Starting a Tech Company in 1983:
the education of an ignorant entrepreneur,
by Sharon-Drew Morgen
I started up a tech company in London in 1983. I never meant to. And I certainly didn’t know what I was doing.
I was brought across the pond by a tech company as a sales director. But after a few days and a few conversations with my husband Ben (brought over by the same company to do contract tech work), I realized there was a far greater opportunity than just selling services for the first Fourth Generation Language (4GL) Database Management software FOCUS we supported: programming support, of course. But what about users? Since it was a user-focused tool, and users weren’t techies, I envisioned two problems: they might not have the knowledge to cull, organize and manage their data; they might not have the skills to communicate effectively with the techies they had to collaborate with. (As a non-techie married to a techie, I was well aware of the communication challenges of different types of brains.) What if we could be a decision support group that provided a broad range of services for users?
I somehow convinced my new manager to let me ‘go’ with my ideas. But truth be told, I didn’t know what I was talking about. That wasn’t a problem: because I think in systems, I had a high-level understanding of the problems but none of the details. In other words, I understood the structure but not the content (and it’s always easy to find the right content once you’ve got the structure). Never occurred to me I wouldn’t succeed.
None of us were smart enough to know what we didn’t know, although they must have known something: I became their most successful group, bringing in 142% of the gross profit of their 5 companies. Me? I ended up an entrepreneur, starting a tech group (which became its own company) in two countries (UK, Germany), with no experience; making a whole bunch of money for me and my investors; serving a large, diverse client base; traveling extensively around Europe; having full expression of my creativity; and living in London. But it didn’t start that way.
As I share my experiences, I’d like you to consider that this was the early 1980s: there was no internet, no Google, no email, and no websites with phone numbers and names. It was necessary, in general, to call Information to get a phone number, and they needed the address before they gave you the number. True story. Computers weren’t even used for much – think Commodore, with floppys; Macs weren’t even introduced until 1984; Google not until 1996. So in the pre-internet,pre-information age, selling and marketing were decidedly different than today. And yet I found a way, in a country strange to me, in an industry I knew nothing about, selling a product I didn’t understand, to be quite successful. Just a bit of old-timee caring, trust, and integrity. Let me begin.
WHAT I DIDN’T KNOW
I’d never been an entrepreneur. With only 5 years as a successful salesperson (and 12 years prior as a social worker and journalist), I had no idea what ‘business’ meant. In fact, I didn’t know:
- How to hire anyone.
- How to find anyone – to hire, to sell to.
- The rules: of tech, London, business, corporate politics, start-ups. Nothin’.
- What was going on in the field, what the field was comprised of, the nature of my competition.
- What I was selling – what my service provided, what it did differently than my competition.
- What clients needed, how they took care of the problems without my solution, why they would buy anything rather than keep doing what they were doing.
- How to explain, pitch, or present what I was selling (because I didn’t understand it).
- How to run a business – the jobs needing to be done, how they got apportioned.
- How to manage staff; how to recognize when I needed to hire/fire staff.
- What success or failure looked like and how to know in advance if either was happening.
- How to put together a budget, how much money I needed to run a company (I didn’t know I could run on a loss, so I thought I’d need to earn money before spending it.)
- Expectations, time frames, problems, problem resolutions.
I was ignorant. But I did understand people, systems, structure, hard work, risk-taking, communication, and integrity. And I knew who, what, and why to trust. I was on my way.
I began in a tiny, tiny office (Obviously once a closet, it was so narrow I had to move the chair so the door would open; the ‘desk’ was a plank of wood attached to the wall.) in a group office space. I sat, that first day, and stared at a British phone not even knowing how to dial out or get Information. I had to hire people, obviously. But for what? And how did I find them? I had to get revenue, but from who? This was in 1983 before the ‘tech’ boom. No one knew what was going on; I had no one to even ask these questions to.
Should I start selling first to bring in revenue? or hire support staff? Should I hire techies to go into client environments – for when I made a sale? But how could I hire anyone before I knew what prospective clients needed? What criteria should I use to hire techies – since the 4GL was for users, techies needed both tech skills and people skills, no? What percentage of each was necessary? How would I know what to pay them?
