Building a Collaborative Culture

Early in my career, I had a mentor that I didn’t know very well.  I worked in the laboratory equipment business and our companies went to the same trade shows.  We met, but I don’t think he ever remembered who I was. His name was Jack Whitehead.  He was a mentor because I was fascinated by how he built a business that created a field (lab automation).  

The company was called Technicon.  It was a small business started by Jack’s Dad that made pathology processing equipment.  Jack had come across a physician inventor who had developed an automated process for handling liquid samples.  The inventor had tried to interest a number of the big companies in the laboratory field, but had been turned down by all of them.  “There’s no market” he was told.  Jack liked the guy, and the feeling was mutual…and he made a deal.  He didn’t go through the now-familiar due diligence routine, nor did he engage in market research.  His company was private so he didn’t have shareholders who were going to sue him if his next quarter’s results were not up to par.  It was a classic “gut” decision and, as it turned out, a pretty good one. <a style="color:white"

It was what he did next that fascinated me.  There were excellent patents on this novel technology.  And despite the fact that “no market” existed, the inventor had a number of enthusiastic “early adopter” friends who were anxious to use the technology for their specific applications.  So Jack took some orders for his early products…we’d call them prototypes today.   But he had some conditions he insisted on:  you had to pay in advance, you had to spend a week at the factory learning the details of your instrument and you had to help build it.  As you can imagine, to pull that off Jack had to be a great salesman and a fun guy to be with.  The early groups of customers worked like the devil during the day and had a hell of a lot of fun at night.  Jack wasn’t just training customers, he was building a family. 

It was cool to be an early Technicon customer.  You were not only a black belt Technicon user, you were an applications engineer, a development engineer, a marketing manager, a salesman and a public relations person.   You were tolerant if there was a problem with your early machine.  And you helped solve it.  This was viral marketing long before the term came into use.  But it wasn’t just a gimmick.  These people cared: for the technology and the field, for each other, for Jack and for Technicon.  Jack was the steward of the process.  Sure, he benefitted enormously from the help of his disciples, but he understood his role as he shepherded the process and the higher goal of advancing the field and the benefit it provided scientists and patients.  He even organized a scientific forum for the presentation of papers on the applications of his technology.  It was heretical at the time for a company sponsored event to earn the credibility and credentials of an academically sponsored meeting, but he did.  It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it that counts.  And he did it free run 2 women

Obviously I’ve glossed over some of the things that didn’t work so well, but the lessons to me were powerful and long lasting.  I’ve watched other companies create similar cultures, and I tried to do that at Boston Scientific.  It’s not so much a specific set of actions as a mind set.  <a

Who do you admire who has built a collaborative culture?

John Abele