April 23, 2021

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The Hyland way: 8 principles that enable success

How Hyland successfully graduated from the start-up phase to a sustainable business and industry leader.

Photo of Bill Priemer

Bill Priemer

President and chief executive officer of Hyland

Visualization of Hyland's vision, work and mindset

In April, Hyland CEO and President Bill Priemer was the keynote speaker at the University of Akron’s Goodyear Executive Leadership Forum. The annual event offers the university’s students, faculty and friends a unique opportunity to network and hear from successful business leaders.

Priemer presented “The Hyland way: Principles that enabled the survival and success of a remarkable company.” His keynote, lightly edited for context, is below. To watch the virtual presentation, please click here.

I was flattered to be asked to speak today and have been looking forward to this. I’m going to talk to you about eight principles that enabled my company, Hyland, to successfully graduate from the startup phase to a sustainable business and industry leader. I’m also going to show you how they became embedded in our culture and in the way we approach business, and have continued to propel us through many phases of growth over the course of 30 years.

Hopefully, you’ll find some nuggets that will be helpful for your own careers and organizations.

Before I get to that, I’d like to share how I got to Hyland. I was born and raised in Northeast Ohio. I went to St. Ignatius for high school, then to Boston College, where I met my wife, Lisa, and double-majored in English and Poli-Sci. My first job out of college, in 1989, was as a salesperson for a personal computer company. I was based in Chicago and was outfitting companies with their very first desktop PCs.

At that job, I became intrigued with how startup computer companies like Dell and Gateway were bypassing dealers and selling directly to companies and consumers, so I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in integrated marketing communications at Northwestern University, where I specialized in direct marketing. That led me to an internship at Microsoft in Seattle during the launch of Windows 95. Although I enjoyed the work, I decided to join some grad school classmates at FedEx in Memphis, Tennessee.

My job at FedEx was leading the launch of new service lines, and my major project was launching intra-Europe service. That experience illustrated for me the amazing power of teamwork in an organizational setting.

Hyland calling

In 1997, I was enjoying my work with FedEx and living in Memphis (Graceland, blues and bbq!) when my childhood friend, Packy Hyland, called me to see if I was interested in running marketing for the small software company he had started in Cleveland a few years earlier.

I think the biggest attraction for me was that after working for three large companies, I was excited by the idea of working somewhere where I could really matter and help shape its direction.

A couple years after joining Hyland, I took over responsibility for sales in addition to marketing. A few years after that, I became chief operating officer, and eight years ago became our third CEO, when Packy’s brother A.J. retired at the ripe old age of 41.

When I joined Hyland, the company was six years old, had 30-some employees, was on pace to do about three-and-a-half million in revenue and would hopefully break even. We were funded by friends and family, but had never taken on venture capital, so we didn’t have the early-stage funding that most startups need to invest in R&D and sales and marketing to start generating momentum. Nonetheless, we found a way to steadily grow and, in 2007, took on a private equity investor, who we are still with after 14 years, which is certainly an atypical duration.

We’ve continued to grow organically and through strategic acquisitions. We now have 4,000 employees and will surpass a billion dollars in revenue in 2021. We’re also a global market leader in the category of software called content services.

Our software helps organizations manage their documents and streamline mission-critical processes related to those documents. We support customers all over the world — hospitals, banks, insurers, government agencies, universities — and we are privileged to work with many great local organizations, including the University of Akron, Wayne Homes, LeafFilter and dozens of other Akron-area companies and institutions.

The principles I’ll share with you today have been essential to Hyland’s survival and success. We didn’t invent them. They’ve all been advocated in various forms by authors, professors and business leaders.

We didn’t even really identify these principles until several years of using them, realizing they had become healthy habits. Several were reflections of the personality and natural instincts of our founder, Packy Hyland. As you’ll see, these principles are easy to say, but in my experience often difficult to consistently practice. They fall into three categories, guiding how we establish the vision for what we’re going to do, how we actually do the work and the mindset with which we approach our work.

So let’s get to it!

Principle No. 1: Pursue the ideal solution

The first principle is to pursue the ideal solution. A better solution to a widely experienced, pressing need is at the core every remarkable business, and it’s certainly the foundation of our vision at Hyland.

