HR & Management

Mike Lynch, Autonomy founder: "Don't do things properly"

8 min read

19 August 2011

Mike Lynch, the formidable founder of technology company Autonomy, shares his (sometimes strange) secrets for success.

At Autonomy, we’ve got a series of key ideas and lessons on how to run our business. They’ve become the cornerstone of the business, and are so important that we’ve compressed them into little phrases. Here they are:

Take a gun to a knife fight

What we mean is: don’t even try unless you have an unfair advantage. You often see people starting a business on the Coca-Cola principle – thinking they can make a fizzy sugar drink. But Coca-Cola are already doing it, they’re very good at it and you’re never going to beat them. So before you really put effort into something, make sure you have an unfair advantage – turn up to the knife fight with a gun.

The lonely wolf

You may consider that what you’re doing in business is something as magnificent and powerful as a wolf, but every so often, wolves get lonely – and they get hungry. A hungry wolf may have to eat something unpleasant just to survive to the next day. Like the lonely wolf, it’s important you understand that surviving to the next day is what matters. You may be developing the world’s next greatest product, but every so often, you may have to stop doing that and take some outside work, just to keep the business going long enough to be able to do the next part. I’ve often seen people so obsessed with being the magnificent wolf that they actually starve to death. 

Rusty the clown

It comes from a Larson cartoon, where there are two dogs sitting in front of a clown, snarling at it. One dog says to the other: “Don’t get drawn into his kind of fight.” The idea here is that you should always pick the fight on your own terms. Take a sales pitch, for example: just because a competitor has set it up one way, if that’s not an advantage to you, set it up the another way. Or even if the request for proposal is set up one way, do it the way that works for you. Never get drawn into the clown’s fight with him.

Your plan is the first casualty of war

Again, one of the things you often see in business is an entrepreneur with a plan that they print out on some wonderful planning tool and stick on the wall. But rather like an aircraft flying relentlessly towards the side of a mountain, it’s really important to be able to do a U-turn. One of the issues, for example, is that if you’re a venture capital-funded business, you have to have a very good relationship with your funder, so that you can say: “No, we’re going to do it this way now.” Nearly always, the way you set out to do something turns out not to be the best way to do it.

Don’t do things properly

One of the things that always amazes me is how non-entrepreneurial professionals, such as lawyers and accountants, will always tell you how you have to do stuff “properly”. When someone uses the word “properly”, it actually means, “I’m going to tell you to do something this way – I’m not quite sure why you should do it this way, but everyone does it this way, so you should, too”. That’s their definition of “properly”. All it means is that you’ll end up with a long list of “properlys”. What’s really important is to have the right focus. Of your list of 48 things someone says you need to do, work out which five you need to get done today. Do those and you’ll be just fine. Always just concentrate on the key things and get those done, otherwise you just get distracted.

Be a schizophrenic

Schizophrenia is very important, especially in the technology business. Why? Because it’s so easy to kill an idea. It’s always possible to find a reason not to do something. The real art is to be able to create an environment where you can flip that around. What you need to be able to do is to look at a new idea and have a “positives” session about it – sit down and talk about why this is a good idea. Ask yourself and your team how you give this seedling of an idea enough light so that it grows. When you’ve done that, as a separate exercise, have a “negatives” session and look at why it could be a bad idea. If you just have the negative session, the seedling will get stamped on. As Autonomy gets bigger, more sensible and more grown-up, stopping people from stamping on seedlings is very difficult. What you’ve got to do is say: “We’re going to talk about this as though it’s a good idea and discuss why it’s a good idea and how can we make it happen first. Then we’ll look at why it’s a bad idea.” If you mix those two together, the dynamic becomes more difficult. It’s always easier to knock over the sand castle than to build it.

Always have outsiders on the inside

Finally – and this is especially relevant for technology businesses – make sure you always have outsiders on the inside. Technology is an area that moves so fast and is so unpredictable that you’ll find that you want employees and colleagues who look at the world a little bit differently. If you’ve grown up in a certain society and you’re comfortable in it and you understand it, then you probably haven’t developed the skill-sets that allow you to stand back from it and study it. That’s why I love people who’ve grown up in different countries and who are from different backgrounds. Those are often the ones who have the insight to see why tomorrow will not be the same as today.

Mike Lynch gave his speech at a Real Business event held at the Deloitte Academy at the end of last year.