It was a conundrum. I couldn’t pay anyone until I was getting revenue; I couldn’t get revenue until I got clients; I couldn’t get clients until I had people to do their work. Where to begin? I could design a path forward once I figured out the elements. And as I later realized, starting with no expectations, no biases, no knowledge, and no comparators, was a blessing. I was given a clear road on which to travel, using any means of transport I could develop within a miasma of confusion, to get wherever I wanted to go. Best fun ever.
EMPLOYEES RUNNING THE COMPANY
I took on all the tasks concurrently: afternoons interviewing techies and hiring staff, mornings on sales calls. I decided to be my own salesperson so I could learn the components of the underlying system and understand the full range of givens going forward. I needed to know where I was at so I could get where I was going. (Did you ever try to get directions when you didn’t know the address where you were?)
I solved the ‘which comes first’ problem by initially hiring contract techies (who I later made permanent). This also solved my cash flow issue so I needn’t lay out money until I landed a client. But who was a good hire? I had Ben design a tech test I could score myself using an overlay with answers; I personally added some client service questions to understand their people skills. Between this test and the interview, I knew exactly the pluses and minuses of each person.
To hire staff, I had to determine the job scope and potential outcome that each hire would offer, certainly hard to do when I had no way of knowing what jobs were necessary; it was a year before we realized we needed a training group, for example. So I made a lot of (mostly good but not always) guesses. Before our interviews, I told prospective hires to determine how much they wanted to earn (I trusted people knew how much they were worth; I sure didn’t.) bring a P&L (Someone said I needed that. No idea what it was.) to the interview with a plan to illustrate how they could earn their salary, cover their costs, and make a profit. The ones who came in with creative ideas were hired. I didn’t know until years later what a crazy idea this was. But not that crazy, turned out.
Since I didn’t know the difference between a cost center and a profit center, I hadn’t realized ‘obvious’ things, like you can’t make Reception a profit center. But I didn’t know I couldn’t, so I did. A bit more about that in a moment. Suffice it to say, by making each person their own profit center, everybody ran their own companies and became wholly committed to being successful because that’s how they got paid. Plus they were having such fun creating. Sounds silly now, but it worked: I hired people who wanted to be creative, take responsibility, and work from the same parameters of ‘excellence’ that I wanted the company to exemplify:
- Take whatever risks you deem necessary, so long as you stay within the parameters of integrity and have a good shot at succeeding.
- Always trust clients, care for their well-being, never never never lie.
- Always do what you say you’ll do.
- Never leave clients compromised, regardless of time or situation. And always stay on top of how clients are doing.
- If you’re going to fail, tell me before you fall so I can get involved; if you are already failing, there’s nothing I can do but watch you fall. Note: my team always, always told be well before a potential failure, and together we always fixed the impending disaster. We didn’t mind making mistakes.
- I don’t believe in giving people X weeks vacation. If you’re running your own company, you take the time off as needed to be healthy, creative, and happy. Ultimately, I had to pry folks from their seats to get them to take time off. Sometimes I had to call their wives (and they were all men, except the sales team), tell them to send the kids to Grandma, and keep the tired husbands in bed for a few days. I even sent meals to the house so no one had to cook. This small thing alone kept my folks loyal enough to not take other job offers of twice the salary. I really cared about them.
So now I knew how to hire staff and techies when I needed them. But that was the tip of the iceberg.
SELLING AN UNKNOWN
Because I had a successful history of taking on challenges without knowing anything, I didn’t think twice about selling something I didn’t understand. And truly, although I had very general knowledge, I knew nothing of the specifics – what I was selling, who used it, the need for it, or the buying environment for it. I didn’t even know how to get phone numbers or company names (1983, remember? No Google, no information ‘online’. Think about it.). Reception gave me a phone book to look up American companies that I knew had offices in London and who possibly might be using FOCUS. But it was all a guess; I was flying blind. My first call was to the Receptionist at American Express:
SDM: Hi. I wonder if you could help me. This is a sales call, and I have a product that will help the folks using a new Fourth Generation Language get better reports. But I’m new in London, and new in the business, and haven’t a clue what groups are using this or who to ask for. Do you have any ideas for me?
