How Roger Byford has grown Vocollect from an idea into a $100 million business Featured

8:00pm EDT June 1, 2010

Roger Byford and his colleagues knew they were on the verge of incredible potential in the voice recognition industry. But as that potential set in, their employer, Westinghouse Electric Corp., was losing interest in the business.

Byford and two colleagues knew someone would see success with the product offering and thought: Why can’t it be us?

“We really didn’t want to be sitting around watching someone else succeed with that business,” Byford says. “So we decided the only thing to do was to do it ourselves.”

Vocollect Inc. was founded in 1987 and has grown north of $100 million in revenue and employs more than 400.

Byford, Vocollect’s co-founder, chairman and chief technology officer, will be a keynote speaker at Duquesne University Small Business Development Center’s 12th Annual Entrepreneur’s Growth Conference on June 10.

Smart Business spoke with him about how to take the first steps in growing a company.

What are the keys to growing a company?

If you go back to the very beginning, the first thing for an entrepreneur, if you will, is know where it is you want to go and why it is that you’re doing this crazy thing. Starting a company is a high-risk venture and understanding what it is that you think a company might look like in five or 10 years time, and what your role is, what your personal goals are, can really help to clarify the picture and make sure that you, initially, and everyone else, are moving in a consistent direction over time. That would be No. 1.

How do you clarify that vision for the future?

Your goal might be anything from somebody whose recently been laid off and is looking to start a consulting business that will keep enough cash coming in that will see them through until they find their next permanent job … through to somebody who wants to start the next Facebook or the next Google and is looking to be the CEO of a $1 trillion enterprise and has gone public and is flowing all over the world. Putting those parameters around it will first of all help tell you, assuming you have an idea for your business, does the idea for your business really line up with your personal goals. Again, I’ve seen on occasion when you quiz a person on that, those ideas really don’t line up. Time to go and have another think — is it your personal goals that should change or do you need to look for another business concept to help you meet those personal goals?

The most common disconnect, perhaps that I’ve seen, is an entrepreneur who wants to build a large enterprise but is very unwilling to think about things like raising money or giving part of the company to investors or actually having to manage significant business. If you have those inherent conflicts, then I think the business is going to get into trouble.

How do you know whether your idea is a good idea?

Only the marketplace is going to tell you that. You’re only going to learn when you get it out there and try it. You may get some pretty good filtering along the way. Certainly if you go and try to raise money, you’ll get people poking and prodding at your idea from every possible direction and kick holes in it before they give you money.

If you can sustain that, if you can raise venture capital, then your odds of success go way up. That’s the first hurdle.

Then the second hurdle has to be going out to real customers and persuading them to invest money by buying your product.

How do you position your product?

(You need) a clear understanding and a clear statement. Spend a fair amount of time thinking about the positioning of your product offering. Who are your target customers? Why is it that they would need or want your product? What is the compelling reason that they’re going to buy your product? How are you positioned against the competition?

There are a number of formats for expressing that position statement, but however one wants to do it, thinking that through really clearly and deciding, ‘OK of these people I’ve thought about, which ones will be the first handful of customers. Which ones will be my beachhead into the marketplace?’

Too often one hears a company that has two people and a dog and they’re going to conquer four different $1 billion markets. Well, maybe, but let’s think about where the first million is going to come from before we get to the $4 billion.

How do you determine which customers to go after?

In talking about a typical business-to-business sale presumably, one of the very early things is to understand how your customers are going to improve their business, how they’re going to get a return on investment by buying your product. What is it that your product is going to do for your customers that is going to generate a return on investment is I think the place to start.

That gives you the compelling reason to buy. Buy this product because it will pay for itself in six months and after that it will continue to generate additional profits for your business. Reducing that somehow to the bottom line is something you have to work through. In some cases, it may be much more obvious than others.

If you look at Vocollect’s products, going into a warehouse we can improve the productivity of the workers and we can improve their accuracy. You can fairly easily show how that generates a return on investment. If that return on investment isn’t clear and easy to calculate, you may have a problem because the customer may not be able to calculate it either when you’re trying to sell to them.

Then I think the important thing is to narrow yourself down to what Geoffrey Moore in his ‘Crossing the Chasm’ book called the beachhead. Using Vocollect as an example, in theory our product is good for any warehouse doing anything anywhere in the world. That’s a huge market to try to tackle as a start-up business. Where we succeeded very early on was by narrowing that down by saying we were going to pursue grocery companies in the U.S.

It’s figuring out what the first niche is and focusing there really, really helps.

How to reach: Vocollect Inc., (412) 829-8145 or www.vocollect.com

For more advice from Byford, read how he grows Vocollect by delegating power to employees. Also, hear him speak at the 12th Annual Entrepreneur’s Growth Conference on June 10.