In an age of technology, when fledgling entrepreneurs frequently launch businesses while they’re still in school, Haivision Network Video founder Miroslav (Mirko) Wicha is a late bloomer.
After graduating in computer science and mathematics from Nova Scotia’s Acadia University in 1982, the company’s president, CEO and chairman initially spent 28 years working mostly in sales and management for high-tech companies such as Alias Research Inc., Silicon Graphics International Corp., and Hewlett-Packard Development Co., before becoming an entrepreneur. He partnered in a failed dot-com startup two months before the bubble bust in early 2001, but Haivision is the first company he’s built from the ground up.
After acquiring the necessary technology, Mr. Wicha, 52, came out of retirement in 2004, to found Haivision Systems Inc., now called Haivision Network Video after merging with Video Furnace in 2009.
Based in Montreal and Chicago, Haivision provides organizations worldwide with end-to-end solutions for HD video streaming, recording, management and video delivery, on premise, over the Internet and in the cloud. The private company, which has grown to 200 employees from 13, focuses on military and government, education, medical, enterprise, and the sports and entertainment markets. Haivision has been profitable since 2008, with nearly all of its approximately $50-million in annual revenue coming from businesses outside Canada.
Mr. Wicha fled Czechoslovakia with his family to Egypt in 1968, just before the Russian invasion. They immigrated to Canada one year later when Mr. Wicha was eight, first arriving in Toronto and then settling in Halifax, where he grew up.
Why did you pick computers back when the field was relatively unknown?
I knew I wanted to study computer science from the age of 10. I didn’t know what it was, but it sounded cool. Acadia had an amazing computer science program and from there I went to work as a programmer in Switzerland for a year. I speak pretty okay German, Slovak and Czech, English and a little French.
So how did you end up in sales and management for much of your career?
When I came back to Halifax in 1982, I got a job working for a U.S. defence contractor as a systems analyst. While I was waiting 30 days for security clearance, a friend of mine introduced me to Hewlett-Packard, which was pretty small back then. They convinced me to go into technology sales and it was the best decision I ever made.
I loved the technology aspect – I didn’t want to lose that – but I love working with people. I’m an extrovert. That job combined both and let me be with people to share ideas and solve problems. I became their guy for Atlantic Canada handling the technical computers and working with all the research institutions, military defence and research establishments. Halifax has much of that. I sold a lot of technology to these cool scientists and researchers, which I loved doing. And I did very well.
After I was transferred to Ottawa, I was headhunted to join a startup. So I went from working for a global company to a startup in 1987. The company was Silicon Graphics, one of Canada’s most successful companies, and I got to come in at the beginning. I handled all of Atlantic Canada and the federal government.
What was it like going from a big company to a startup?
Tough. In those days, I was working on my own from my house in the basement trying to figure out what to sell, with products that were just new and still being developed. It was a huge change from having all kinds of accounts and an office of 300. That really opened my eyes to starting to think like an entrepreneur.
The first year was very tough because you’re second guessing yourself about whether you did the right thing. I already had a young family to feed and our new daughter had just been born, so there was a lot of stress. But I learned a lot about relying on myself. We had a good team but I had to run my own show.
Did that help you develop as a leader?
Totally. I was with my clients and potential customers but was also part of the team with the other core guys who were building a Canadian presence. When I started, there was only $86-million in revenue globally. When we finished five years later, there was more than $1-billion, so we did a massive ramp. By the time I left Silicon Graphics, I had about 12 people in Ottawa.
Then I worked on a turnaround of Alias Research in Toronto, a computer animation company. My job was to be parachuted into Germany and run sales for all of Europe and East Africa. So I moved to Munich in 1993, leaving my family in Ottawa and commuting. It was a challenge. We had four offices – in Munich, Milan, Paris and London – with about 20 people. I needed to go there, clean it up and make it profitable because it was losing money at that time. After a year, I moved my whole family to Munich. Then another daughter popped up while we were in Germany. Every time I moved, we had a new kid.
Two years later, we sold the company to my former employer Silicon Graphics for a lot of money. They bought another company and put the two together. I stayed on, moving to Brussels to create a European operation for the combined company. By then, I was running a pretty big team. If you’re managing a global company, Europe is the best place because on the same day, you can reach every time zone, from morning to night. Which means you’re working 24/7.
Wasn’t that hard on your young family?
It was very difficult. And of course I had a son born in Brussels.
What’s key to do in a turnaround?