REC: Interesting. I’ll give you the names of a few group heads and you can call and see if they fit. If these don’t work, call me back and I’ll keep digging. My name is Ann.
First on her list was Jim. No idea what he did or his title; I just had a name and extension number.
SDM: Hi Jim. My name is Sharon-Drew Morgen. Ann gave me your name and suggested you were a good person to speak with but neither of us was sure. This is a sales call. I’m selling support services for the Fourth Generation Language FOCUS, and I wonder if you’re using the language or need any help. Is this a good time?
JIM: How refreshing! Thanks for telling me it’s a sales call. Can you tell me more about what you offer (No idea.) because we are using FOCUS but because it’s so new I don’t know what I don’t know (Hahahaha. That made two of us).
SDM: (I was in trouble here. My only option was to keep putting the focus on him.): I have an idea. Rather than me tell you what I can do for you, tell me exactly how you’re currently using the software, what your target goal is and if you’re reaching it, where you’re not, and I’ll put it all together in my head (with Ben’s help!) and see if there is anything I can do to support you, then get back to you if I can. I do have a curiosity: what’s stopping you from knowing more than you do about using the software to its fullest capability? (This was curious to me. As a systems thinker, I always want to know the parameters of any problem. What was going on that Jim didn’t know them?)
JIM: Wow. I should know more, right? Let me tell you how I’m using it (and so began my learning!) and we can schedule another call once you’ve had time to think. And if you don’t mind, I’m going to give you the names and phone numbers of my colleagues so we can all be on the same page here. I also havea friend at DEC with the same problems I’m having, so I’ll give you his number as well. I suspect you can help us all.
And so began my journey to success. Helping people figure out how to take care of their own needs first, and then helping where I could add something, was so much easier than pitching what I thought would be meaningful, especially since I had no earthly idea how to discuss a product I didn’t yet have.
GROWING THE COMPANY WITH PEOPLE
I soon began selling contract services for systems engineers, programmers, project leaders, and managers. When visiting them in the field at their new jobs, I began to understand the ‘need’ not only for technical support but as I had originally guessed, for ‘communication management’ within their teams and with the users who had no clue how to manage or direct techies. I quickly realized that merely putting techies into client teams wouldn’t keep the core communication issues, inherent in this first report tool, at bay.
I needed to hire someone with tech skills, communication skills, and people skills. A tall order that few could do. But unless someone could take that on, I could foresee plenty of innate problems that could crop up and cause fires and lost time and business.
Thankfully, I found John to hire as a ‘Make Nice Guy’. John had it all; I paid him a fortune (around $100,000, which in 1984 was a huge salary – just about broke the bank) and gave him this job description:
- Make sure the code in every program, on every client site, is good so there are no systems failures. A shut down at any time of day or night, at any site, would be his to fix;
- Make sure our techies fit into the client teams and the relationships were smooth. If our techies stayed in their position for the length of the contract John got a bonus;
- Make sure the client is happy, and check to see if they need additional help on other teams;
- Find other groups on client sites bringing in FOCUS before the vendor sent in their own contract team. (I had a team already sitting and waiting to begin as the vendor implemented the new software before they even pitched their consulting services.)
- And oh – take as much holiday time you need, so long as I have no fires.
I never wanted my phone to ring with problems; I had a company to grow. John’s job was to run all operations. And he was so good at everything that our projects almost always got done ahead of schedule and under budget, causing clients to keep us around for far longer than the initial contract as their trust grew. And because we were so reliable, clients began giving us whole projects to do on our own, freeing up their own people for more creative work. We were in Bose, British Airways, Amdahl, DEC, for years, causing me to hire more and more tech staff. We grew to about 43 techies in under 4 years. And there was very little ‘beach’ time.
