In a world of fierce competition the key to success could be a very unsuspected one. How can a small business consistently beat larger contenders and retain strategic talent six times longer than companies like Google?
On the morning of February 22, I sold my company.
I founded Tango/04 in my living room; we made it a profitable multinational business with offices in six countries, more than one hundred talented employees and well-known enterprise customers in over 50 countries.
But beyond that conventional achievement, Tango/04 reached other kind of success.
We had so many fans. Customers were friends. We maintained relationships with them for decades. They came year after year to our symposiums and we enjoyed our time together. We had distributors that were loyal to us for more than twenty years. Our employees felt like they were in a family. And every day we had fun.
Despite being much smaller, we were able to win against IBM, CA, BMC, and HP. In some countries we had more clients in the financial sector than the entirety of our competition added up. And no, we were not cheap.
What was our secret? In retrospect, we probably weren’t too bad at marketing, community nurturing, technology and innovation.
But our real secret was a different one.
I am shocked that this is not a subject of study today at MBAs and most universities. And yet it is such a basic thing.
You may call it affection, sensitivity, kindness, empathy, whatever you want. I think that the proper name is love, although this word seems to be a taboo in the corporate world.
Love was present in every single act of ours.
When we worked hard to solve customer problems or to iron out bugs, there was love. When we interviewed prospective employees, when we provided second chances to failing team members or even at termination time, there was love.
Hey, I do not mean that we played romantic music at work or that our engineers were french-kissing each other. But we did give our people trust, freedom, responsibility, a gym, games, beverages, acting classes, careers, care. Lots of care.
My partner Carlos, for instance, spent countless hours listening to people that felt uneasy for any reason, even for causes alien to the business. And we always gave our best advice even when it was against the company interest.
We gave our customers the best of us. We put tremendous, sincere effort in helping them out, using fairness, altruism, smiles and good faith.
Simply put, when we made decisions, money was never above people.
Tom Peters is a long-time advocate of all this. He claims that the hard stuff (engineering, product development, financials) is soft, but the soft stuff (the human side) is really hard. I can’t agree more.
Sadly, empathy is not even in the radar of some businesses.
When love is stronger than greed, ethics is a byproduct. So we did not have to worry about integrity, trust, good faith, and such. The opposite is also true: when money is king, principles and values are usually just a poster on the wall.
We entrepreneurs do not create companies: we create cultures. And a strong, empathetic culture creates its own antibodies. Those who do not share the values end up ejected sooner or later. Usually sooner.
There is another byproduct of love: happiness. We were happy people having fun, and happiness is contagious.
Some people did not value this. Some people did not even notice. But most did: our average employee tenure was 7.28 years. Which is astronomical for the IT sector (Google’s is only 1.1 years, for instance). We kept key talent despite of several bubbles and intense headhunter attacks.
Many guys even returned to the company after quitting – when they realized Tango/04 had, in fact, a secret.
So, what is the most important lesson I learned after twenty five years of entrepreneurship?
In a nutshell, that love is the ultimate competitive advantage.
But profound, genuine love only comes from the burning enthusiasm of doing what we enjoy the most.
So, when I felt that I was not feeling that kind of enthusiasm anymore, I knew that the time had come to pass the torch onto others. They will keep my former company special, I am sure.
And, considering that the world is still full of soulless enterprises, it is comforting that we the Tango/04 alumni will spread our DNA wherever we go.
That’s our secret mission now.
And, for sure, a lovely one.