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Competing with Giants: Colin Earl, CEO of Agiloft (Part 1)

Posted on Monday, Mar 6th 2017

Colin’s company has to compete with Salesforce.com, ServiceNow, and Apttus with a bootstrapped business. Read on to learn how he does so.

Sramana Mitra: Let’s start at the very beginning of your journey. Where are you from? Where were you born, raised, and in what kind of background?

Colin Earl: I was born in London and raised to be an engineer. I graduated from Imperial College. I came to Silicon Valley three years later.

Sramana Mitra: What year was that?

Colin Earl: That was in 1981.

Sramana Mitra: What did you do in Silicon Valley?

Colin Earl: I worked for a startup named Automation Technology Products developing computer-aided design software.

Sramana Mitra: Are you talking about electronic design automation or mechanical CAD?

Colin Earl: Mechanical CAD.

Sramana Mitra: What happened to that company?

Colin Earl: It went under. I worked there for five years, and shortly before it went under, I had left to join another startup where I was a product manager and software engineer.

Sramana Mitra: Help us through this early part of your journey in Silicon Valley. It sounds like you were working for a bunch of different startup companies. What were some of the significant moves there and how does that bridge us to your entrepreneurial story?

Colin Earl: It was at the second startup that I was working for as an engineering team manager when something happened that really started me on this journey. It was an engineering meeting. The VP of Engineering stood up in front of the assembled crowd and announced that the product was going to be shipping in two weeks. There was going to be a million dollar marketing launch the following week. If anybody wasn’t wholly committed to this vision or have any reservations about it, he asked them to raise their hands.

Two thoughts occurred to me immediately. The first was there was no way in hell that the product was going to be bug-free in two weeks. It was rotten with bugs. In my estimation, it was going to continue for about another six months. The second was that nobody was going to raise their hands because it would have been political suicide to speak the truth. You’d be branded as uncommitted. The third thought, which came some hours later, was that the real problem was not that the VP of Engineering was an idiot.

The real problem was there was a conflict between the interests of the employees and the interests of the company. It was, unquestionably, in the interests of the company for one of us to go to the CEO and say “The product is buggy. We’re finding new bugs faster than we can fix them. Don’t spend a million dollars on a marketing launch that cannot succeed. Scale back. Tell the VCs honestly what shape we’re in and plan on launching the product in six months’ time.”

But it was not in our interests to say this and I realized that this wasn’t the exception. This is the rule. It is usually the case that there’s a conflict between the interests of the employees, the company, the customer, and the partners.

A classic example of this is, of course, the fact that sales people lie. They say whatever they think they have to say in order to make the sale. Frequently, customers end up with a product that doesn’t meet requirements. Office politics is another symptom of an environment where the self-interests of one party are in conflict with the interests of the whole organization as a whole. It occurred to me that if I could form a company where these interests were aligned, I would have a big advantage over the competition.

Some weeks later, I left and formed my own company working as a consultant to IBM. As a consultant, it’s legal to have your own business on the side and to be spending outside of work building another entity. I worked several years as a consultant to IBM and as a consulting CIO for another startup in the Valley. I was working about 40 hours a week for my regular employer and another 30 to 40 hours a week for myself. It was a fairly challenging period. I don’t think there was a week in that four-week period where I wasn’t working, at least, 70 hours.

This segment is part 1 in the series : Competing with Giants: Colin Earl, CEO of Agiloft
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