Packy Hyland began this pursuit in 1991, while doing some computer networking consulting for a single-branch bank in the tiny town of Necedah, Wisconsin. The bank was looking for software that could store digital versions of the customer statements it was currently printing and keeping on paper.

Packy thought the available software was too expensive and difficult to use, so he decided to develop a software program himself. He didn’t have much programming experience, but he was a fast learner and created a solution that the bank purchased, used, liked and started to tell other banks about.

So Packy found himself in business, having started with that pursuit of an ideal solution.

At Hyland, we’ve been pursuing ideal solutions ever since, constantly asking what more our software can do to help our customers be more efficient, effective and agile. Two quick examples include recently introducing a solution for our higher education customers that uses blockchain technology to generate instantly verifiable digital diplomas and transcripts, and launching a solution for our financial services customers that uses robotic process automation to automate the look-up of credit scores.

Our focus on innovation has allowed us to retain current customers for decades as they’ve upgraded to new and better versions, it’s kept us appealing to new customers looking for the latest and greatest and it’s broadened our addressable market as we’ve created solutions for additional industry sectors.

Principle No. 2: Build your dream team  

The next principle that has been a key part of our vision from the very beginning: Build your dream team.

1992 was the first time the U.S. allowed NBA players to play in the Olympics. “The Dream Team” featured Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird — the best players they could find.

That same year, Packy Hyland sought to do the same thing for his startup company — he envisioned a dream team of his own. The first person he hired was his brother Chris, who had just graduated from Ohio Wesleyan with a degree in finance. Next, they hired their friend Noreen Kilbane, who graduated with a degree in accounting from Baldwin-Wallace.

Hiring them was important, as Packy was focused on developing software and interfacing with customers, so he needed people he could trust to run the company’s operational and administrative functions.

Then, Packy hired Miguel Zubizarreta, a very talented software developer. Packy wanted his software to be able to archive and manage digital checks, signature cards and loan files, in addition to statements. Miguel thought the best way to do that would be to utilize a relational database instead of the flat file databases that were popular at the time. He also decided to use the newly released Windows operating system and the new Graphical User Interface that it supported.

Miguel would be Hyland’s chief technology officer for the next 25 years. Chris Hyland was the company’s chief financial officer until just last year, and Noreen Kilbane is Hyland’s current chief administrative officer, overseeing our global HR, IT, legal and real-estate functions.

It’s people who make every remarkable company work, and at Hyland, we’ve been very intentional and proactive about attracting and retaining our dream team. A big part of that is our relationships with local institutions like the University of Akron that have outstanding computer science and business programs. And students who like the idea of staying here in Northeast Ohio! We also have a robust internship program that results in job offers to about 80 percent of our interns.

Several years ago, we decided to try to do more to encourage area high schoolers to enroll in these college programs and pursue careers in tech. So today, we run all sorts of tech camps and hackathons for high schoolers and middle schoolers, including programs for just girls and programs that are more convenient for inner-city students. As a result of our tech outreach programs and our strong employer brand locally and in our industry, we don’t have a problem filling open roles and continuing to build out our dream team.

Principle No. 3: Have bold aspirations

The next principle is to have bold aspirations. This is the principle that really helps your vision take flight.

For this one, Packy got some inspiration from his favorite book — “Rhino Success” by Scott Alexander. It’s still on my bookshelf.

It’s a fun book, and you can read it in less than an hour. It’s about being audacious, bold and daring and charging through obstacles that get in your way. I’ve seen a rhinoceros in the wild. They are breathtaking. I keep a rhino that Packy gave me as an inspiration, and you can still find rhinos scattered throughout our offices.

Soon after he started the business, Packy’s goal was to be the world’s leading document management software company. He had no good reason to believe that that aspiration would become a reality, but he had everyone in our company believing that it was our destiny and furiously working toward achieving it. It infused us with energy and excitement for the future and made us feel that we were part of creating something special.

We became obsessed, and still are, with outdoing the competition and finding new avenues for growth.

