What makes a successful company?

I recently swapped some e-mail with some old colleagues from – which at the time, 2000, was the ‘leading worldwide mobile developer community’ ( is a pale imitation today. is closer).

It was broadly agreed that we had been ‘ahead of our time’. The bubble came and went, mobile data didn’t spring into life as we’d all hoped it might, and the idea of stimulating a community was just a few years early for the web 2.0 excitement of 2004 onwards. The company got bought (admittedly in two / pieces), and most folks moved out.

Now it’s nearly 7 years on, the mobile web appears to be entering some sort of a renaissance, and communities (and developer resources) are all the rage. The valley is still climbing the side of a new bubble (or is it a spike?), and one wonders how would have been riding that were it around today.

Since then, at Argogroup, the trick has been to to keep the momentum of interest in mobile data (and its quality) going. As a member of a very exclusive club of mobile startups that existed in both 2000 and 2006, Argogroup had to learn how to survive the trough between two bubbles.

Did we do it by being ‘ahead of our time’? Well yes, to a certain extent. To keep investment coming, and to keep the company focussed and motivated, it’s very powerful to be developing products and propositions that are unique. And of course it’s the only way you’ll ever get an exciting valuation.

But at the same time, you can’t do that in an ivory tower without disappearing into a technology-oriented world of cool products that don’t pay the bills. So while we worked hard to build exciting new technology, we put a lot of effort into building up commercial strength and going where the dollars were. And yes, of course, always being prepared to adapt a utopian vision of one’s product roadmaps towards what customers are actually asking for. So that’s about being ‘on the time’.

Finally, after a while of making an apparently lucrative market, no-one is surprised when competition springs up – and that’s an important factor in driving a successful business too. As we all know, only the paranoid survive, and it’s not unusual for a competitor to rise fast to match some of your capabilities in the market place. In some cases exceed them – and that’s when you realise you’re ‘behind the time’. The level of concern – or paranoia – that that engenders can be a great catalyst to motivate a company to succees. (Watch Intel and AMD go at it).

Conversely, if you are late into the market, having a pace-maker to aspire to overtake also seems to be a recipe for success.

So… I think you need to be all three:

1) Ahead of your time – providing thought-leadership, entrepreneurialism, pioneering world-class R&D, and a sales channel prepare to operate outside of a comfort zone

2) On the time – providing products that people need hear and now. Listening to short term requirements and catering functionality to meet tactical needs; a.k.a. ensuring revenue 🙂

3) Behind the time – not entirely of course, but being stung into action by other innovators and knowing how to deal pro-actively with that threat and shortfall – or having an earlier innovator in your sights.

Take Google for example. 1) Check (writ big), 2) Check (ditto), 3) Check (but closing fast)

So what makes an unsuccessful company? Well, failing to tackle all three of these facets certainly doesn’t help. With, we had lots of 1), basically no 2) and very little 3). I’ve been there – it’s not pretty – although I think we all did the best we could in the circumstances.

But companies can also fail if they forget how to do 1), or don’t know how to deal with 3). The here-and-now comfort zone of 2) securing cash takes priority over innovation and competitive leadership.

Kiss the valuation goodbye, watch the tail lights of the rest of the industry get smaller and smaller… sooner or later that’s not pretty either.