It’s been close to 10 years since I left Gateway, and I often reflect back on those times. I started as the Director of Marketing in 1991. When I began, I would flip through the Computer Shopper and be amazed at how many competitors we had. As I recall, we were competing against close to 200 different computer companies. As time went on, I watched virtually each and every one of them fall or go under until it was just us and Dell standing. Many of these companies were much larger and successful than us, including CompuAdd, Zeos and Northgate.
So what made us different than the other 199 competitors that failed? What made Gateway so special so that we thrived while others perished? Here’s my look.
First off, I honestly do not think that we were special people, or that we had some special insight into the market that no one else had. I wish success could be defined so simply, but I believe it was something else all together.
TEAMWORK. I am now the CEO of a new company, and my biggest challenge is getting people to work together as a team. Let me backup. The word teamwork is oft used as a cliché, and this is not a cliché. One definition of teamwork is the sum of pieces is greater than the whole. Another is that we win as a team and we fail as a team. It is hard to explain, but we had a special teamwork at Gateway that is very difficult to reproduce in life or in business.
In any business, things go wrong, the key question is how did the team respond? Did they respond well to the advertisty or not? Quite often during adverse times, one member tries to place the blame on another team member. This is anti teamwork and this did not happen much at Gateway.
As the company expanded through the mid 90’s, Gateway actually did a good job of assimilating outsiders into the team. Up to the Weitzen era, when Jeff decided to dismiss or demote every member of the core initial team. (This was my exit point.) That special teamwork was forever lost, and so was Gateway.
FUN. Perhaps this is what made the teamwork possible, but each of us in our own way, loved what we did. It was not about money, it was not about prestige, nor about the next raise. Our motivation was an “us against the world” attitude that we thoroughly enjoyed. At any point during this incredible ride, they could have cut all of our salaries in half, and we would have all stayed.
Again, as the new people entered the company, particularly Weitzen, their motivations were very different. Salary, prestige, company jets and the all mighty stock price became the driving force underlying upper management’s behavior.
I am not criticizing people for being driven by money. It is a capitalist world we live in. This is what made Gateway special and made the teamwork so different. We had a common bond that went beyond our paychecks, and we had a lot of fun.
ATTITUDE TOWARD RISK. Perhaps the most important element was the team’s attitude toward risk. All team members had a high risk tolerance. As long as their was a commensurate reward, any risk no matter how large was worth taking. This translated into an incredible and exhilarating environment. Decisions were made very quickly, and quite often in an impromptu informal setting. Now here’s the kicker. Because less time was spent harping on the decision, the focus was almost always on execution. Making it happen.
Having now seen a lot of other companies from the outside in, this was one of the key differences between Gateway and the rest. One’s attitude toward risk is not something that one learns, nor can it be taught. It is what it is. At Gateway, the core group of decision makers all viewed risk the same way, and it was a stellar time.
What happens when there is a divergence in attitude toward risk in the team? It is indeed a subtle difference. The propensity is for the company to move slower. There are more meetings to weigh the pros and cons. A lot more PowerPoint presentations, and important decisions happen later, if they happen at all.
Conclusion. This analysis is not meant to diminish the relationship between vision, focus and leadership to success. They are almost a given for a company to be successful. The question is how does a company become really really successful. What is the magic ingredient? I would chalk up our secret sauce to a special blend of teamwork, fun and attitude toward risk.