An example of that is our decision a couple years ago to compete for a broader segment of the content services market by expanding our healthcare offerings to include medical imaging solutions, delivering better ways for clinicians to access X-rays, MRIs, CT scans and ultrasounds. That meant taking on the big PACs vendors. But we were ready.

We are a billion-dollar company today, but we still have bold aspirations. The global content services market is still very fragmented and is projected to grow to $15B by 2024, and there’s no reason why we can’t capture a majority market share.

So, those first few principles describe how we go about establishing our vision. This next set of principles describes how we go about doing the work that we’ve set out to do. And the first of those principles is the elegantly worded “stuff leads to stuff.”

Principle No. 4: Stuff leads to stuff

This is one we learned along the way, and it’s been proven time and time again.

In 1995, we had a couple of salespeople and were having moderate success selling our software to small banks and credit unions. An independent sales rep who had been selling a competitive product for years called and said he thought our product was better and would like to start selling it instead.

We weren’t planning to establish a dealer network, but we decided to give it a try. That dealer not only turned out to be an incredibly successful seller of our product, but he caught the attention of the largest provider of core banking software in the U.S., which decided that a private-label version of our product would be a great upsell opportunity for their thousands of existing customers. That relationship enabled us to finally become profitable and provided us the financial resources to expand into markets beyond banking.

In business, new opportunities present themselves all the time and you need to constantly evaluate them. Some are exactly what you’ve been looking for, some clearly don’t make sense to pursue and many will be intriguing but uncertain.

With that last category, you need to recognize that if you decide not to move forward, nothing further will happen. It’s the end of the line. But if you decide to give it a try, that venture might succeed, or it might lead you to the next opportunity that will succeed. Or you might learn something or meet someone who will be key to a successful venture in the future.

Pursuing originally uncertain opportunities led Hyland to venture into the healthcare market, which is now the largest segment of our business. It led to a relationship with our largest U.S. reseller. And it led us to establishing our business in Singapore and Japan.

Stuff leads to stuff, so even when we’re not sure that an opportunity is going to work out, we lean toward trying.

Principle No. 5: Execute with urgency

The next principle that applies to the way we work is to execute with urgency.

Now, I just finished saying that you need to be willing to pursue new opportunities even if they’re uncertain. But it’s also vital to devote the necessary time, energy and resources to the opportunities you do choose to pursue.

At Hyland, we are big believers in a notion called “Limiting WIP” or “Limiting Work-In-Process,” which is a core concept in agile software development but applies more broadly, too. Studies are clear, and I think you would agree, that if you have 15 tasks to do, you’ll accomplish them all much faster and with a higher level of quality if you focus on completing one or two at a time before moving on to the next, instead of trying to work on all 15 simultaneously.

Directing your attention on just a few tasks enables you to focus and concentrate. Whereas with multitasking, you waste time switching tasks and recalling where you left off.

The fewer things you’re working on at one time, the faster you’ll make progress. And in business, it’s imperative to move as fast as possible. In the early days of Hyland, we had to work with a sense of urgency because a) we needed to make payroll, which was not always a sure thing, and b) in an effort to make payroll, we would often make aggressive commitments in order to win business, and we’d have to work extremely hard — like 80 hours per week hard — to meet those commitments.

Today, we work with a sense of urgency because technology is advancing quickly, because the competition is fierce and perhaps most of all, because our customers are trying to digitally transform their businesses as quickly as they can.

At Hyland, executing with urgency starts with communication and transparency, making sure everyone understands our overarching goals and key strategies for reaching those goals. Then it means prioritizing in our business plans which projects we will undertake in what order, so that we can align our work across functions and teams.

Once priorities are aligned, we get to work. And because we’re only working on a few things at one time, we don’t have to schedule the next update meeting for two weeks from now. We can schedule it for two days from now, because if it’s the main thing we’re doing, it’s not unreasonable to make material progress in 48 hours.

We made our second-largest acquisition ever last fall, and within 60 days had fully integrated the company and consolidated our systems. That’s executing with urgency.

Principle No. 6: Failure is not an option

The next principle that governs the way we work is “failure is not an option.”

