Out of Overload

A Guide for Technical Managers

Chapter 11
Opportunity Management

Being a Player
Setting up a Radar Screen
Your Interest Filter

Cashing In
Whatís Money Anyway?
Right In Your Own Yard

We Just Want to Have Fun

When you're in overload, your work doesnít get done. Projects stack up, and technical information goes unread; calls arenít returned for days, and smaller problems are ignored.

As your personal organization improves, you will begin to pull out of overload. Youíll find the projects are more under control, and youíre more proactive on customer issues. If the benefits of breaking free of overload were limited to greater efficiency and better decisions, it would still be worthwhile, but the real leverage would be missed.

In todayís technical arena, opportunities abound. Some are hardware products, others involve software applications, and some deal with changes in customer interactions. The impacts of these ventures are seldom trivial. They might expand your business by a factor of ten, or make you a multi-millionaire in three years. Our rate of technical change offers the chance for quantum leaps in ventures and profits.

The most common view of opportunity is through hindsight. Another product explodes in the marketplace -- and many times you saw it coming: "Two years ago, I knew that would be big." But you werenít the one to reap the benefits. Some of it may have been overload, but you were probably not prepared to respond to opportunity.

Now that youíre coming out of overload, itís time to examine your skills for responding to opportunity.

You Already Know

Technical individuals have exceptional insight into future developments. They can easily list the next hot areas: the Web, wireless, voice recognition, handhelds -- everyone in the trenches saw these trends coming. Their vision is not limited to marketplace issues, but includes industry-specific items. A light and low cost unit, remote diagnostics, process control loops, enterprise monitoring, portable delivery systems. And the list goes on. Chances are that you already have a view of the future.

Being a Player

Most new development seems to require substantial investment, major resources, and a good deal of risk. Well...thatís pretty much true. However, a sequence of micro steps can lead to a leadership position without requiring you to be a big investor.

Involvement on the cutting edge of an expanding segment is a function of being in the right place at the right time. This doesnít mean that youíre there as a casual observer. It means youíve developed your skills and insights to the point where you can contribute to the conceptís expansion.

New ventures are starved for players who understand the issues, the pitfalls, and the solutions. By educating yourself in the areas that you know will expand, you are making yourself a player -- without massive investment or financial commitment.

For example:

Judy knew pizza delivery was going to be big. No doubt about it. She figured that software connecting Caller IDs to a street address would be a central feature.

She started writing the software application knowing full well she wouldnít sell many, but it would make her a player. Judy also learned the delivery language of the future: tying IDs to personal preferences, interfaces to map systems, and cross links to other data mining applications. She wanted to position herself to be bought out or brought on board with serious stock options.

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At this point, Bill and Ed had researched speech recognition for seven years. In the beginning they had gotten a lot of attention. Even now, foreign reps would stop by the garage and kick around optimization ideas. The stained couch and faint scent of motor oil added to the frontier spirit. They had good jobs, but this was exciting. Once things clicked...

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Tony felt this new product line would dwarf the rest of the company. In fact, he saw the current products as an excuse to sell the new training/knowledge materials. The company could continue selling flow meters at the $5M/year rate, but the training CDs, books, and tapes could bring in $45M. As time allowed, he learned the tools and started building the information base.

You can be a player in the high stakes technology industries by leveraging your insight and technical skills into a leadership position. Itís a matter of positioning. As you acquire knowledge, your position improves.

Setting up a Radar Screen

Managing opportunities is similar to juggling a lot of projects. Action abounds. It becomes a matter of structuring the possibilities and moving in the right direction.

With the potential for overload by too many opportunities, maintaining the big picture is critical. Sketch out a model of the opportunities that come to mind. If only two or three come to mind, you wonít have much trouble with overload. Chances are, though, that youíll have the list up to 20-25 quickly. Once you start noticing your flashes of innovation, youíll be surprised at how many you will generate.

Any time an idea for a new opportunity comes to mind, add it to your model. Chances for leveraging effort across opportunities increases as your model becomes more complete.

