WT Business Beat

By Nick Wakeman

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Robot as teacher

I was in Nashville for a couple days this week attending Deltek's annual Insights conference.

Deltek took over the Opryland complex with 4,000 attendees. It was an impressive sight to see that many people focused on one set of products. I went to the opening session on Tuesday, thinking this was going to be the big sales pitch.

Sure there was some rah-rah stuff, but it was not obnoxious. Kevin Parker, the CEO, gave a good overview of the company and where it is headed. Look for more on that in an upcoming issue of WT.

For the opening, Deltek created a band for the event. A group of musicians who had never played with each other before came together to write a song and perform at the opening. It was all to emphasize project management, Deltek's sweet spot, in the world of software. They sounded great. It was nice to see someone besides Dave Matthews and Boyd Tinsley put a violin into rock-in-roll.

But the highlight of the opening was the keynote by Helen Greiner, chairman and co-founder of iRobot Corp. Yes, the maker of the Roomba, but they are doing a lot more.

Their PackBot robot, which comes in 11 different configurations, is defusing roadside bombs and searching caves in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before PackBot showed up a few years ago, soldiers were being lowered by rope into caves to search for insurgents.

While obviously proud of her robots, Greiner is equally proud of the evolution of her company as a business. She highly recommended the book Crossing the Chasm, which outlines the life cycle of disruptive technologies.

Companies follow a similar track. The management style and infrastructure that got iRobot through its start-up phase in the 1990s, aren't the same ones that worked once the company's growth accelerated.

When iRobot reached $50 million in revenue, it still had the business processes of a small business, so it had to change. They were good entrepreneurs but now they needed to institutionalize many of their processes.

As one retired Army general on her board of directors told her: In the military, amateurs talk about tactics; professionals talk about logistics.

Now the company stands at about $250 million in annual revenue and it going through another phase of re-invention, she said.

I spoke with Greiner briefly after her talk and she said making changes is about more than recognizing what you don't do well. You need to try things so you understand the principles behind the process, but then you need to bring in the experts to execute it.

It was also obvious from her talk that it helps to love what you do and whether it is the quirky commercials for the Roomba or Greiner's joy in talking about robots that do "dull and dangerous" work, it is obvious she loves what she does.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on May 22, 2008 at 9:54 AM

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