There are many legendary success stories about technology professionals who parlayed their ideas into mega-companies, and one can be forgiven for thinking their journeys have been relatively smooth and pre-ordained ones, leading from the halls of Stanford University to palatial residences overlooking lakes in Washington state.
However, it takes much, much more than a great idea to build a business — no matter how wondrous the technology. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to speak with many technology professionals who got tired of working for someone else and parlayed their talents into starting new businesses. What they consistently have shared is that technical chops and interesting ideas are only half the story — or maybe even only 25% of it. Success is more dependent on developing the people skills and coping mechanisms to deal with fickle customers, difficult employees, nervous investors, constantly probing competitors, and incursions by larger tech giants. Oh, and one more thing — tending to the needs of one’s family and personal well-being.
Bruno Lowagie has a word for the individual with technical skills who channels their technical chops into a business idea — “entreprenerd.” He is an entreprenerd himself, having spent his career in the tech industry, developing iText, a FOSS PDF library that is free and open source software. He eventually sold the company he and his wife, Ingeborg, ran, iText Group, with subsidiaries in Belgium, the US, and Singapore, to three private equity companies backed by another storied entreprenerd, Peter Thiel.
Lowagie released a book about his journey in business, titled Entreprenerd: Building a Multi-Million-Dollar Business with Open Source Software, which documents his journey from initial idea to eventual exit. It is an account of dealing with personal crises, to finding the right management team, to legal challenges he and Ingeborg faced leading up to the company’s sale in March, 2020. The company was entirely self-funded, Lowagie points out.
In his book, Lowagie shares three key lessons learned from his entrepreneurial journey. His inspiration was drawn from the TV series House, which he watched with his son who was recovering from cancer during the time the company was being formed. In the show, Dr. House, an extremely cranky but brilliant practitioner, was able to employ deductive reasoning to solve even the most baffling medical issues.
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Lesson #1: “There are as many diagnoses as there are specialists.” Just as every medical specialist tends to see a problem from the perspective of their area of expertise, technology industry people may see things narrowly. For example, Lowagie relates, ask for advice from a developer, and the response will be “your product needs more features.” As for advice from a salesperson, and the response is: “your product needs to be less technical.” As for advice from a venture capitalist, and the response is: “you need funding to grow faster.” All may be valid advice, but Lowagie says he decided not to take advice from anyone, “unless I know that person’s background and motives for giving advice. I learned not to rely on a single adviser, but to get advice from different people with different backgrounds.”
Lesson #2: “Everybody lies.” Dr. House assumed everyone had an axe to grind, and technology entrepreneurs should make the same assumption, Lowagie says. Listen to customers, and they may tell you they love the product, while not divulging their true impressions. Developers assure that their product will be ready on time. “I learned the hard way that it’s very easy to get a positive response from a user when there isn’t any money involved, but it’s very hard to turn such a user into a paying customer,” he relates. Plus, there is a reverse tendency to want to reassure customers at any cost. “Not being able to say ‘no’ to a customer is an underestimated danger that can jeopardize the survival of your company,’ he says.
Lesson #3: “Tests take time; treatment is quicker.” It may be doing your due diligence to keep testing and reassessing how a product should be constructed. However, it’s better to move forward than keep second-guessing. The best test is getting the concept or product out in front of customers as soon as possible, Lowagie writes. “Do you want to know if customers will buy your product? Then by all means, start selling!” he advises. “Is no one buying your product? That may be an important symptom! Change the product! Choose another strategy! Try another business model!”