The height of ambition

From Dubai's skyscrapers to the iPad, bold visions of how things could be different have the power to transform the world we live in.

On a recent trip to Dubai, I was struck by a very large billboard which showed a vision of the city’s development over the past few decades, from a desolate strip of desert to a commercial community of skyscrapers and luxury hotels.

I had a taste of Dubai’s ambition myself when I noticed a football stadium which was being taken down on the instructions of Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoun because with a capacity of only 30,000 it was too small to host prestige events. A new 60,000 seat stadium is now being built in its place.

Now not every organisation (or state for that matter) has the raw financial fire power of Dubai, but it set me thinking about how much real vision is in the DNA of most companies, small or large. Those of you who have read the biography of Steve Jobs will know what I mean by vision.

After all, the technology behind the Windows operating system was first developed by scientists at Xerox’s laboratory on America’s West coast. But it took the likes of Microsoft and Apple to fashion world-leading products out of it.

Tale of two tech giants

The approach of the two companies was very different. Apple was single-minded in its commitment to fully integrated hardware and software. For a while, this meant it fell behind Micosoft. But it would appear now with the success of the iPhone and iPad, that this controversial strategy that went against all conventional wisdom is paying off.

But visionaries are notoriously difficult people to work with! Autocratic, eccentric, driven, and as a result very often poor man managers. For every successful visionary there’s a plethora of people who have failed with disastrous results. Fred Goodwin’s vision to build a global banking giant at RBS was bought down by the acquisition of ABN AMRO. Management at Manganese Bronze, makers of London taxi cabs, lost some £10 million on their ‘Zingo’ mobile project.

Yet a proper vision is what many small and large companies lack. To make real change work often requires bold decisions which may be very difficult to implement, particularity for a public company.

Missed opportunities

If I have an issue with Sage, it’s that it could have done more with its huge installed base. It might for example have developed a social network portal for the Sage community. This would have been loss-making until a clear business model evolved but the potential value particularly in the Facebook era could have been significant. But it needed a visionary to think outside the box and for companies on the profit treadmill that is hard to do.

One of the best examples in my experience of vision is Chris Dawes at Micromuse. Chris was selling hardware to telecoms companies and realised that there was a real need to network monitoring software. He had no in-house developers so he bought in a team from outside. The only way he could fund that was by selling his entire existing business. In effect, he bet the shop, but it became a hit and Chris and his investors made a fortune.

I guess another spectacular success was Autonomy, where Mike Lynch spent years preaching the gospel of internet search in relation to unstructured data. His vision paid off when HP bought his company for a cool £7 billion.

Vision can take various forms. It may be spotting a new market opportunity and going all out to maximise it. This is always risky as early adopters often end up with arrows in their back as the market either doesn’t evolve or takes longer and more money to develop than the trailblazers expect.

Cutting edge

Vision may also take the form of product innovation, for example taking existing products and redesigning them or using new technology to change the product from bottom up. Once again, high risk if the development fails, but a game changer if properly executed.

An area that tends to be neglected is vision in design. More and more companies are beginning to realise that a very clear vision on brand image and design is a key differentiator in today’s highly competitive and market-driven environment. It seems no coincidence that Jonathan Ive of Apple was knighted for his design skills and indeed you only have to look at the Dyson vacuum cleaner to realise one of the key reasons why this company has done so well.

Traditionally most large companies have never encouraged visionaries, and many small companies’ management teams do not believe they have the bandwidth to move away from the day to day. I do find however that there are an encouraging large number of young entrepreneurs backed by business angels who are prepared to try and turn their vision into reality. If you don’t believe me, take a trip to East London’s Tech City and you will see what I mean.


Michael Jackson

Michael founded Elderstreet Investments in 1990 and is its exec chairman. He was also chairman of Sage, the FTSE-100 accounting software group, until 2006. He is a specialist in raising finance and investing...

Related Topics

Business strategy