Culture and culture fit are No. 1. If a person isn’t going to fit into the culture you’re trying to build, it’s not going to work, so you’ve got to find that out pretty quickly. Don’t waste time. Get rid of people who don’t fit because it’s only going to create problems for you and for the people who do fit. So build the right team, get the right culture, then move on.
What about for mergers or acquisitions?
Same thing. Make your cuts deep and fast. Don’t do it in two or three steps. Go a little further than you planned because it’s better for everybody who’s left. Keep the ones you think are the best.
What’s the culture at Haivision?
My strategy is that you cannot have an ego and that you must treat everybody equally. Our culture is a family. It doesn’t matter if you’re the CEO or the receptionist – every person is treated the same. What you need to do is pick people for your key positions who exhibit the exact same mentality.
I’m the chief culture officer. I was very lucky to have worked with some of the best teams in the high-tech era, with people such as Jim Clark, who co-founded Silicon Graphics and Netscape. I’ve learned what it is to have a good culture in the workplace. When you know great people, you can really spot bad people. Don’t waste time on bad people.
How do you hire?
Usually, it’s from references. I’ve been totally hands on with the hiring, but recently I’ve stopped interviewing every employee. I just can’t. But I trust. My executive team know and live the same culture. I’ll see the new hires for five minutes just to get the flavour. Bad hires costs the company a lot of money.
How do you keep the culture alive?
That’s my biggest challenge. We’ve had very low turnover, which is great. My job is to make sure I spend time with our people. I have my team and lunch meetings, going through every group. Plus we have five R&D offices: in Montreal, Chicago, Beaverton (just outside Portland), Hamburg, and Austin, Tex.
Why is your R&D so spread out?
We’re actually acquiring American companies, which is a nice little shift. One benefit is that we pick up great technology. The Chicago office was the first acquisition in 2009. We’ve actually grown all those offices and one of my great challenges is to make sure the culture fits.
What was the mind shift for you in becoming an entrepreneur?
That I was responsible for the payroll for everybody and that there was no one else to go to. It stops here and that’s stressful. It doesn’t matter how big a company you work for, you’re not responsible at the end of the day. But when it’s your own, if you don’t make the sales and can’t pay the bills, what do you do? It doesn’t actually hit you until you’re doing it.
What was toughest in the early years?
I had already been kind of retired for three years when I picked up this interesting technology and founded Haivision. So my biggest challenge was to go from this retirement mentality back to 24/7 like I used to be. So I hired a partner to run the day-to-day business. Big mistake ... I had to fire him. The good news is that actually forced me to get back into the business day-to-day very quickly.
So no more partners?
I have investment partners but no business partner. I’m CEO and I’ve got my killer executives. Most of my employees have stock options. We only stopped giving stock options two years ago.
Was money an issue for Haivision after your dot-com crash?
In the early days I raised money from friends and family to bootstrap the company and brought in one private investor who’s still there. I also put in my own money and borrowed some from the bank. But you always need more money than you think you need. When I had to raise more, I brought in money from a couple of institutions in 2007. We’ve been profitable ever since. That’s very compelling because we’ve been funding the company with our own profits. Most companies need venture capital or private equity money. So we’ve kind of bucked the trend, under the radar, very quietly.
A lot of your growth has been outside of Canada.
All of it. The biggest market we have is the U.S. About 75 per cent is from the U.S. and the other 22 per cent to 25 per cent is split between Asia and Europe. The big growth area for us was four and a half years ago when we cracked the U.S. military, which was huge for us. We were just in the right place at the right time with the right technology. We were fortunate.
Did that give you instant cred with other U.S. government agencies?
It definitely helped. At that point back in 2008, we had zero business with the U.S. federal. Now we have 12 people in Washington. We’re into every branch of the military but also in every branch of the federal government, including health. A big part of our business is in medical and higher education. We’re very diversified with four key components: enterprise, education, medical and federal. That balances the company. Sometimes some markets are low, some are high. But everything we do has to fit into those core markets.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs starting out?
Do what you love to do. Then find yourself a mentor.
Who was your most influential mentor?
Robert Burgess, who co-founded Silicon Graphics Canada and became president of Alias Research. He hired me twice.
What was the biggest lesson you learned?
To have the freedom to make mistakes.
What mistake have you really learned from?
I’d say trusting someone too much. But what I tell my kids is that I’d rather they be trusting than non-trusting.
Due diligence is something Canadian companies don’t do enough. Do due diligence on who you hire and on any companies you buy.
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