Your Interest Filter

Even though an item shows up on your radar screen, it does not mean you will have the skills and energy to pursue it. There are a great deal of opportunities, and your time is limited. The simplest way to prune your opportunity list is to match the items against your interests. If youíre not interested, even if itís a great opportunity, your chances for success drop.

Step through your opportunity list and mark those that have a special appeal. It may be you are attracted to the image, or the intellectual exercise, or its down-to-earth nature. It doesnít matter what the allure is, just note those with a special attraction.

The flip side of your attraction involves those items that repel you. Even if they are high potential items and doing well in the marketplace, if your heart isnít connected, the work becomes too draining. Youíll start taking shortcuts and finding ways to do other things. If an area doesnít appeal to you, make sure thatís not an area you pursue.

After a few weeks your opportunity model should be flushed out to at least a dozen opportunities. Of those, four should jump out at you. They will have some special attraction that makes them more exciting and more of a lark than the others. Those are the ones to focus on.

Even though you have narrowed your focus, keep your opportunity model up to date. Things change, and the timing might not be perfect on your earlier choices. It may be a year before the exact match for your talent surfaces.

Basic Skills

A basic level of core knowledge is essential for most technology endeavors. In the early stages, you probably donít know enough to develop a clear vision of how an opportunity will unfold. Buckle down and learn the basics. Use the accelerated learning principles to speed the process.

Be careful not to shy away from confusing parts or areas where others have given up. Those zones are ripe with opportunity.

The Vision

At some point, your core knowledge study will combine with your nose for opportunity to form a vision. These insights are your guide into the world of opportunity. Nurture these visions.

Remember, the goal is to be a player in a high opportunity area. This doesnít mean you need to know everything, or bankroll an entire business. It means you must acquire knowledge that will move a venture forward. If your research addresses a small niche that has been ignored by the big players, thatís a potential contribution.

Sometimes you can get lucky and hit an opportunity area early in your research. Donít spend the next year rounding out your knowledge, focus on the 3% where you can contribute. If thatís the missing piece to someoneís multi-million dollar venture, you will be rewarded.

For example:

Anne could hardly believe the offer. The development team would split 20% of the net profit. Based on conservative estimates, that came to $5 million dollars per developer in three years.

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The second group of algorithms set the deal. They still didnít understand Bobís logic, but they could see the improved transmission times. The salary was competitive, but the stock options were super.

Demonstration

The market may not beat a path to your door, even though you have the better mouse trap. You need to make your idea visible and demonstrate its usefulness.

In software, prototypes convey the look and feel of your future application; in hardware, breadboards demonstrate feasibility and proof of concept.

For example:

The investor was stunned. He figured this for a multi-million dollar team, and here was some kid with a working application.

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Ed felt a little bad because this guy didnít understand the limitations of the prototype. He tried to explain everything was hard-coded and that it only handled one configuration. They were too excited to listen. He had definitely caught their attention.

Some projects require less than a working model. You only need to show how your knowledge can contribute to the effort. Simply letting them know youíre a player may be enough. Most of those looking to implement new technologies are already sold on the idea, they are trying to make it happen.

For example:

Tony wanted to sample the water. He posted notes and comments to every newsgroup even remotely connected to communications. He then e-mailed a question to the chief engineers of every communications company he could find -- with about 25% responding. He hadnít decided on the second phase. Maybe heíd ask them about funding or spare equipment.

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Anne could tell the guy wasnít taking her seriously. Ten minutes and the interview was over. She knew, though, that this was a perfect opportunity and she didnít want to turn away just because this jerk stereotyped her. Sheíd take another crack at it.

She had gotten the impression that implementation was not their strong suit -- Anne guessed that a project plan would get their attention. If she pushed, she could have a fifteen page draft by tomorrow morning.

...Anne started the cover letter with, "As we discussed yesterday." To ensure her buddy didnít toss it, she sent copies to every department head, every VP, the CEO, and the board members. Heíd have to read it, even if for defensive reasons. She put the answering machine on and tried to get some sleep.

