Taming Technology Businesses

The Financial Times has an article on Powerlase, a spin out from Imperial College London, and how CEO Tony King rescued it from the rudderless fate of many technology start ups. What struck me was how much of the article applies to most nanotech companies, both big and small, that I have worked within the past decade!

Tony Kings’ three-point plan is below and should be required reading.


The caricature of the university spin-out is of a business run by a mad scientist whose staff toil for years producing cutting-edge technology no one wants to buy.

Tony King, a career manager who has unleashed rapid sales growth at Powerlase, has a three-point plan for ensuring that commercial logic and technological drive work in sync at a spin-out.

Technology: “Never make the mistake of thinking the technology is sexy for its own sake,” Mr King says. “Technology is a way of getting close to customers.” Technologists have a habit of overspecifying products they are in love with. Mr King reduced the manufactured cost of Powerlase’s biggest laser by 40 per cent. It is now more reliable too, he says.

Customers: Beware of “mission creep” in the sales department. Staff can end up pursuing a tangle of sales leads because it is easier than focusing on a few big, scary prospects. Mr King’s advice is to “pick a few customers who can really make a difference to your company, and service the living daylights out of them”.

Organisation: Personal overstretch is a pitfall for bosses of fast-growing small businesses. Trying to supervise everything can create more problems than it irons out. Avoiding this means investing time in mentoring less experienced staff, who will then take part of the burden. At Powerlase, which has only 50 staff, Mr King set up an executive board to discuss decisions and divide responsibilities.

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