Tech Icons

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By Amy Huffman, ExitEvent Contributor

It's not every day you get to have lunch with the Triangle's most famous Jims—Jim Whitehurst of Red Hat and Jim Goodnight of SAS. 

The heads of two of this region's biggest and most recognized technology firms headlined the opening lunch at the CED Tech Venture Conference, an annual gathering of entrepreneurs from around the region with local and national investors. Along with Jesse Lipson, vice president and general manager of documents cloud at Citrix (and founder of Sharefile, which Citrix acquired in 2011), Chuck Swoboda, chairman and CEO of Cree and Marc Noel, executive chairman of Nomaco, they served on a panel, "A Conversation with the Greats."

While the panelists didn’t consider themselves to be “Tech Icons,” we beg to disagree. A lot of knowledge and advice was packed into one hour, and we think its worth repeating. Here are 10 key insights from the group:

1. If you want to be a CEO or Executive you may or may not sleep well—Apparently, whether you sleep well depends on your personality and age. Swoboda says, “You don’t ever want to become a CEO if you want to sleep well at night,” while Noël says it might be a function of his more advanced age, but he “sleeps very well.” Regardless, the takeaway is that if you run a small startup or a company with 7,000 employees like Swodoba, as the leader you will face obstacles, decisions and events that may cause a bit of heartburn, or even sleep deprivation…so be prepared.

2. “Once a hole is deep enough you might as well just get out of there and stop digging”—SAS's Goodnight reminded attendees to let go of their pride (and previous investments, even if they were sizable) if the product, initiative or venture is not succeeding. As an example, he shared a story about his investment in a Triangle gaming company over a six-year period in the 90s, only to realize it was $30 million in the hole. He quickly jumped out of the hole, stopped digging (i.e. sold the company) and urged others to remember to do the same if they find themselves in a murky situation. 

3. CEOs are proudest of their human impact—It can be easy to think CEOs only care about their product or profit. Not these CEOs. The proudest moments of their careers each had something to do with their personnel or the greater impact they've had on their community or economy. For Whitehurst, it is the annual Halloween celebration (and anniversary of the first product launch) they hold with all the employees and their families. For Lipson, it was book with letters from employees presented to him at a post-holiday party for employees. He said, “It put things in perspective why we do what we do.”

4. Big NC companies invest in a growing region—Or at least the companies the panelists represented are. They’re interested in creating good workplaces for their employees so talent from the local universities will stay in the area, and new talent won’t just move here, but put down roots once they come. But at least one panelist, Jim Goodnight, was not a fan of growing the region through government’s financial incentives. He believes the incentives actually hurt existing businesses and industries and their ability to recruit and retain talent. Lipson is all about supporting startups—he invested in HQ Raleigh and the ThinkHouse to help small companies get a start and grow.

5. Raleigh/Durham/Triangle has it all (downtowns & space)—The panelists were careful to note that when planning for the future of the Triangle, the plans should encourage growth in the urban centers, the Research Triangle Park and the land in between (aka suburbs). The combination of the two types of locations for companies is what makes the Triangle unique and positions it for future growth. As Swoboda said, “It’s rare that you have urban infrastructures and all this land in the middle that allows you to address the problem (growing the economy) from both sides.”

6. Entrepreneurs: stay focused but be open to change—Lipson advised startups and entrepreneurs to, “start uncomfortably narrow,” then broaden your products or services as your company grows. The panelists agreed that being too broad too early was a recipe for failure for early stage startups. They also cautioned against digging in your heels—be ready to change your vision, product or service if need be.  

7. Building and scaling are different and require different skills—Noël said it best, “There’s not too many Jim Goodnights in the world that can build and scale a business.” After which he explained it takes very different skills to build a startup and run a company with several thousand employees. Some companies fail because they don’t realize this. Goodnight and Swoboda noted it's important to keep the company’s core values in focus as you scale—stay focused on doing what you do best.

8. NC talent is the best—All panelists cited North Carolina’s talent pool as a top reason why they either started or moved their business to North Carolina. The companies also chose to remain in North Carolina primarily because of the strong talent pool. The lifestyle perks the region offers—its spot three hours from both the mountains and the beach—makes it desirable for workers who want to raise a family.

9. Desire is strong to build holistic economy—One that works for everyone and has jobs for people of all skillsets. Swoboda reminded the audience that tech isn’t just for knowledge workers, but offers jobs for people with different skillsets and backgrounds. He said a key challenge moving forward is to figure out how to use the technology sector as a broader base from which the rest of the general economy can grow. 

10. The future is bright for region if there are investments, and thoughtful planning—Panelists reminded audience members that a great deal of investment went into making the area what it is today, and more investment along with thoughtful and intentional planning will be crucial to the region as it moves forward. The group cited transportation as a major issue—the region's leaders need to figure out how to locate workers near their worksite and decrease traffic on major causeways like I-40.

Were these the key insights you took away from the panel? Comment, email or tweet to share yours!