Strategic Focus versus Nimbleness

This week I want to discuss the importance of strategic focus, while still being open to possible opportunities, sometimes called corporate “nimbleness,” which may seem like a contradiction. I am a strong believer in strategic focus, however I have also personally experienced a case where an “openness” to opportunity transformed the enterprise from a pedestrian company into a Silicon Valley legend. Ascend Communications was “focused” on ISDN based video conferencing with a modest and profitable OEM agreement with AT&T. However, AT&T came to Ascend and asked if it could solve a much bigger problem…

I am a strong believer in strategic focus, however I have also personally experienced a case where an “openness” to opportunism turned the enterprise from a pedestrian company to a Silicon Valley legend. Ascend Communications was “focused” on ISDN based video conferencing with an OEM agreement with AT&T. However, AT&T came to Ascend and asked if it could solve a much bigger problem…dial-up access to the Internet over the voice switches was overloading them. 90 days later, Ascend delivered the solution, and the rest is Silicon Valley legend. The Ascend MAX became the global industry standard for dial-up Internet access, and the company the most successful SV company in 1996. So it always pays to keep your eyes and ears open.

In the late 1990’s, I participated in the creation of the “point-to-point tunneling protocol” (PPTP) with engineers at Microsoft and Cisco Systems, now an Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) industry standard. PPTP is the technical means for creating the “virtual private networks” we use at UBC, by encrypting “open” Internet packets with IPSEC 128 bit code, buried in public packets. It was an ingenious solution enabling private Internet traffic that we assumed would last for a very long time. It was not to be, as we now know. Most disturbing, in the 1990’s the US Congress debated giving the government the key to all encryption, which was resoundingly defeated. Now, the NSA appears to have illegally circumvented this prohibition and cracked encryption anyway. But this discussion is not about the political, legal and moral issues, which are significant. In this post I am more interested in “so now what do we do?” There may be an answer on the horizon, and Canada is already a significant participant in the potential solution.

At the request of Professor Ray Taheri of the UBC Engineering Faculty, I gave this guest lecture to all 4th year engineering students in ENGR 499 Capstone Project. From my background in entrepreneurial mentorship and entrepreneurial finance, I focused on the unique challenges engineers face in considering starting and developing a new venture. I discuss the full range of issues, but my personal emphasis, from experience, is the “character” issue. Some excellent engineers have successfully made the transition to entrepreneurship and executive management, but for others the odyssey is a bridge too far. Consequently, I place significant emphasis on honest self-analysis and appreciation of one’s strengths and weaknesses. Listening is a priceless skill.