaper.
Where were the repercussions for the business performance that never materialized? The big systems failed to deliver what they were supposed to over 70 percent of the time and the big checks just kept getting cut with no accountability. The whole dynamic needed to be nuked.
In the heat of our discussion about the institutionalized negligence of our gigantic competitors and how we could exploit it, a 25-year-old, Xbox-playing member of our team, said: “Dude, if we’re that bitchin’, why don’t we guarantee it?”
“What?” I asked him. “Are you nuts? Do you have any idea how software works?”
“No, not really. But I hear you guys constantly complaining about how everyone else over-promises and under-delivers. Why not do something about it?”
That simple dare became our biggest differentiator – and, more surprisingly, revolutionized the way we run our company.
During the dot-com boom, new businesses were founded on completely new thinking by young professionals, unencumbered by any notion of what was or wasn’t possible. Most of that potential was never realized, though – at least not in the first wave, since the young visionaries had no grounding in the disciplines that would sustain their visions over time.
However, we wondered, could our team fuse the experience of the old hands with the “anything is possible” optimism of our young teammate?
Once we got our minds around the concept, the experienced guys on the team were able to adjust some long-held assumptions and work through how to handle the risk, build the pricing and generally operationalize the concept.
It was a little bit like learning how to fly, as characterized by Douglas Adams in his “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” books: the key to flying was to throw yourself at the ground really hard, and miss.
It was exhilarating. I felt like we had just missed the ground by a huge margin, and instead were flying straight to a business model that embodied the exact opposite of everything we hated about the IT and consulting world.
The guarantee was an explicit one – with no wiggle room. Clients would measurably improve their business performance — in our instance, a 25 percent minimum reduction in absolute forecast error — or we wouldn’t get paid. Not a dime.
It could have been a disaster, but taking this leap of faith actually did incredible things for our organizational focus – and ultimately helped cement our culture and internally align all divisions of the company.
The developers know that the software has to work and be relevant to specific job responsibilities or they don’t get paid. Implementation and technical support? They better get it right or they don’t get paid. Sales people? They had better understand the client problem and know exactly how to solve it, or … well, you know…
Another benefit of this ‘put up or shut up’ philosophy was the elimination of the need to micromanage. Once everybody understood that the promise would not bend, I found I could trust everyone to solve problems the way they thought best.
Vacation policy? Didn’t need it. Our team was entrusted to take the time off that they knew they could afford to take. Office? Wherever they could open a laptop and do their best work. This culture tells us a lot about the kind of people we should hire — can they stay motivated and productive in our unique environment?
So an energetic, passionate clash of skilled professionals turned out to be lightning in a bottle. It let us fuse the brashness of youth with organizational know-how.
We still argue in meetings, of course. But these days I enjoy it. You never know what sorts of benefits it can produce.