I had very high criteria around keeping staff happy; without them, I didn’t have a business. Since so many folks were in the field and I couldn’t see them regularly, I called each and every techie at least once a month to check in, discuss birthdays and holidays, share gossip. I offered current staff a new job opening before seeking anyone from outside to fill it. I let them trial the job for 3 weeks, and if they wanted it and we all agreed, it was theirs. And because I thought it important that those in the field didn’t feel isolated, once a month I treated the whole team of techies and staff to a darts night with a few pints at a local pub. I always lost. I still can’t play darts.
As we grew, my growing group of employees were coming up with their own ideas, certainly better than mine. One of the running jokes became the ability to get me to say “WE’RE DOING WHAT?????” When I said those words, someone would gleefully shout out, “SHE SAID IT! SHE SAID IT!” It was never little stuff either. They sure took risks.
SDM: Hey Harold. Nice seeing you. I’ve not seen you for days. Where’ve you been?
HAROLD: We needed to expand our training programs so I was scouting out new venues. I’m just getting ready to sign a contract to rent about 1000 feet of space in an adjoining office.
SDM: WE’RE DOING WHAT????”
Damn if he didn’t rock out. He’d put together user training, tech training, and even a manager training that he somehow got me to teach (I’M TEACHING WHAT????). Harold figured that since I did such a good job managing techies with no technical experience myself, I could teach user managers how to work with techies. He was right. And it was a very popular program. Who knew!? All I had to do was do what I was told.
The other prominent wish I heard from the managers was an admonishment: “Please, please don’t sell anything we don’t have today please!” Yeah, right. As a salesperson, I always can think of things I can sell someone when I hear what I think is a need. And once I knew how flexible our services were, I could promise something could be delivered. Immediately.
STAFF PERSON SEEING MY FACE AS I RETURNED TO MY OFFICE: She’s done it again!!
SDM: [as the team hustled into my office, arms crossed, scowling, knowing]: I couldn’t help it. Sorry guys. It’s not a big deal. We only need to do X. Won’t be bad.
STAFF: And when did you promise we’d deliver this?
STAFF: BUT IT’S WEDNESDAY!!!!! We’ll need to work all weekend!!!! My wife will kill me!!!!
SDM: I’ll run the Xerox machine, keep you in Pizza and Coke, edit while you’re writing. I’ll buy the beer! I’ll help you!
And so we stayed up to the minute in our offerings and program designs and had a steady flow of new solutions. What a blast we had, albeit a missed birthday or two. Sorry kids.
One more fun thing. The technical training guy wanted to be able to see into the work the students were doing at their desks and correct their errors from his front computer. He needed a computer with a large screen, capable of connecting to, and viewing, multiple computers at once. You might shrug at this now, but in 1985, no one had ever heard of such a thing. Julian made a bazillion calls and actually found a man in Amsterdam to come over, raise our training room floor to organize all the cables, and built Julian the computer he wanted. Done and done.
THE PROFIT CENTER RECEPTION AREA
I promised you this story. And it’s quite wonderful. Shows what can happen when you really trust your staff.
I hired a woman named Anne-Marie as the receptionist. She had run a car dealership and was accustomed to dealing with aggressive men, without an ounce of need for any social relationships.
Anne-Marie’s pitch to me during our interview for the job of Receptionist was that she wanted a percentage of our net profits (and this was in 1984!); for this, she would create an environment run like a well-oiled machine, with everyone intent on taking care of customers with nothing getting in the way. I didn’t know what that meant; I just trusted her.
She was imposing in every way: very tall – about 6 feet – and wore very tidy, officious, crisp suits. She wore bright red, severe lipstick; she walked with lowered eyes, with a sort of strut; her brown hair was tied up in some 1920s hairstyle that increased our perception that she knew what she was doing. And I can’t say often enough that she was terrifying. It was like having a dictator around all the time, watching, watching. We did whatever she said. Seriously. No one, no one, messed with her. We didn’t even want to find out what the ‘or else’ was.
Anne-Marie figured out what needed to be done within a month on the job. As the person in the front, Anne-Marie overheard staff gossiping about each other, obviously taking time away from their work and her profit; she noticed phones being unanswered, which didn’t serve customers; she overheard people saying they ‘didn’t know’ something, which didn’t serve customers either. She wasn’t having it.
