Leadership

M.R. Asks 3 Questions: Steve Ciesinski, President, SRI International

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As president of one of the world’s leading R&D organizations, SRI International, Steve Ciesinski has a keen eye for how an idea, startup, or innovation can maximize its research to reach its full potential. 

Knowing what questions to prompt entrepreneurs with – about IP, differentiated research and disruptive applications – made Steve, a Standford MBA graduate and private venture capital investor, a very interesting person to sit with. 

M.R. Rangaswami: In your experience, what are the core values and models that successful tech companies exhibit?

Steve Ciesinski: Successful tech companies have a number of qualities in common: as an obvious baseline, the technology is world-class, and the product/service is superior. The business development and customer success organizations are professional and client-centred.

But beyond these, tight teamwork is essential, with a “whatever it takes attitude” to exceed customer expectations with a truly compelling experience. Great tech companies have excellent relationships with employees and associates with a feeling of transparency, trust and fairness.

Employees are the best references for new recruits and even for new customers. The better tech companies are agile and stay close to leading market indicators to modify or even change direction to meet the need of shifting customer requirements. Well-run organizations are aligned top-to-bottom with its mission statement, and there’s an emphasis on collaboration in solving problems. Employees are encouraged to take initiative and are given latitude and authority to make decisions “in the field”. Finally, there are ups and downs in any business, and leadership and employees alike display the grit that’s necessary to get through challenging times.

M.R.: As a faculty member at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB), what is the most common thing you see entrepreneurs overlooking when starting their business?

Steve: Cash is #1. GSB students are mostly first-time entrepreneurs, and they typically underestimate the amount of cash needed to get a startup to product-market ft, even though the cost of many new tech projects in the IT area has declined significantly over the past 10+ years.

Confusing long-term vision with minimal viable product (MVP) is #2. GSBers are reaching for a big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG), and they understand they have to move fast if they see an emerging, huge market opportunity. So, entrepreneurs often try to achieve too much in their first product launch and try to build in too many features too soon- all to achieve their vision too soon!

Professional research indicates that the top two reasons ventures fail are running out of cash and failing to achieve product-market fit. Setting realistic milestones and discovering a locus of customers who absolutely, positively can’t do without your product, before expanding product enhancements and expensive distribution, can frequently avoid a missed opportunity.

I teach classes about creating and scaling promising ventures in developing countries- where VC money is scarce, markets are sketchy, and talent and venture advisors are in short supply. So, our GSB entrepreneurs have to treat their funds even more frugally and have positive proof of market acceptance before proceeding.

M.R.: What new technology gets you excited?

Steve: Well, of course the obvious hot technology is AI, closely followed by robotics. In fact, you now often see both technologies used in tandem for many applications and projects. The term “big data” has become quite popular, but more experiments are being conducted for decision-making scenarios that allow for minimal (small) data collection and analysis. I’m also very high on technologies applied to the human senses, especially speech and vision. New sensors and IoT technology are growing exponentially and will be put to great use for the enterprise, while also coming under increased scrutiny about privacy. Blockchain is quite controversial, but I believe there will be many valid uses for this technology. And of course, cybersecurity tech is getting enormous investments by startups the big companies alike.

In the life sciences, we will see advances in much better drug discovery techniques as we absolutely need to get the astronomical costs of this process much lower. Gene sequencing and immunotherapy are receiving a lot of attention. Other technologies receiving large investments include battery storage with advanced materials and processes, 3D Printing, inner and outer space exploration and travel. Have I mentioned enough!?

The technologies of the future will address the growing needs of educating, feeding, transporting and increasing the health and safety of the world’s growing population, while still attending to the elderly and impoverished. These are truly amazing times for science, technology and innovation, and the new pioneers and scientists!

 

M.R. Rangaswami is the co-founder of Sand Hill Group and publisher of SandHill.com.

Comments

By Erin Michelson

Big thanks to our Summery.ai advisor Jeff Smith who shared this article and to Steve Ciesinski and M.R. Rangaswami for highlighting the importance core values play in a successful startup. I agree with Steve that “tight teamwork” is necessary, as are the values of transparency, trust and fairness. My team holds many of the same values and sees 5 core dimensions comprising healthy corporate culture: Empathy, Innovation, Integrity, Agility, and Disruption.

The crucial bit is how we measure and continually monitor the value alignment between employees, teams, and leadership—especially as the startup begins to scale. I think a quantified approach that not only sets and scores a baseline, but also indicates value variance on a quarterly basis, is a start.

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