Itís possible to create a professional image without much investment. A good printer, a snappy brochure, and slide show make it difficult to tell you from the big players. Include a manual and you're a true professional.

Launch

Real customers not only improve your credibility, but they increase the possibility of a buyout. If you must give it away to your first customers, do it. You can always get your money on the upgrade. With a product and a few customers -- you are a player.

These first few customers donít require a complete sales package. You can skip the shrinkwrap and fancy box. The goal is make these first customers happy. Put your time into support and customizing the product. With a few happy customers, the worth of your product is validated.

Since you are now filling a need in the marketplace, your buyout leverage comes from others who are creating a similar product as part of their regular product lines. If it will take them two years and six million dollars, they'll be happy to buy you out for three million. They save money and get the head start for free. Depending on how pressured they are for that niche, you might get three to six million more for the time saved. Take cash and stock. Forget royalties -- too many shifts can happen with a product line.

With that scenario firmly in mind, you can focus a promotional campaign on prospective buyers. Shape your brochure to emphasize credibility and customer satisfaction. Suggest joint marketing possibilities. For them to build the logic to reject this option, they need to have accepted your offering as a viable product.

Cashing In

The above sections assume that cashing in on your insights is both desirable and possible. If six months work can be turned into two million in cash, that seems like a reasonable path. Other times, cashing in may not be the best option.

Whatís Money Anyway?

Although the extra cash might be nice, an argument could be made that the excitement of being on the cutting edge, of making a real discovery is worth more than wealth can offer. A more stable approach might fit your situation better. And, you can always cash in later.

Some types of technical discovery require a longer development period. Medical research is a prime example. In addition, complex research is difficult to conduct on personal resources. It means access to other experts, the latest equipment, testing facilities. You need an entire organization.

Right In Your Own Yard

Everything for an exciting venture might already be available in your current company. Itís common to become so distracted with minor shortcomings that your current company's potential for opportunity, expertise, and support are overlooked.

And the status itself can be rewarding. Once a few of your ideas generate results, your status in the company will jump. As the hot idea person, youíll get the best equipment, a collaborative staff, and extra time for research. This may be your best situation, and itís right in your own yard.

Surfacing opportunities in an organization is similar to personal exploration. Changes for growth arise all the time. Itís up to you to capture and nurture them. Forget about selling the concept and getting permission -- start the research. Use your insight to flush out the opportunities that have been sitting dormant.

For example:

Tony loved the expressions on the sales guys. At a glance they knew the features were better than anything out there. Their customers would eat up this release.

Whenever he got the chance, Tony observed customer operations. And it didnít hurt that the cruise lines bought their product. After a while he saw things that the customer couldnít see. They were too close. Heíd weave in solutions to problems they didnít know they had, from employees pocketing cash, to wasted manager key operations. Not wanting to be unappreciated, Tony would log before and after results. The customers worshiped him, and he became a legend in the company. Life was fun.

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Bob broke off and devoted a couple of years to his own projects, but his highest buy out was $150. He missed kicking ideas around and sharing insights.

He took a leadership position where his boss appreciated new ideas and there was a certain amount of experimentation already in the budget. His new technical team was the bright spot. To a person, they were talented and energetic, if a bit chaotic. With their ability and his product savvy, they were going to drive the company forward.

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Ed would have done this job for nothing. He had the best tools and was surrounded by colleagues who knew more than him. He learned something new every 15 minutes.

We Just Want to Have Fun

Technical development can be a lot of fun. Itís like going into hardware store and getting hit with the urge to build something -- a bird house, a table, a drill...something. With all the software and CAD tools available, the urge to put together an application can be overpowering. And it doesnít matter how play time is structured -- it can be as a personal endeavor or as part of company team. The fun of building is the key.

Opportunities stir the spirit. When youíre out of overload and can capture opportunities as they surface, youíre in play time.


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