She put us to work. EVERY DAY Anne-Marie made us write up what was going on with our clients, problems with our job and caseload, our conflicts with each other. We had to leave these pages on her desk before we left at night, and she would come in early and distribute them by 7:00 A.M. She wanted everyone to have all the knowledge necessary to serve clients and each other, every day.
She called these things TOADS. Take what you want and destroy…. I don’t remember what the blasted acronym was, but trust me, I still have nightmares. Those bloody TOADS. We hated them. EVERY DAY we all had to stay an extra hour at night to write the damn things – and remember, there were no computers and many of the staff couldn’t type on the typewriters, so mostly we wrote them by hand. Pages. They went on for pages. And in addition to staying late EVERY NIGHT to write the dratted things, we had to come in early every day to read the ten or twelve sets of TOADS that Anne-Marie left on our desks from our teammates. One of the things I did when designing our new offices was to install glass walls so we could all see each other (Open plan offices weren’t a Thing yet.). We would glumly look up from our writing at 6:30 or so at night, see each other sitting there writing, give each other grim smiles, chuckle, and put our heads back down to write. We suffered together.
What happened was astonishing. All internal conflicts stopped, since everyone knew, and aired their grievances. Office communication became more intimate. Staff knew each other’s challenges and shared resources and ideas, creating a collaborative environment filled with new possibility. We all got a much deeper appreciation of our clients and their challenges. And any time a phone rang, whoever was closest picked it up.
Oh Hi, Mr. Jones. I’m SO sorry that happened to Martin! How’s he doing! Jane isn’t here now, but is there something I can help you with? I know our folks are just finishing up your project. Is there a problem?
We fixed problems immediately. We all had all the information we needed to see a problem coming and fix it before it happened. Clients trusted us even more and gave us more business. She’d accomplished her goal: customers were happy, and we all made money. Between Anne-Marie taking care of the inside, and John taking care of the field, I had absolutely nothing to do but grow my company.
HAPPY CUSTOMERS, SAD COMPETITION
But in truth, my clients grew my company for me. I did whatever it took to keep them satisfied. And this became my brand. One month in 1986 or so, I decided to place a full-page ad in The Financial Times of London. Very expensive. But I wanted to be on record as a company with a commitment to serve. Instead of writing copy, I left the page blank except for these words written right in the middle of the empty page:
The Quality Is Free
and at the bottom of the page, in small print, my company contact details. One day after submitting the copy, I got a surprise visit from the Times Editor. He brought with him a page of copy that he’d written for me (He assumed I wasn’t smart enough to write my own copy?).
EDITOR: You can’t have just an empty page. But don’t worry. I wrote you some content.
SDM: Naw. I’m good, thanks. Want some tea?
An hour after he left, I got a call from the big big boss in the States who suggested I take the Editor’s offer for content (The Editor went around me to call the big boss? Awwww what a silly woman! Obviously she needs a man! With brains! Awwww.).
SDM: I got a better idea
Geoff: Why not fly over, take my job, and you can do anything you want. No? You don’t want that? So what else would you like to discuss. How the hell are you?
In those days, Brand Marketing wasn’t a thing. I certainly had no idea what it was. I just wanted potential customers to know what we stood for and elevate my brand in the larger market. One thing I quickly learned: let the people who knew what they were doing ‘go’ and learn whatever I could from them. My wonderful team, my lovely customers, taught me everything. They certainly all had their own answers so long as I helped them figure out how to figure it out. In fact, this process of helping others figure out their own answers was the foundation of my Buying Facilitation®model that I’ve taught to 100,000 sales folks globally since 1987. How naïve I was as a salesperson before that to ever think I had an answer for prospects.
Ultimately, our customers were so happy the following resulted:
- We captured 11% of a field with 26 competitors. You do the math.
- Our pricing was much higher than any of our competitors; clients never minded because we were known to be meticulous. (Price is never a selling point. My pricing actually put me into my own market, which obviously changed our competitive standing. After I left the company I heard that my nickname was Sharon-Drew Blood J)
- Remember Mr. Make Nice Guy? What a good job he did! We avoided user, programming, and relationship problems. Hiring us was problem-free for clients.
