The engine of business

23 January 2013

I should probably start this post off by letting you know that the views expressed are mine and mine alone, they are not the views of any of my employers, past or present.

I wouldn't want them taking credit for my awesomeness anyways.


This evening I posted a tweet about a company that was pretty negative. No, this isn't what you are thinking. I'm not apologizing. It is still as true as it was when I fired it off into the twittersphere. I also am not going to tell you what triggered this specific tweet because, well, I'm not sure if I legally can.

Above is the tweet to which I have been referring. After sending it though, it got me thinking about what I am going to call an engine of business. What is that you ask? Oh, don't you worry your little head, I'm going to explain it to you.

An engine is one of those things that is incredibly (physics wise) hard to start, but once it gets going it uses relatively little energy.

I'm going to make the wild generalization (#YOLO right?) that a business is made up of three things: the people, the product (or service), and everything else (the company).

The People

The people are the pistons of the business engine, they do the work, if the people aren't working together it will tear the business apart.

The Product

The product is like the crankshaft of the engine. The crankshaft is the part of the engine that interacts with the outside world, it turns the blades on your lawn mower and makes the tires on your car spin. The product is what all of these people toiling away for hours upon hours hope to use to get them to some common goal.

The Company

The company is everything else. It is the culture, the processes, the support staff, the vision from the CEO (spark plug anyone?), and many other things I'm too lazy to list.

If any of the pieces weaken just enough, the whole thing blows up in your face. Hire too many bad employees, put out too many bad products, or be trying to solve a problem no one has and you are going to run your business into the ground. This isn't such a big deal when your business is just starting (unless you are a blogger bitching about how there is a Series A crunch- when really people are just starting stupid companies). The only time when anyone cares (and only time they should) is when the engine has been running great for a long time, has built up a lot of momentum and then starts to fall apart. The stresses of running over a longer period of time can magnify the weaknesses and they are especially dangerous when the business has gotten up to speed (lots of employees, overhead, investors, etc).

Lets look at two very different examples of what can happens when an engine starts to break down.


Since, I've already hated on them in this post, I may as well pile on.

For those that don't know, Airspan creates wireless fixed and mobile solutions for very large areas (acres vs square feet). It is similar to and in some cases is what your cell phone uses.

Airspan at one time was a good (I wouldn't say great) company. They had a great product (WipLL) and some great people working for them, they were on their way to becoming great. I was never an employee at Airspan, but I did work for one of their partners for many summers throughout high school and college.

Their main product, WipLL was great, but they didn't actually build it. They purchased the company that created WipLL and marketed, sold, and supported it for years. There engine started gaining momentum. They offered some Point-to-Point radios, but they were built by a company called Redline and they just slapped an Airspan sticker on them.

Then people started using this new term, 4G, in relation to what was then going to be the next big wireless specification, WiMaX. WiMaX had 4-5x the bandwidth that WipLL did and was much more complex, so Airspan decided that they needed to have a 4G offering. So what'd they do? They built it or at least built a large portion of it.

I think this was probably the turning point for Airspan, the decision to build a 4G product. Why is this a bad decision? Because they had never built a successful product from the ground up before and WiMaX is much more complicated technically than anything else they had done.

The WiMaX spec was released in two stages: Fixed (802.16d) and then Mobile (802.16e). Airspan released their products also in this order. They were both built on the same underlying technologies, at least, at first and as far as I remember.

From what I remember, Airspan's fixed WiMax was somewhat buggy at first, but they eventually got it mostly ironed out. Their mobile offering, however, was broken on day 1 and I don't think it works as advertised to this day.

Over the time since they released their fixed product, they've lost most of the employees I remember being really great employees and it seems like the company is going to run as long and as hot as it possibly can and end up left, abandoned, by the side of the road. Under the right conditions it may explode eventually if something isn't done to cool it down and if that happens they will harm quite a few innocent passersby.

Now, lets look at a story with a happier ending (or happier present).


Apple is currently the most valuable company in the world (it looks like they may lose that title soon), but they weren't always that way.

Apple was in a similar situation to Airspan in 1997. To put it in terms of my metaphor, they were rumbling along the side of road, engine shaking, moments from sending car parts in every direction.

But then, something funny happened. Steve Jobs took the wheel.

Jobs stopped the engine, just in the nick of time.

The next part of this analogy is going to sound ridiculous, but it emphasizes just how crazy of a thing Steve Jobs did when he came back to Apple in 1997.

Jobs, knowing that the engine was riddled with problems sought out a way to simplify it. He practically rebuilt the engine right there on the side of the road. He fired tons of people, taking the engine from a V8 down to a V4. He got rid of the weak products, the parts of the crankshaft that would have snapped if his employees would have pushed them any harder. He salvaged just enough of the company to get the engine down the road to the shop, where we could begin rebuilding it into something entirely different.

Hell, the way Apple is doing right now, it seems more like a jet engine than V8.

So, whats the moral of this story? I guess it is to be constantly monitoring your weakest links and trying to replace them, augment them, or simplify them out of the engine. If your check engine light is already on, you need to get that thing slowed down to where you can diagnose the problem and remedy it. The important thing to remember though is, once you turn the engine off to be able to solve the problem, it might not ever start again.