The ESRI International User Conference takes place next week, and it marks the 40th anniversary of the company that Jack built. Much has happened in the evolution of GIS in that span of time, and many companies have come and gone that have tried to commercialize the technology. At this milestone, it seems fitting to take a look at some of the elements that have made ESRI so successful, for there’s a lesson here not only for the geospatial community, but for businesses of all types and sizes.
On a Mission
ESRI is a tireless promoter of the power of geospatial technology. The foundation of the company is built on the belief that GIS can make the world a better place. The goal of the widespread use of GIS takes on an evangelical tone of crusading enthusiasm, with an ever-expanding army of those that “get it” and spread the word to others. The company has successfully championed the power and promise of the technology throughout the globe and across different scales of government, various markets, and scientific disciplines. The mission not only focuses on the power of individual systems for individual organizations, it promotes the broad benefits of interconnected systems for an approach that’s been described as the nervous system of our planet.
There’s no better place to see the customer focus of the organization than at the annual user conference. Here, the company shows off the latest round of technology improvements with a “we are listening” vibe. There’s a strong focus on compiling and addressing customer requests, and the roll-out of new features are often met with enthusiastic cheers from the assembled crowd.
Rather than simply promote the power of their own technology, the company promotes the success of customers. Individual organizations are awarded and touted for their success with the technology. Individual users are given a chance to show their expertise and artistry, and are given acknowledgment for their achievements and encouraged to learn and do more.
The corporate culture at ESRI empowers individuals to pursue their life’s work. There’s a strong collaborative focus, and a unique corporate culture that has fostered long-term commitments from many talented individuals. The company provides a place to pursue technical excellence, while solving the problems of specific disciplines. The significant funding for research and development fosters the development of computer scientists, while also fostering a cadre of teams that are focused on the needs of specific disciplines.
The company’s social mission permeates the Redlands campus, from the beautifully landscaped grounds, to the recycle and compost-friendly cafeteria, to the new LEED certified building with the solar panels on the roof. The focus is a life in harmony with nature. This approach ties into the corporate mission, and reinforces the company’s commitment to its core values.
While ESRI is a fiercely competitive organization, they’ve also built a legion of partner companies for mutually beneficial arrangements. Partners include custom application developers, software and data consultants and resellers. The network of businesses that align themselves with ESRI technology extend the reach of the company into new markets and geographies, allowing the company to grow at a measured pace.
More recently, ESRI has encouraged individual software developers to build custom applications upon their GIS platform. The growth of the ESRI Developer Network has been significant over the past few years, as ESRI has made their underlying software architecture more open for customization through a series of APIs. This approach helps enhance the company’s presence on the Web, where the competition for market share and mind share is the greatest.
The company understands the importance of communication, outreach and education. The marketing power of ESRI supports many different publications, websites and conferences, and they also have their own publications and conferences that have eclipsed the audience of any association or media company. The continued effort to drive their products, thought leadership and educational message through multiple media is impressive, particularly for the ongoing excellence of each of their own media endeavors.
While the ultimate goal is to sell their own products, the bulk of their marketing effort continues to focus on the overall benefits of geospatial technology. ESRI Press is a good example of internal marketing communication excellence. What started as an effort to educate the public about their own technology has morphed into a premier source for books on the application of the technology. The roll-out of new book titles continues at a pace that is unmatched by any other publishing house, and the focus of these titles strive to expand the reach and awareness of the technology.
This dual mission of marketing products while promoting the entire geospatial industry has served the company well. Whenever someone new learns about GIS, there’s an overwhelming probability that they immediately associate the technology with this one company.
The fact that ESRI has remained a private organization is certainly central to their success. Remaining private has allowed ESRI to put a great deal back into the organization without the need to focus on individual shareholder value. The company runs a tight financial ship that is without debt, but they also put an amazing amount of resources into R&D and public outreach that wouldn’t work at a publicly traded company where the focus demands a more short-sighted quarterly performance.
Clearly, the focus of the company looks past profit and individual gains toward the greater good. Greed is not a motivator for the company’s founder nor the employees. The empty payout of a flashy car, huge mansion and large yacht are not what drives the company, and therefore the emphasis is placed on true value of what the technology brings to their customers and the world.
At the heart of ESRI’s success is the tireless drive and focus of one man who has built a global organization with thousands of employees. What started as a passion for the environment, morphed into a wonder and pursuit of the power of technology to organize our knowledge, became a consulting practice to share his own expertise, and then exploded when he created a technology platform that allowed organizations to organize their own information. Throughout, the belief that technology can help to solve the Earth’s problems has been an unwavering passion.
Whenever you sit down with Jack, the first question that you’ll hear is a very earnest, “What can I do for you?” The desire is evident that he wants to make a personal connection to assist individuals and organizations while advancing the spread of technology, and this is true whether the individual is head of a company or whether they’re a student just starting on their path with GIS.
This passion for technology and interpersonal connections is enhanced by a gift for communication, whether it’s a speech or a paper. Jack continues to be the lead evangelist for an entire industry, with an unwavering focus on the ultimate vision of what GIS can become. Congratulations on 40 years!