Talking to Software CEO Who Only Succeeded by Failing a Few Times

Adriaan van Wyk is the CEO of K2, a software vendor that creates and helps run business applications, including forms, workflow/business process management (BPM), data, and reports. van Wyk and his co-founders have grown K2 from a small South African start-up into a global company whose software is used by millions of people and more than a dozen Fortune 100 companies.  

K2 today is a successful global software company that helps companies such as Pepsi-Cola Trading Company, Del Monte, and Kimberly-Clark build business applications without the need for heavy IT involvement. But van Wyk started K2 by failing—more than once. Having started the company in South Africa with his two best college friends, the first version of the software did not sell to a single person, while the second made one sale only. But, van Wyk believed in his idea, so he didn’t give up. With the third version, he realized that he needed to build a larger strategic vision for his customers that offered them more than a software package, i.e., an entire partner ecosystem as well.
Success grew quickly with Intel and Merrill Lynch as early customers in Asia and the U.S., and once van Wyk was able to explain the value of K2 in a way that made his customers realize they couldn’t live without it, the company’s dynamic shifted. The company expanded into the tech heavyweight it is today, and the rest is history. K2 is now a global software company whose technology is used by millions, including 15 of the Fortune 100. It seems his employees have bought in to the vision as well—more than 30 percent of his employees have been at the company for more than 10 years.
Recently, we had a candid conversation with van Wyk and asked him several questions about his and K2’s journey.
TEC: What is your leadership style and how does it contribute to your company’s success?
AvW: I lead by empowering my employees. As a manager it is my responsibility to harness the unique skills of my team and guide them in the overall direction that meets the vision of the company. We dream big at K2. We dream first and then we ask how we meet this vision as a small company. I think it’s important to inspire passion for the mission in your employees and to empower them to add their own capabilities and strengths into the mix. Each employee has an individual flavor to add to the business, and has an obligation to push the company into places we may feel uncomfortable. It is my job as a manager to allow them to do that, and accept these contributions and leverage them for the betterment of K2.
TEC: Can you provide more color on a time(s) when you failed and what it meant for your overall career?
AvW: Back in 2004, we were releasing a new version of our software. Under pressure, I allowed the company to do too much too fast, and ultimately released the update too early. This was a horrible experience for our customers and partners. This decision also lead to extreme problems for my staff, and in reality, it almost bankrupted the company. But every failure has its silver lining. From this challenge I learned how to manage people differently, and what it meant to build successful software that is useful for our clients, and I learned how to run a company with practically no money in the bank. This failure taught us how to serve our clients and has driven us toward our success.
TEC: What public figures inspire you and why?
AvW: Pete Carroll, head coach of the Seattle Seahawks. He talks about how and why coaches should move away from being prescriptive, and take steps to understand how to empower their players to be the best on the field, and allow them to play their own game. This is a fundamental underpinning of how the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, and a discipline I try to instill in my own company. It is amazing how much you can learn from an industry that’s completely unrelated.
TEC: Do you have any mentors? If so, what is the best piece of advice he or she has ever given you?
AvW: My father. My dad taught me to dream big and go for it. When I was very young he gave me a quote from Theodore Roosevelt which read, “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” It has been hanging above my desk ever since.
It is a reminder and an inspiration for me to dare to aim high, and to be immune to failure on the way towards success. It is the most impactful gift anyone has ever given me.
TEC: What advice would you give to brand new and upcoming entrepreneurs and startups?
AvW: Keep it real. Build the business you want to build and call it what you want to call it. It is not about how you package it. It is initially about mining that core of your company. Do not box it up too early and stifle the creativity. I tell people not to hire a VP of Marketing too soon.  If your company becomes successful enough, there will be a time that marketing starts to make sense. Pursue it then. As I said, keep it real and hire brilliant people who share your vision.
TEC: Why do you believe your current venture, K2, has been successful?
AvW: I have hired passionate people to work with me at K2. I strive to create a culture where my employees feel they can reach their full potential. I empower them to express ideas, encourage individual interests, and embolden them to act and pursue ideas immediately. This inspires energy amongst my employees.
TEC: Why do you believe K2 will remain successful in spite of the fierce competition by powerhouses like IBM, Oracle, TIBCO, Pegasystems, Software AG, Appian, etc.?
AvW: Here at K2 we are small, but that allows us to be agile. We live for our customers. Many of these big corporations live for financial analysts and bottom lines. We wake up in the morning and think how can we best serve our customers today; how can we innovate for them and learn from them? We are in a favorable position because we’re small; and it’s a culture you can embed deeply (i.e., in a smaller company it’s easier to get everyone’s buy-in). We’re agile, we’re fast, and we’re passionate about customer success.
TEC: Where do you think the BPM market is headed in the future? Certainly, case management/customer experience have been one direction for some time (including co-browsing, social, and predictive analytics) capabilities, can you think of other scenarios?
AvW: To be honest, I don’t think about where the BPM market is going, but rather what we’ve learned from it. I think there are certainly disciplines that are good to learn from in that space and I think it’s important to mix it with our own unique take on building business apps that let people run their company their way.
Van Wyk, who currently lives with his family in Seattle, Washington, offers the following two main philosophies on leadership as his parting comment:
  1. Find good allies that will go to battle with you. As they say, great employees build great companies. There must be no place for anyone to hide in your company. It is all about outcomes and the added value the employees deliver to customers. Everyone should buy into the vision. And, picking the people you work with should be based on that mantra.
  2. Focus on your customer success, but also on partner success. If you build an ecosystem, you have to focus on partner success also. If you just do those two things, the rest of it creates the natural momentum to drive success.
Coincidence or not, competitor Pegasystems and its founder and CEO Alan Trefler have failed three times (once almost fatally), but they seem to have hit the jackpot in the fourth attempt. Van Wyk does not see similarities with his trajectory, as he believes that K2’s business approach has been fundamentally different, but the coincidence is nonetheless striking. 
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