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Lotus Alumni Are Impacting Search

jarboe-greg
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Over the weekend, I set out to find an extended metaphor to describe the impact of former Lotus employees on the search engine industry.

My odyssey was triggered by a comment from Jim Manzi, the former chairman, president and CEO of Lotus Development Corporation, who is currently a private investor in various technology start-up ventures.

At the Lotus 25th anniversary party, held Saturday night in Cambridge, MA, Manzi told an "alumni staff meeting" of more than 650 former Lotus employees – or "Loti" as we call ourselves – that we were like "stem cells."

His analogy does seem appropriate. An unusually high percentage of former Lotus employees possess two properties that a rigorous definition of a stem cell requires:

  1. Self-renewal – the ability to go through numerous cycles of cell division.
  2. Unlimited potency – the capacity to differentiate into any mature cell type.

Consider the following examples of Loti who have renewed themselves and gone on to play potent roles in the search engine industry:

  • Bill Gross – Bill and his brother Larry started GNP Development, which made a natural language product for Lotus 1-2-3 called HAL. In 1985, Lotus Development Corporation acquired GNP and Bill became a software entrepreneur at Lotus Development. In 1996, Bill founded the business incubator, Idealab, and serves as the company's chairman and CEO. One company founded by Bill, GoTo.com, was the first company to successfully provide an Internet search engine which relied upon sponsored search results and pay-per-click advertising. Goto.com was later renamed Overture Services and was then acquired by Yahoo to provide their Yahoo Search Marketing products.
  • Mitch Kapor – Mitch is the founder of Lotus Development Corporation and the designer of Lotus 1-2-3, the "killer application" often credited with making the personal computer ubiquitous in the business world in the 1980s. In 1990, with fellow digital rights activists John Perry Barlow and John Gilmore, Mitch co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He is also chair of the board of directors of Linden Lab, which created the popular virtual world Second Life. Mitch is also an investor in StumbleUpon, an alternative to using search engines that takes users to Web sites matching their personal interests and preferences.
  • Ray Ozzie – Ray helped develop 1-2-3 and a second product called Symphony. In 1984, he set up Iris Associates and began work on a program that became Lotus Notes. Even Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates was impressed and called Ozzie "one of the top five programmers in the universe." When Ray left Lotus to found another company, Groove Networks, he struck up a business alliance with Microsoft, which eventually acquired Groove. Today, Ray is Microsoft's chief software architect, a job Gates once held. Ray recently told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "We have a search team that is absolutely trying to be No. 1. They have got a ton of ideas."

There are many, many more examples, including Loti who have renewed themselves and gone on to play potent roles in marketing innovation as well as product innovation. To read their stories, check out the member spotlights at AXLE, the Association of eX-Lotus Employees.

But, would I compare these former Lotus employees to stem cells? The cycles of cell division and the capacity to differentiate doesn't begin to capture the hard, heroic and heartbreaking story of the Loti. As the director of corporate communications at Lotus from 1986 to 1988, I challenged myself to come up with a more appropriate analogy. I was also a speechwriter for Manzi during that era, and old habits die hard.

My incredibly talented, creative and dynamic colleagues at Lotus were not only innovators in software. They were also innovators in the workplace. Long before Google coined its "do no evil" mantra, Lotus created a set of workforce policies that helped set standards that other industries still try to meet.

In an article entitled, "How Lotus changed the business world," Hiawatha Bray of The Boston Globe observed last week, "the company provided day-care services to workers with children, and became one of the first major US firms to offer benefits to employees in same-sex relationships." Lotus also created a philanthropy program and provided funding for Eyes on the Prize, the award-winning television series on America's Civil Rights Movement.

Lotus also created a set of operating principles that also changed the business world. It is no accident that they were included in the 25th anniversary party program:

  • Commit to excellence
  • Treat people fairly; value diversity
  • Insist on integrity
  • Communicate openly, honestly and directly
  • Listen with an open mind; learn from everything
  • Take responsibility; lead by example
  • Respect, trust and encourage others
  • Encourage risk-taking and innovation
  • Establish purpose before action
  • Work as a team
  • Have fun

The Lotus operating principles helped turn a company that was founded in April 1982 with eight employees and $1 million in venture capital into the biggest independent software firm. They embodied a corporate culture and management style that helped turn employees into entrepreneurs and leaders into legends.

After the company's fall, these operating principles were among the few valuables that Loti could carry away as they wandered from Cambridge to other cities to found new companies with newer products in the newest industries.

To a poet, their story could be a modern version of the Aeneid, the Latin epic written by Virgil. It tells the legendary saga of Aeneas, who wandered to Carthage after the sack of Troy before going on to found Rome.

I think this extended metaphor comes a lot closer to describing the impact of former Lotus employees on the search engine industry. Manzi, who received his B.A. in Classics from Colgate University before getting his M.A. in International Relations from the Fletcher School, might even agree.

More importantly, it is a tale that those who now work at the Googleplex should hear. But, instead of being written in dactylic hexameter, it would be written in free verse. And instead of beginning, "Arma virumque cano," the modern translation would start, "Listen with an open mind."

Greg Jarboe is the president and co-founder of SEO-PR, a search engine optimization and public relations firm. He is also the news search, blog search and public relations correspondent for the Search Engine Watch Blog.

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