Simon Lok, chief scientist and chairman of Lok Technology, is a self-taught computer whiz who entered Columbia University when he was 16 and had completed his BSc and MSc in electrical engineering by the age of 18. Now at 26, he has three masters degrees (engineering, electrical engineering and computer science), and is completing his PhD, also at Columbia.
He founded California-based Lok Technology in 1999 to improve security and simplify the management of complex networks. The company was born from his frustration of watching companies spend money on technology solutions that didn't work right. Lok developed an integrated networking appliance called AIRlok to provide the network management and security functions of seven or more separate machines in a single server that costs a tenth of what a company would ordinarily spend to run its data and voice networks.
What was your biggest mistake?
No question, my biggest mistake was trusting other people with my company. When I founded the company, I tried to surround myself with people who I thought could run the business so I could focus on R&D. I was insecure about my own abilities. On one hand, I was pioneering technology to shake up an industry. On the other, I hired a management team that came from more traditional backgrounds. They wanted to run our start-up like a Fortune 500.
We burned through our first round of investment to develop the technology, but the team hadn't taken an aggressive approach to sales and marketing. My mistaken belief was that I should concentrate on the technology and let the "experts" focus on sales and marketing. I learned, however, that if the business wasn't healthy, there would be no way to sell our technology no matter how amazing it is. I was pretty insecure about my ability to hire people when we started. I was confident in the technology, but doubted my abilities to run a company.
Why did you doubt your abilities?
I thought that other people could do it better than I could despite my better judgement. I hired a management team, but didn't pay attention to the day-to-day operation of the company. I also figured if I spent my time making sure that the management team had the best technology to sell, it would make their job easy. Well, I have learned that no matter how amazing your technology is, unless you have a strong, cohesive management team, you can't build a successful company. I assumed if there was a problem, they would let me know.
What ended up happening was that the management team spent a significant amount of time working against each other rather than with each other. Also, some people took it upon themselves to unilaterally "solve" critical issues.
I think many technically oriented people shy away from business matters because they seem mysterious. The converse is also true - business people tend to think that technical matters are beyond their capabilities. Although there are financial and legal matters that require specific training and knowledge, many business issues can be worked through by following one's instincts and common sense.
How did you fix the situation?
We restructured the company. I became chairman of the board and have taken an active role in the operations of Lok Technology.
I have always thought of myself as a scientist. Despite the fact that the company is now five years old, I really became an entrepreneur this year. Instead of setting the vision for the technology, I now set the vision for something much bigger. As much as I would like to blame others for making mistakes around the business, my name is on the company stationery and I have to take responsibility. That was a tough lesson to learn.
What did you learn from this experience?
All of the clichés are true. If you want it done right, you need to do it yourself. That sounds a bit dictatorial, but I expected everyone that joined the team to have the same passion and commitment that I have. That's not realistic. We have some very talented people on our team, but they look to me not only to innovate products but to provide the mission and vision for the company. I founded this company with a purpose and I have to carry the torch, then hire the right people to help me in the relay.
We've made some great progress this year. We gained international recognition through Forbes magazine and CNBC's coverage. We've raised more investment and signed two of the largest distributors of wireless networking gear in North America to sell AIRloks. Our sales have quadrupled in the past six months. This next year is all about selling our products rather than developing new technologies. I've learned that great technology is like a tree falling in the woods: If you don't have customers who are buying your innovations, are they really great?
What advice would you give to business owners contemplating similar decisions?
Some of my decisions nearly killed us. We ended up not paying salaries for about two years and, of course, lost some good people. I also permanently damaged a number of personal relationships. When I took a more active role in the company, things turned around quickly, but there are still some bridges we need to mend.
Just remember, it's the simple stuff that kills you. That's the best advice I can give. Never let anybody else run your business. Nobody understands it better than you. Follow your instincts. If your gut tells you something, listen to it.
Ben Bradley is the managing director of Growingco.com, a research-and-intelligence firm serving manufacturing, technology and security clients.