It All Began with Diagnosing a Startup

As a veteran of many startup ventures, several of which sold and became important growth engines for Fortune 500 companies, I have no lack of memorable moments as my teams and I went out to conquer the world with new, innovative products and services. Disruption was not yet part of the vernacular. Yes, there are plenty of stories about pulling all-nighters, having physical altercations with customer service, hugging customers, sleeping on the lab floor, getting strip-searched because of errant computer parts mistaken for bombs in my luggage, etc. Even with all this, one experience in my career has special meaning and stands above the rest, but first, let me provide some background.

I joined my first startup company when I was in my mid-twenties, long before it was cool and when it meant a serious pay cut. Through my early work experience and college studies, I acquired a rare skill set that included a deep understanding of how IBM mainframes communicated, how Unix operating systems worked, and how to connect lots of computers together with TCP/IP. I was recruited as employee number five at a company in Cambridge, MA called Brixton Systems, founded by three amazing entrepreneurs: Herb Rush, Jim Morris, and Jim Lotti.

Brixton was founded on the premise of “disrupting” legacy IBM computing environments by integrating them with TCP/IP connected Unix systems and creating an open, highly-distributed computing platform. The goal was to allow our customers to do things they just couldn’t do before by giving them computing power and access to custom tools that went way beyond the restricted IBM environments with which they were accustomed. And we succeeded. One of our early major customer wins was with Federal Express (now FedEx). We worked with them to build one of the first automated package tracking systems, something that we now take for granted but at the time was terribly complex and quite novel.

In just over a year from my joining, Brixton nearly tripled in size and now had people in marketing, sales, and finance. We programmers did double-duty as field engineers, customer service representatives, and (ahem) tech writers. One afternoon, Herb, who was our CEO, called us together to meet a couple of consultants who “wanted to take a look at the company.” We had two company advisors, Ted Dintersmith and Bard Salmon, who helped direct them our way. The consultants were Gordon Bell and Cheryl Suchors. Gordon Bell had recently published the book High Tech Ventures and was working with Cheryl, then a partner with Coopers & Lybrand, on an implementation of the Bell-Mason Diagnostic, a tool that measured a startup venture as it passed through its formative stages. The goal was to identify any problems that would limit growth or cause it to fail. This encounter with Gordon and Cheryl radically shaped my career for two reasons.

First, for an Italian-American computer science graduate, I held Gordon Bell right up with Saint Anthony, the patron saint of my grandparents’ village outside of Naples. Gordon received near-canonization from me (and nearly everyone in computing) because of his work at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), Massachusetts’ iconic tech company and one of the first venture-backed successes of all time. Gordon was the engineer and manager responsible for DEC’s groundbreaking computers, including the PDP and the VAX. As an undergraduate, I earned my computing chops when I helped port a version of the Unix operating system over to a VAX.

Gordon Bell and the DEC PDP-8

Second, the results that Gordon and Cheryl shared from the Bell-Mason Diagnostic, which analyzed all facets of Brixton, were intoxicating to me. Never had I seen a company distilled into its atomic parts and evaluated. To me, a young software guy in his twenties, the other parts of the company made sense. In fact, they made logical sense, and I immediately grasped the potential for business performance when all these parts were not only measured but also integrated. Sadly, Gordon and Cheryl moved on after their brief work with us, and I never saw them again. Gordon and co-author of the tool, Heidi Mason, went on to form Bell Mason Group. Later, Coopers & Lybrand became part of PwC. From there emerged a look-alike to the Bell-Mason Diagnostic, which PwC branded “Paths to Value,” but it was later abandoned.

Bell-Mason Diagnostic

The idea of measuring a company and looking at how its parts influence one another never left my mind and I began building my own models. My objectives were not only to identify corporate performance issues (often manifested in sales woes) but to also provide some predictability into the outcome. The models became the foundation for how I ran my teams in product management, engineering, corporate development, marketing, and sales. It wasn’t just about the big picture that these new and evolving models delivered; it was about the focus it forced because (1) resource constraints are a constant and (2) markets are unforgiving and ever-changing. These operational models proved prescient, delivering not only record results but predictable outcomes for my numerous startup ventures and my Fortune 500 employers.

With Business Catalytics, I’ve taken these successful and adaptive models, moved them to the cloud, and integrated them with data science and predictive analytics. So far, the results are extremely promising…and predictable. Using legacy approaches and intuition for running your business is like planning your retirement on buying lottery tickets. It’s not just stupid; it’s dangerous. I welcome the opportunity to work together.

-Rob Ciampa

 

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