It’s hard to get attention if you’re somewhere people aren’t looking. And, of course, in the world of technology, the focus is usually on the technology. That’s where the innovation tends to be, and, not least important, that’s what’s patentable. At least if it’s hardware, anyway (jury’s still somewhat out on software, although apparently it’s full steam ahead if you’re patenting a living entity… If only Mary Shelley had known…).
Even though technology may be sexy, it doesn’t guarantee success by itself. Innumerable brilliant, interesting technologies have come and gone, leaving few to remember, and fewer yet to pine, their brief existences. And we all know of superior technologies that succumbed to inferior technologies for reasons having nothing to do with technological merit. In fact, we probably use some on a daily basis, although we may not speak the names out loud for fear that the vanquishers may come and break our kneecaps. Or our computers.
So non-technical elements like business model, sales, and marketing (yes, there is a difference) can have just as big an impact on success. Sometimes it’s the winning element. It’s hard to win with no technology, but, even though we may not like to admit it, good (or even fair) technology coupled with good service, good branding, and good reliability can trump great technology any day.
And so it is that managers outside the limelight may strive to find that one program, that one catchphrase, the “it” thing, the golden ticket that will take their product out of the mainstream of competition and put it in a category of its own, making all contenders irrelevant.
I ran into a striking example of this with a little-known place-and-route startup called Parhasard P&R Technologies. They seem to have suffered more than their fair share of challenges both from a technology and an organizational standpoint, at least the way their Marketing VP and co-founder tells it. Born of a Russian mother and a Greek father that pulled the family up from a meager lifestyle, Yuri Dikulos holds himself up as one who will not back down from the promise of a good idea, even in the face of overwhelmingly poor odds. “You can call me stubborn,” he says, “ and I’ll take that as a compliment. If I have a job to do, I won’t stop until it’s done.”
Lately that energy has been focused with unflinching intensity on a service program he dreamed up. “Frankly, our place and route technology sucked,” he admits. “Getting closure was a huge challenge, and, when the risks and market windows made success in the IC business less than a sure bet, we expanded to the FPGA world too.” Asked whether IC P&R technology can directly transfer to FPGAs, he admits it wasn’t as easy as everyone hoped. “We learned that not all place and route is the same.”
So they were now in two businesses that weren’t looking successful. One side effect of this was the need to hire applications engineers to help customers get to closure on their designs. “We started doing this in earnest with FPGAs,” says Yuri. “We needed to get the designs to fit, and a lot of them took hand massaging by our experts.” So they hired more experts, both for ICs and FPGAs.
“It was tough work, long hours. In retrospect, we probably didn’t structure expectations properly.” The engineers started quitting. And eventually they were left with one poor guy who was trying to keep the entire boat afloat by himself.
“It was all Ben. Gee, I don’t even remember his last name. I feel bad about that, but the flip side is, everyone knows his first name. Because it inspired one of the most brilliant marketing ideas ever, if I do say so myself.” This is where things changed forever for Parhasard, for better or worse.
“They always say, when you get lemons, make lemonade. Here we had this, ok, let’s be honest, crappy technology that required lots of handholding. But handholding equals service. Service is a good thing. I thought, if you can’t fix it, feature it.” And thus was born, based on this poor guy named Ben who spent countless hours fitting people’s designs, the Total Ben-e-Fit program. “Cleverest name ever,” insists Yuri.
It was successful at getting some attention, but the problem was that Ben was already too busy, and more business based on Ben would make that problem worse. They had to hire. “People said I was crazy, but hey, if it was easy, everyone could do it. I had to build a team of apps engineers named Ben. How hard could that be?”
As he now understands, harder than he imagined. He actually found a few Bens to hire, but those who joined based on the promise of belonging to an elite team of Bens soon quit when faced with the reality of long hours at low pay fixing difficult designs for angry customers using poor tools. And, as the team sputtered and started declining, things started to get messy for the management team.
“The trouble with businesspeople and VCs is that they have no vision, no sense of aesthetic flourish. All they see are dollar signs,” he complains. The program hadn’t turned the company around in the two months that the investors demanded, and so the program was officially killed. Or at least so they thought.
“They didn’t give it nearly enough time. There was no way I was going to give up so quickly,” recalls Yuri. So while management tried to change directions, officially laying off the one remaining (and original) Ben, Yuri took evasive action. “I’m one of the founders. I have to sign off on the big changes. So I moved Ben under a different budget that I control and refused to sign off on any reorganization that eliminated the Total Ben-e-Fit program.”
Things eventually got so ugly that Yuri literally vacated his office and worked permanently from home. “I took Ben with me to make sure they didn’t do anything to him.” So now the operation was officially a renegade one, operated from a house in the suburbs, to which no one else in the company had keys. He was safely isolated and could pursue the program for as long as no one could forge his signature.
