How Customer-Driven Innovation Lets Attivio Solve Unsolvable Problems

Attivio was founded in 2007 by a team of technology experts with one goal: to unify access to information in a meaningful way for the biggest organizations on the planet. Five years later, their vision, strategy, and mission are remarkably similar to where they started. I was struck by this – in an age where companies tend to pivot two or three times before realizing success, how did Attivio stay so true to their original plan?

I sat down with Ali Riaz, CEO and founder of Attivio at their headquarters in Newton, MA to learn about his experiences. What I thought would be a discussion about how Attivio remained laser-focused on their market and adapted to changes in customer demand with speed and diligence, quickly turned into something much more interesting.

We ended up talking mostly about culture. From the earliest days, Ali put in place a very straightforward goal: make 100% of Attivio’s clients referenceable. He and his founding team proceeded to hire, execute, and reward in line with that goal.

My takeaways from our conversation were:

  1. Hire people that care about customer success
  2. Keep them focused on solving a difficult problem
  3. Engage customers early and innovate as partners
  4. Build collective patience that feeds off market success
  5. Learn all the time

It’s hard enough to build a compelling product that fills a need in the market. What I am starting to appreciate after my conversation with Ali is how powerful it is to build a company culture that does this as an organizational habit – where the “compelling product” is a natural output of the way you work with your customers.

What follows are portions of my interview with Ali structured around the lessons I learned during our conversation.

Ali Riaz, AttivioHire people that care

The founding team of Attivio was “tried and tested,” having worked together at companies like GetConnected and Fast Search & Transfer. So there was already a culture of trust and teamwork. But to extend that team, Ali sought a very specific type of employee.

“I hire people that care, that are enthusiastic,” says Ali. “People that feel like their best days are ahead of them.” There is no place for cynicism at Attivio. Continued Ali, “I used to be a buyer, and when I bought from someone who cared, I trusted them more, I relied on them more, I gave them more slack.”

“If you genuinely care about your customers’ success, and you are consistent about it, and you don’t let go of that… that is the spearhead into productivity. Clients feel that.”

Solve an unsolvable problem

The Attivio team engaged their market within 6-9 months of founding the company. And they were in with major players – Fortune 500 companies like GE, UBS, Motorola, Cisco, and more. They went to these companies and asked them, “What’s the biggest information problem you have that you can not solve?”

Ali describes one of their early projects, a company with “1100 SharePoint servers and no unified view – with all the cost and compliance problems that come with that. In two months, we created a unified layer with all the security considerations in place. Attivio did a proof-of-concept, and once that was successful, they purchased. After the delivery of the first product they made the platform a standard. Now they have fourteen applications, including an iPad App.”

The idea of solving a really hard problem was of critical importance to Attivio. Obviously, this is how you create value in a company. But beyond that, challenging the team to focus on unsolvable problems solidified a vision for the company, and built tremendous credibility among Attivio’s early customers and the market.

Customer-Driven Innovation

When you take employees that care about customer success, and set them loose on unsolvable problems, you get what Ali calls “customer-driven innovation.” He describes this as when you are “not just listening to your customers, but you are living with them, you are walking on the path with them.”

“These customers don’t lack money, they lack credible solutions,” explains Ali. So what Attivio has built is a way to continually validate its vision through demonstrable proof points. In Ali’s words, it’s a “risky, but very measured go-to-market.” Risky because you are working hand-in-hand with very large and very demanding customers on problems they can’t solve themselves. But measured because your people can ensure the best chances of success.

To me, this is the crux of how Attivio’s current vision is so close to its founding vision. The company worked in partnership with its customers to develop product. In doing so, they ensured that they would end up with a solution deemed valuable by their target customers.

Collective Patience

Now, of course none of this would be possible if, as Ali puts it, “somebody is telling you that you need to have a new strategy every six months.” If you change too many times, you end up exhausted.

Ali praises his team for having collective patience – an alignment of vision between investors, managers, and employees that lasts for the long-term. Ali explains, “We created a 45-page document when we first started the company. If you see that document, and you see the product right now, you will say ‘oh my goodness!’” Very few companies remain as true to their original intent as Attivio has.

But I think the term “collective patience” doesn’t do justice to what Attivio has accomplished. The company has actively fed that patience with evidence from the market in the form of customer wins, market validation, working proofs-of-concepts, and client-side champions. Attivio’s collective patience comes not from its belief in a five-year-old vision, but from the continued validation of that vision by a diligent and hard-working team of people.

Culture of Learning

It was apparent to me that Ali takes great pride in the culture of learning he and his management team have built at Attivio. Market strategy and corporate policy can look good on paper, but establishing the right culture comes directly from the top, and Ali pays it appropriate attention.

One of his primary rules is “Be tough on issues, but soft on people.” Ali tries to use every setback the company experiences as a chance to create a learning opportunity. “That means if something goes wrong we don’t spend energy saying, ‘Who’s fault was it?’ We spend all our energy saying, ‘Let’s fix it, let’s learn from this.’ The hardest thing that I’ve done here is to create a culture that will deliver that as a habit, but it is the most important asset we have built apart from our patents.”

“When we don’t get something quite right, we don’t punish the individuals. We go back to rule number one – be hard on the issue, soft on the people.” Ali continues, “We intended to do the right thing. So next time, what are we going to do differently? How do we respond, instead of react?”

It’s all about transparency. Employees are very smart. They understand if something is being held back, and then they start imagining stories and conspiracies. Once a month I get in front of everybody and tell them the whole truth: this is what we did, this is what we’re doing, this is what’s working, that’s what’s not working.”

What can other companies learn from Attivio?

Today it is fashionable to pivot – to fail fast. But what if that isn’t always necessary? What if it simply takes time to do put big ideas into practice?

Attivio demonstrates an amazing attribute of market validation. If done properly, it can actually prevent you from pivoting by providing your team with collective patience, based on evidence from the market.

If you want to see your vision succeed the way Attivio’s has, get out of the building, engage your market, and build a customer-focused organization that can respond to it intelligently.