Ed. Note: One of my early business trips was to the MIT campus, where I was in the audience for Phil Villers' presentation on "The Art of Building a Successful Company," as I titled my follow-on adaptation of his remarks for an article that ran in the Fall 1985 issue. Villers founded three companies, including Computervision Corp. in 1969. While his counsel was more specifically directed to the managers and board members of smaller companies, I found the advice applicable for directors of larger companies, too. An excerpt follows.--J.K.
The business of starting and building new enterprises is one of the most exciting and fascinating, and at times frustrating, games that I think any of us in management knows.
There has to be a clear, thought-out strategy to deal with market and product opportunities. There may be an infinite number of possible strategies, of which a handful are viable. You've got to pick one; and you've got to pick one knowing beforehand--or anticipate finding out afterward--that there is likely to be at least one fatal flaw in your original selection.
The art of building a successful company--in fact, the art of being an entrepreneur in the first place, at least in high technology--is in having an unshakable faith based on inadequate evidence. The reason is actually quite apparent: if your strategy was so dam obvious, everybody else would do it and you wouldn't have a chance to be a leader. Yet this unshakable faith has to be matched by an open ear and a willingness to make changes in response to what you observe, because the chance of being completely right based on inadequate evidence is exactly what you think it would be.
The ability to listen to the marketplace and adjust is one you can never afford to lose. Despite your unshakable conviction, you are probably wrong in at least one, if not more, important respects in your planning--and if so, you can still survive. This brings up the power of "convergent iteration." Since your ability of finding exactly the right answer from day one is close to zero, convergent iteration is the ability to go down a track believing absolutely you are right, but still observing and making the necessary turns...