He took extra precautions to protect his key asset by triple-locking Ben’s room in the basement so that no one could interfere with him. “I figured it was better for the company to provide room and board rather than lose the one critical thing that would bring us success.” He put a treadmill in the room so that Ben could occasionally get some exercise.
Isolated from management distractions, Yuri put his energies back into building the program back up. “I don’t know, somehow we got a black mark by our name around here. I just couldn’t get any takers.” He tried a number of tactics to raise the profile – and the status – of the role. He created a special page on the website trumpeting the specific designs Ben had helped with. “The whole point was to show that being a Ben was the key to both company and customer success.” He called it the “Ben There, Done That” page.
He created a video of the one and only original remaining Ben dancing around in a reggae-inspired set, hoping to get the kind of viral attention on YouTube that other people get by filming themselves being stupid. “Ben felt a bit self-conscious when we were filming, but I assured him that a ‘Ben Jammin’ video was sure to be the hit that would get him lots of help.”
But it wasn’t enough. Never a believer in outsourcing, Yuri realized he actually might have to look offshore for Bens, a particular challenge for Yuri since his immigrant parents had insisted on his speaking only English when growing up to make sure he lost the mark of an immigrant. “In America, it’s not cool to be an immigrant, it’s only cool to have immigrant ancestors.” As a result, he learned no foreign languages, making outsourcing even more of a challenge for him to manage.
“It’s tough because ‘Ben’ is an English name, and if you go someplace not English, not only do they speak a language I can’t understand, there are also fewer Bens.” He disdained the tried-and-true call-center approach of having agents make up Anglo identities – which could make them all Bens with the stroke of a pen. “That’s too easy, that’s cheating,” he insisted. It had to be done right.
He, of course, tried India first. “I tried Ben and Benjamin. I tried to be creative with combinations of how to get there, for instance letting ‘-jamin’ be the last name, with flexibility on the spelling.” He thought he had possibly hit a lead when he saw what he thought was maybe the name of a restaurant owner on a menu at an Indian restaurant. “My heart leapt when I saw the last name ‘Jamun.’ I inquired with the proprietor, whom I assume was the ‘Gulab’ named on the menu, to see if he had any family members named Ben. He just looked kind of confused and didn’t say anything.”
And he didn’t want to try to recruit Gulab to take advantage of the last name; “‘Gulab’ is too close to ‘gulag.’ I may not have learned any Russian, but I know what a ‘gulag’ is, and I don’t want any prison imagery associated with Total Ben-e-Fit!”
Having no luck in India, his next idea was inspired by the newspaper. “I noticed a lot of Bens in Israel, so I thought we could look there. I inquired with someone at their Chamber of Commerce equivalent, and, after I described the program, he said one quick thing, which I thought was the name of a guy called Ben Kalbah, or something like that, but then he abruptly hung up before I could get any more information”
He was even willing to bend “Ben” to “Bin” and take advantage of Arabic-speaking countries, which seemed to have about as many “Bins” as Israel had “Bens.” But he decided against it based on an experience he had with the English. “I thought we were getting some traction in the UK when they talked about tossing their designs in the Ben, although they pronounced it more like ‘Bin.’ But after a while I got the sense that this wasn’t a good thing.” He never figured out why, but he decided against any further association with “Bin.”
At the end of my discussion with Yuri, he took on something of a reflective look, and an intensity crept into his eyes. “You know, the CEO scoffed at my idea, saying that the whole concept balanced on a stupid pun.” At this point he looked at me directly with a fiery gaze and said, “It’s said that 80% of people don’t get puns. Puns get no respect. People simply roll their eyes and dismiss you. Well, this is my stand. It may be a pun, but it will succeed. It will get respect. I will get respect.”
I also attempted to contact the rest of management for their take on the program, but they said that the program officially didn’t exist anymore and they would have nothing more to say about it.
Meanwhile, it wouldn’t be fair to leave out the views of the one person around which this whole debacle revolves: Ben. He’s a quiet, unassuming guy; clearly loyal and diligent. “It’s flattering to have a program created around your skills. I’m just glad I can contribute,” he says modestly.
Asked about his work environment, he says, “It’s improved. I first learned I was allergic to the copper in the brass anklet, so they changed that to cast iron and it was better. Once we moved here with the triple locks, they removed the anklet altogether, so now I can go where I want in the room.” He’s also gotten word that his wife had a baby. “I’m really excited to be a Dad, although I’m a bit confused, since I haven’t been home in over a year.”
When I asked about his future and how long he intended to stay with the company, he seemed unsure. “I guess I’m just not one of those kinds of guys that makes change. It’s not so bad, I mean, I get to pick the pizza toppings on Fridays. And it will get better when we get some more Bens on board.”
And that is, of course, the key to it all. Looking at the microphone as if it were a camera, he says, “So any of you Bens out there, if you’re looking for a place to make a difference, give us a call.”