This week, we had a reunion in Toronto for the company that I co-founded in the 80s/90s called Delrina. (For some history, see wikipedia). Amazingly, close to 200 ex-Delrina employees attended (see photos here at Flickr), but more amazingly this was more than 10 years since we exited the company. Most people at the reunion had not worked for Delrina for at least 10 years, but still came out to meet their old colleagues.
As we all know, 10 years in this industry is a lifetime. Yet, people were genuinely interested in catching-up with others that they seemed to really care about. And most people felt a strong connection with others. I was amazed how many people came up to me and told me what an incredible experience working at Delrina was and how it formed a strong basis for what they have done since.
I think that a lot of what people experienced in those days was the opportunity for young, inexperienced employees to be empowered. (A quote from an email I received afterwards: "I wanted to say that working under your leadership gave me the confidence and inspiration to be an entrepreneur. I run a successful manufacturing business and the basic "think on your feet" management style you had is one that I have used on a daily basis in the complex world of business.")
I got to thinking about what it was that allowed us to be so successful with a team that had lots of expertise and not a lot of experience. And what was it that has kept people connected all these years later? I am convinced that it is commonality of purpose and a strong corporate culture. From the beginning, we were all focused on one thing - winning. Coming second was not an option, losing was not an option, mediocrity was not an option.
We started Delrina in 1988 and I remember being turned down by VCs in Toronto, Boston and Silicon Valley. They all said, "You guys have never done this before, and you are based in Toronto, Canada for goodness sake". (Yes, I have been on the "other side of the table" many times). We were determined to prove ourselves and were driven to succeed and we found financing from other sources. Over the next 8 years, we were constantly told how we could not succeed at this from Canada, how our products would not be competitive and why we would not succeed. But instead, we drove sales to nearly $150M annually, sold more than 30 million copies of WinFax and then sold the company for more than $550M.
The glue that held this together was a strong corporate culture. A culture of working together, empowerment, trust, respect and caring about the people you work with, and an executive team made up of complementary talents with common goals. We were a community that was a bit of an island. There weren't many (any?) other companies like us in Toronto and once we started becoming successful, we started getting noticed. The more the focus on us being unique, the more the focus on us being public in Toronto and Nasdaq, the more our team worked together and achieved. This same culture permeated throughout our offices in California and Europe.
I am convinced that this is the "secret sauce" that every startup needs to succeed. When people look at our successes at Delrina such as our OEM strategy of giving away/selling cheaply WinFax Lite and upgrading people to WinFax PRO, it is often attributed to good timing or good luck. Yes, luck helps, but before we ended out with that strategy, we tried 30 other strategies. As a startup, the only luxury you have is to reinvent yourself at every opportunity and your competitive edge is to be able to easily make zigs and zags with ease. And then, when something works, you need a team that can execute well and capitalize on the proven strategy. We made this happen with a culture of "No Fear" (I still have my No Fear Delrina t-shirt), a culture of not being afraid to test out new ideas - all held together with a culture of winning.