Tom Nies: Lessons from Venice

Thomas M. Nies, Founder and CEO, Cincom Systems Inc.

There is a scenic portrait of Venice directly across from my desk. The scenic beauty, the magic, the history that the picture portrays in the mind is inspirational but not in a way you might think.

This scene of Venice is not to remind me of an enjoyable vacation or as a dream of a place I want to visit. Instead, the scene is a constant reminder to not succumb to the follies to which this grand city fell prey years ago.

The rise

Between the ninth and 12th centuries, Venice was an invaluable and almost invulnerable naval and commercial power. It was a flourishing trade center between Western Europe and the rest of the known world at the time. 

By the late 13th century, Venice was quite simply the most prosperous city in Europe. 

It was easy for the city to rest on its laurels. The city leaders had been strategic throughout the rise of the city. They snatched up land surrounding waterways outside the series of islands to eliminate the threat of pirates. They also expanded the republic to create buffers against neighboring, unfriendly nations. These crucial expansions guaranteed trade routes and allowed traders safe passage to and from the city.

So what could go wrong?

In a word: everything.

The fall

The leaders of Venice believed themselves to be invincible. And the city veritably was for a time based solely on its premiere trade location. 

Then, Christopher Columbus sailed under the banner of Spain and discovered the New World. At the same time, other countries were exploring the surrounding lands and locating their own sea routes to Muslim nations which eliminated the Venetian monopoly as a gateway to India.

Furthermore, it was impossible for Venice to compete in the race to expand its empire through populating colonies due to its outdated naval ships. Venice hadn’t invested the time or funds into updating the oared boats that had allowed them to dominate the waters surrounding them during its rise to power.

Today, while still an admirable tourist destination, Venice has fallen from the grandeur and power with which it was once blessed.

The lesson

The history of Venice can prove a valuable lesson to any business that feels it is at the top of its game or holds the largest share of the market. One must never rest upon success for too long.

I realized this during my early career as a salesman at the very successful IBM. At the time, it was selling the computer hardware and including the software — which I believed to be the most valuable part of the transaction — for free. 

I felt so strongly about looking toward the future of this industry, of preventing the history of Venice to repeat itself, that I left the company to found Cincom.

Obviously, IBM avoided its Venice moment and is still a respected and flourishing company, but had I not followed my convictions, Cincom wouldn’t exist. The tens of thousands of people we have had the great joy to employ through the years would have had to look elsewhere.

That portrait across from my desk reminds me to:

Consistently take risks fueled by passion, belief and good sense. Never decide that you will never take any risks;  if you do so, you risk not doing something good or furthering your company’s customer base or legacy.

Invest in your people, yourself and your company. Imagine what could have been had Venice invested in its naval forces. It may have extended the reach of its empire for years, maybe even to present day.

Never rest on your laurels. Always strive to be doing something different, something better. If you sit back and watch, others will surely pass you or your business by.

Constantly re-evaluate your place in the market. Are your offerings the best they can be or ahead of your competition? Re-evaluation allows you to see where you can take more risks and invest in your people and company, and prevents you from resting on your laurels.

Outstanding products and companies can become outdated in a blink of an eye. Markets evolve. Survival and success demands you must too. You don’t want to be a “living museum” as some refer to Venice, so you must learn from the floating city to remain vibrant and successful in your field.

Thomas M. Nies is the founder and CEO of Cincom Systems, Inc. Since its founding in 1968, Cincom has matured into one of the largest international, independent software companies in the world. Cincom’s client base spans communications, financial services, education, government, manufacturing, retail, healthcare and insurance.