When we make a commitment to a customer, we do everything we possibly can to honor that commitment, no matter how long it takes or how much it costs. This is definitely a principle that’s easy to say, but requires some real fortitude to stand by when the going gets tough.

In 1997, soon after I joined Hyland, we were working with a community bank in Raleigh, North Carolina, to scan and archive mortgage loan files. The bank asked if there was a way to automatically send the digital mortgage packages to their post-closing department once they were completed. So, our pursuit of the ideal solution led us to create our workflow product, and the bank agreed to be our first customer.

But, as a brand-new product, it wasn’t working very well, or really at all. So Packy got in his car and drove to Raleigh and said he wasn’t going to return until the solution was working. He thought he’d be there two weeks, and he ended up staying for three months. His wife was not happy with him, but we ended up with a satisfied customer and a great product.

There have been many situations since where, despite our best efforts, even while meeting the contracted requirements, a solution nonetheless falls short of what the customer really needs and expects. We could insist that the customer pay us for additional work, or could decide that the project is just too complex and terminate the engagement.

But when failure isn’t an option, the only decision is to persevere and deliver a solution that works. And while that can be tough on a stressed-out project team and tough on the P&L, it’s the better long-term decision. Those customers become champions, and we cement areputation for always delivering on our commitments, which is kind of unusual in the world of enterprise software.

Principle No. 7: Have some swagger 

So, I’ve shared how we go about establishing the vision and doing the work. This last principle applies to the mindset with which we approach our work. And that is to have some swagger.

If you are objectively very good at what you do, and if your offering provides benefits that your competitors can’t match, then you are doing yourself and your potential customers a disservice if you do not clearly and confidently articulate that. This is something that California-based companies seem to readily do, but it’s not necessarily a natural inclination for those of us in the Midwest.

In 1998, after our partnership with that large banking software company was up and running successfully, we wanted to start branching out into other industry sectors. But the problem was, because that partner was private-labeling our software, we hadn’t created very much brand recognition for our company or our main product back then, which we called “OnBase.”

There was an annual tradeshow for the document management industry coming up called the AIIM show. Thousands of customers and prospects attend, so Packy decided we should spend our entire marketing budget exhibiting at that one show, and take our shot at getting noticed.

We secured the largest booth space in the exhibit hall, an 80×80-foot space, and we worked with a Medina-based exhibit company called 7DMarketing (whom we still work with today) to build a baseball stadium where show attendees could sit in the stands and watch our presenter on the pitcher’s mound demonstrate our awesome software on the scoreboard.

The event was an enormous success. We were the talk of the show. We met people who would become customers and partners and even employees, and I still meet people today who say they first became aware of us at that show.

The baseball stadium would have been a waste of money if we didn’t have really good software. Because very quickly, your reputation becomes based not on your advertising, but on the quality of your product and the experiences of your customers.

So, you’ve got to have something worth bragging about. But when you do, you have to do some bragging. You’ve got to have some swagger.

Principle No. 8: Serve all stakeholders

Our last principle, which for me is actually first, is the mindset that we must serve all stakeholders.

Hyland does not exist primarily to serve our shareholders. They’re an important stakeholder, but so are our employees, customers, partners and communities. Our mission is to serve all of our stakeholders to the best of our ability. And we need to be careful not to cater to one group to the detriment of another. Because if we stop supporting any one of those groups well, they will leave us, and that will prevent us from being a great company for the rest.

I am proud of the way we serve our customers, many of whom have used our products for decades. I am proud of the way we serve our partners, and have been thrilled to see their businesses grow alongside ours. I am proud of the way we serve our shareholders, and of the outsized financial returns we’ve generated for individuals and institutions who’ve put their faith in us. I’m proud of the way we serve our employees, and of all the amazing careers and personal journeys we’ve helped foster. And I’m proud of the way we serve our communities through giving, volunteering and tech outreach, trying to follow the philanthropic example set by so many good-hearted corporations in our region.

So, those are the principles that have helped create and shape Hyland — eight principles that govern our vision, our work and our mindset. Thank you for letting me share them with you. I hope somewhere in there there’s something that will help you in your organization or career.