John Marshall and AirWatch ride high atop the mobile technology wave after undergoing a timely transformation Featured

5:32pm EDT November 21, 2013
John Marshall, co-founder, AirWatch John Marshall, co-founder, AirWatch

After four years, the inability to manage change often results in the premature demise of 37 percent of information industry startups.

John Marshall, co-founder of AirWatch, sees the validity of that statement, but relishes in the fact that his company isn’t a part of the statistic. It’s a modern day miracle that a small firm like AirWatch has not only endured, but found a way to ride the crest of the technology tsunami.

“Coming up with a good idea is hard, but executing it is even harder,” says Marshall, who is also president and CEO. “You need to have the right team with the right vision and strike a balance between ideas and execution or you’ll never get out of the gate.”

After bootstrapping AirWatch since its launch in 2003, Marshall orchestrated what he describes as a strong pivot three years ago. His well-timed pivot gave AirWatch the opportunity to cash-in on the “bring your own device” to work trend, establishing the firm as a pioneer in the management of mobile assets.

The BYOD craze was rearing its head — almost 70 percent of workers who own a smartphone or tablet use it to access corporate data, according to Ovum. The problem is that most IT departments were caught off-guard by the mobile computing frenzy and lacked the staff and systems to securely manage a barrage of different employee-owned devices.

AirWatch has taken the lead in mobile management, scoring more than $200 million in funding and adding more than 1,400 employees to provide mobile device management and security to 8,000 customers, including Lowe’s, Toyota, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines.

Here’s a look at how Marshall turned a rather unremarkable Wi-Fi service provider into a market leader with revenues of about $100 million in 2012.


Catch a wave

Once Marshall decided to consider the mobility space, he made sure his decision was neither rash nor fortuitous. He evaluated data and anecdotal evidence before asking 15 developers to create an enterprise program to manage smartphones.

“The key to market timing is to look at everything,” he says. “I keep a lot of data points in my head. I not only assessed user adoption rates, but whether the cab driver in Singapore was using a smartphone. Misreading the adoption curve can be fatal, especially for a small tech company.”

For instance, Marshall knew that wireless service providers were switching to 3G networks and offering “all-you-can-eat data” plans as users became addicted to mobile devices. In addition, businesses were looking for new ways to lower costs and create efficiencies as the economy was taking a nosedive in 2008-2009.

Providing 24/7 access to data and communications seemed like a viable and affordable way to boost worker productivity. Marshall, however, remained on the fence until a fateful conversation with an Apple executive provided the tipping point. The knowledgeable source described the ongoing development of smartphones and tablets and the migration from desktops and laptops to mobile computing. So when Apple released iOS 3, Marshall decided it was time to act.

“My conversation with the Apple executive gave me the confidence to move forward,” Marshall says. “The ecosystem was forming and I could see that it would be maturing over the next few years. I wanted to be ahead of the wave, not paddling from behind.

“You need to understand the growth phase to take advantage of it,” he says. “Invest too early, and you’ll spend all of your time educating the customer. Invest too late, and you’ll be forced to play catch-up. In this case, our timing was just about right.”


Build a nimble organization

While amassing information before taking an initiative is important, the project needs to advance once it is ripe. Check your company’s foundation and feel confident it can handle change.

AirWatch’s infrastructure functions like a bumper car. When change occurs, employees absorb the shock, reposition and step on the gas.

“You can’t labor over decisions or shoot for perfection when you’re in a hurry; you need to get a product out the door,” Marshall says. “You can’t be afraid to make changes or give stuff away during the early phases of development. It’s a stressful and somewhat lonely time, but you have to push forward.”

AirWatch has a fairly flat organizational structure because Marshall believes that hierarchical decision-making begets fiefdoms and impairs speed-to-market.

“Ambiguity and management by committee won’t work when you need to move quickly,” Marshall says. “It’s better to fail fast and fail early.”

He filters and communicates competitor intelligence or feedback from AirWatch’s early adopters to the company’s core leadership team on a weekly basis.

“You can’t communicate everything to 1,500 people or everyone will head off in a thousand different directions,” he says. “I strategically share information with our core management team, and they pass it along. We use concentric circles to transmit critical information.”

Marshall’s finely honed communications strategy helps his team develop what he calls a tactical cadence to clients’ evolving needs. For instance, initially customers wanted a tool to manage mobile devices, but data security soon emerged as a top priority as companies created a plethora of mobile applications.