- We had a revenue of $5,000,000 in just under four years. Remember: no email marketing, no websites, no social media. Just good work and lots of referrals. And gobs of integrity and care.
- We had a 42% net profit. Anne-Marie was very happy. See? Reception as a profit center!
- I didn’t have to send tech resumes to clients. I was able to carefully listen to what they needed after asking the right questions, and say something like:
I can send you someone with those exact specifications in seven weeks, or I you must have someone sooner, I can send someone with the X skill set but not the Y skills, and you’d need to get that part covered yourself.
I never ever lied or hyped and my track record was perfect. Clients trusted us. I even had situations where our team got to a new client site to begin a project and the client was on vacation (“Dave where are you???” “Sharon-Drew, your folks are so good they’ll figure it out. Talk in two weeks when I’m back.”). I once got a call from someone who said, “What, no resume? You’re going to tell me who I need, and you think you’re going to get it right?” Yup.
My revenue doubled every year. I lost no staff in four years even though they were approached regularly from my competitors and offered higher salaries. I was as successful in Germany as I was in England. And I learned a lot: how to run a company; how to choose staff – and let them do their thing and get out of their way; to trust that clients had their own best answers; to trust my ignorance to find the most integrous route to a solution.
My years in London gave me the ability to exercise my own creativity, serve a bunch of people, and get paid for it (difficult for a woman to achieve in America still). And I never had so much fun in my life. One more personal note: while in London I also started up a non-profit (The Dystonia Society) that served kids with my son’s disease. I set up local support groups around the United Kingdom and Europe and raised money for mobility implements. By day I was an entrepreneur, by night I ran a non-profit, and on weekends Ben and I traveled around Europe (and simultaneously brought in a bunch of new clients) and hiked in the Lake District.
After I left my company in 1988, I was contracted by the vendor of FOCUS to get the business back that I had taken from him. True story. In England, that was called ‘Getting money for old rope.’
And after I left my company, it went downhill. During my years there, the big boss regularly tried to get me to lower my prices so I’d be ‘competitive’. “But I’m not IN a price competition, I’m in a quality competition.” Didn’t stop him from haranguing me: “You’d get a lot more business if your prices were reasonable.” He was thinking mainstream, but I wasn’t running a mainstream company. Different rules. When I left, he not only put up blinds on the glass walls so no one could see each other, stopped the ‘time wasting’ TOADS and dart games, and fired John Make Nice Guy because of his ‘exorbitant’ salary, AND he lowered our prices.
Guess what happened. You got it. In a short time, the company actually became mainstream like the others: From having our own 11% market share to sharing the market equally among the 27 competitors – each company getting their 4%. Lesson: when the magic sauce has a recipe, don’t change it.
I then moved back to the States to a ranch in Taos, N.M. After sleeping for a year (Seriously.) and traveling a bit, I wrote my first book (Sales on the Line) published in 1992 followed by 8 more (one, on the NYTimes Business Bestseller’s list called Selling with Integrity, one on the Amazon bestseller’s list called What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), and developed my Change Facilitation model Buying Facilitation® that I’ve trained globally to sales folks, coaches, and leaders ever since. And while many of my coined terms have become part of mainstream sales thinking (buy cycle, buying patterns, buyer’s journey, helping buyers buy, buying decisions – coined to define the change management steps necessary before people become buyers) I’ve done it all my own unique way, never trying to be, or compete against, the mainstream.
I hope that my story offered some ideas to budding entrepreneurs. And I do realize the environment is different in 2018 than it was 35 years ago. But maybe parts of it are not that different.
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Sharon-Drew Morgen is an original thinker, and author of 9 books, including the New York Times Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity, and the Amazon bestsellers Dirty Little Secrets – why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell, and What? Did you really say what I think I heard? She is the developer of Change Facilitation, used in sales (Buying Facilitation®), coaching, leadership, and management – any influencing situation in which integrity, ethics, and collaboration are involved. Sharon-Drew is a speaker, trainer, consultant, and coach for sales and listening. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org; her award-winning blog has thoughtful articles on change, systems, decision making, and communication. www.sharondrewmorgen.com