NW Exec interviews Entrepreneur & VP of Technology for Thomson Reuters, Mark Lawler, a great read, with some fantastic advice.
NW Exec: Mark Lawler is an Entrepreneur in Portland, Oregon and has spent over 20 years in the computer industry with a focus on the successful development of commercial software applications.
Mark: I’m a VP of Technology for Thomson Reuters and am responsible for the design and development of both on-premise and SaaS software products for indirect tax computation, audit, reporting, and returns processing. 5 of the Fortune 10 are our customers and every time their ERP systems generates an invoice we are there 24/7 ensuring that the correct sales, use, and Value Added Taxes are calculated for every line item of that invoice and added back on to it.
NW Exec: Mark, thank you for taking the time to share your experiences on your road to success over the past several years. Can you tell us what motivated you to get into the computer industry?
Mark: Truthfully? I was a nerd. I loved school and subjects such as math and science. In grade school my parents bought me a Radio Shack 150-In-One Science Fair kit where I could wire up different electronic devices and projects. My high school, being in a poor rural farm area of California’s San Joaquin Valley, received education grants from the state the year before I attended. With this money they purchased and had installed a Data General Eclipse mini-computer with a dozen or so dumb 300 baud terminals for Computer Assisted Instruction to help teach remedial math and reading to kids that were behind their grade level. I sneaked in the lab one day as an entering freshman, began playing around, and discovered that with computers you could change what the device did without purchasing new components and rewiring it; you simply “told it” what to do differently. Problem is I wasn’t in a remedial class and therefore not allowed on the computers; I was caught red handed modifying one of the programs as a joke. My Vice Principal gave me a choice: never touch a computer again at the high school or learn how to do it right; he gave me a programming book and by the end of the year I was programming and running the system for the school. Once in I was hooked… I was an artist who could express my creativity and art, albeit technical, via a keyboard and what I created could be found on store shelves and purchased by the masses. It was like being a great painter or rock star, but without the fame. The best part on top of that was that it paid well…I could work part-time and pay my tuition, room, and board to college. It was a dream come true.
NW Exec: Over the years you have held several different roles and have successfully founded, managed, and held technical positions at different companies in the industry, gaining crucial experience on putting companies together and increasing substantially revenues for these companies. What would you say are the biggest keys to success for growing revenue models?
Mark: Delight customers while remembering at the same time that your company exists for an economic purpose. I know this sounds like a simplistic answer, but it is what it is. Too many technologists and entrepreneurs that I’ve met over the years seek to build what I’d call “monuments to computer science” and assume they know better than customers. This isn’t true—you may know how to solve their problems better than they know how to, but you have to listen to what the problems are first in order to create the best innovative answers. You then have to delight them with solutions that make their life easier. The last point is you have to make money at it; what good is delighting customers if you cannot pay the bills? Not making money simply means that you will not be able to delight them for very long. Driving high growth means you are delighting many more customers and by doing so you drive even higher growth based on the innovation that growth helps to fund—it is an engine that feeds itself if you can constantly innovate vs. become stale or rest on your laurels.
NW Exec: With a span of over 20 years in the industry, I’m sure you’ve seen some up’s and down’s in the markets, and considering the latest recession we’ve been going through, how do you feel it has impacted your industry?
Mark: I think too many people try to chase the latest fad or get rich quick schemes. In just the software industry alone how many times will it take for people to chase eyeballs vs. revenue for us to get that chasing eyeballs has worst odds in terms of paying off than a lottery ticket? It is those who are both innovative and fiscally responsible who drive high growth who live to fight another day. First we had the dot com land rush, then web two-dot-over, now what? Don’t mistake a new technology or fad as a new economy…in order for it to be so you actually have to figure out how to leverage it to make money vs. simply jumping on board and hoping to sort out the financials later.
NW Exec: What tips or advice would you give to other executives that may be in your position, trying to increase revenues and grow a company?
Mark: Go talk to your customers as well as those who are not your customers. What do you do well and what don’t you do well at? What would they like for you to do for them or solve for them? What would they pay you to do well? Then figure out how to prioritize how you spend money such that you can innovate and solve these problems. There was a book called “Innovator’s Dilemma”, albeit a little dated today in its examples, that had a great premise: If you are simply serving the needs of your existing customers and spending all of your money incrementally keeping the lights or adding simple features to provide value somebody will come along out of left field and solve the problem in a whole new paradigm changing way that will knock you off your perch. You have to execute on sound product portfolio management best practices to allocate and fund innovation. You cannot allow yourself to get sucked in to the daily grind of the tactical. Simply put “sometimes you do have to say no in order to free up funding much bigger ways of saying yes.” If you don’t somebody else will.
General Business Questions
NW Exec: Mark, you obviously stay very busy with several different projects and you’re always on the go, what are some tips you can share with our readers for staying organized and on top of their game?
Mark: Believe it or not I think the best application ever written, next to the spreadsheet, is Microsoft OneNote. Originally designed to be a desktop shell for what was to be tablet computers well over a decade ago, this program has been relegated to the dusty back closets of the Office Suite. I use it all the time to organize and stay on top of everything. I swear that each time somebody watches me capture notes, schedule meetings, take screen shots, OCR recognize image content, manage to-do lists, etc. in this package I end up giving them a tutorial on how great it is. I cannot tell you how many people have purchased OneNote after watching me use it; I should talk with Microsoft about working for commission some day…
NW Exec: What would you say are the 3 most important things you must do or possess to be successful as an entrepreneur?
Mark: I heard a saying once by a speaker at an Oregon Entrepreneurs Network function: “Sometimes you have to put your backbone where your wishbone is.” As such I think the most important factor is drive and ambition. After that I believe you have to be able to prioritize in a way that ensures that you are doing the right things well vs. the wrong things right. Lastly, I believe you have to recognize that you and your company truly do exist for an economic purpose.
NW Exec: How would you rate Portland as far as the opportunity available for someone who wants to step out side the box and aspire to create their own opportunity?
Mark: I think Portland has a reputation of being very gifted in the area of spawning entrepreneurs and opportunities. When I moved here from Los Angeles back in the mid nineties (please don’t hold that against me) it was because the Silicon Forest had a great reputation not only in terms of high-tech, innovation, and employment opportunities, but also because it offered a great lifestyle. One of the greatest accomplishments I can think of is when John Cimral and I left Intersolv/Merant to start our own company. That said Portland also challenges…a number of VCs don’t really like Portland too much as compared to other cities with great software development talent pools due to the very things that attracts great talent here in the first place. I’ve been with two companies now that either had to pretend to be from the Silicon Valley or move corporate offices there to secure funding. It is not uncommon to hear about a software company raising money just to have the first question asked be “How do you feel about moving the company outside of Portland?” I think the answer to this long term problem is to continue to innovate, delight customers, and demonstrate a desire and track record for driving great shareholder value. The money will come directly vs. indirectly as we get more proof points out there. I am truly inspired by all of those in this last economic crisis who simply started off on their own, without any outside funding assistance, and have created some great companies.
NW Exec: Mark, Thank you, again for taking the time to share all the wonderful information with us!