“We don’t waste a lot of time in meetings because we constantly communicate,” Marshall says. “Our product developers, marketers and other team members sit together on the floor. They collaborate, white board issues, make quick decisions and write new code. Eighty percent of our product changes are ad hoc.”

The company’s 400 developers utilize a rapid application development methodology and release product updates every two weeks. In fact, the entire company is built around the notion of two-week sprints that keep staffers from working too far ahead.

“We’re experts at executing course corrections; it’s woven into our DNA,” he says. “It may seem like organized chaos, but it’s a natural movement for us that works.”


Stay focused

It’s easy to veer off course when you inject 1,300 new employees into a dynamic work environment over a span of two to three years. But through trial and error, Marshall has developed a comprehensive plan to keep AirWatch workers aligned with the company’s vision.

“If you bring someone on too early, they won’t have enough to do, and they’ll end up working on things that aren’t strategic,” he says. “I’ve learned that you need to hire at the right time and clearly define roles and responsibilities to make sure everyone’s working on the right product at the right time.”

For example, Marshall says he met the perfect candidate to launch a European division, but AirWatch wasn’t ready to expand. Instead, he focused on building the North American market and refining the company’s solution suite while waiting three years to extend an offer.

“He would have failed if I hired him when we first met,” Marshall says. “I waited until the time was right and now we have 270 people working in our European division.”

Also, his recruiting team has improved its success rate for new hires by assessing a candidate’s ability to thrive in a fast-paced environment. Then, they quash ambiguity and foster line-of-sight from the outset by putting new hires through an intense two- to three-week training course.

Every AirWatch employee knows how daily activities align with the broader mission, Marshall says. In addition, employees have clearly defined roles and responsibilities, which is the secret to keeping people focused during periods of rapid change and growth.

“One of the things I borrowed from Steve Jobs was the concept of the ‘directly responsible individual’ or DRI, which is critical to managing growth,” Marshall says. “Under DRI there’s a point person responsible for solving every problem or driving every initiative to completion.”

Apple summons speed and accountability by inserting the name of the DRI next to every item on a to-do list, Marshall says. As a result, there’s rarely any confusion about who should be doing what.

Also, Marshall prevents scope creep, which can be the nemesis of tech firms that develop cutting edge products for rapidly evolving markets.

“Don’t let one customer get you off track,” Marshall says. “Learn to say no to requests for customized products or one-off solutions that deviate from your broader mission. You have to know what you want to be when you grow up; otherwise it’s easy to lose your way.”

Finally, he waited until the time was right to pursue strategic acquisitions. For instance, AirWatch acquired Motorola Solutions Mobility Services Platform last June, adding some 1,500 customers to the firm’s portfolio.

“You can’t integrate another firm or technology platform when your company or team isn’t mature; it’s a recipe for failure.” Marshall says. “We waited until we had 1,200 employees and a mature management team before consummating an acquisition. And we got there by being crisp, focused and developing one product at a time.”



  • Develop a great sense of timing.
  • Build a flexible organization.
  • Focus is the key to sustaining growth.


The Marshall File

Name: John Marshall
Title: President, CEO and co-founder
Company: AirWatch

Birthplace: Racine, Wis., and raised in Charlotte, N.C. 

Education: Bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I started cutting lawns when I was 9 or 10, grew the business, and had anywhere from five to 15 people working for me throughout high school and college. I learned that there’s no substitute for hard work, the importance of hiring the right people and why it’s critical to make course corrections, even as a small business. If you don’t hire reliable people, you’re not going to meet customer expectations, which is vital when you’re trying to build a business.

What’s the best business advice you ever received? One of my mentors told me that the grass is greener where you water it, which essentially means that any company can be successful. Now, you have to be aligned with a market that’s doing well and you have to execute, but if you do those things, every firm can succeed.

Who do you admire most in business and why? Steve Jobs because he was a pioneer in the mobility space and definitely understood the importance of market timing. He also built a flexible infrastructure that allowed him to capitalize on new ideas and changing product cycles.

Why is AirWatch based in Atlanta instead of Silicon Valley? Atlanta has a good economy and an ample talent pool. How can a small firm like AirWatch compete for talent against Facebook or Google? I would never start a tech firm in Silicon Valley.


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