Tom Niccum, Lancet Software, on the value of expanding your world view

Tom Niccum returned in March from a two-week photography trip to Afghanistan, where he met up with Steve McCurry, a photographer for National Geographic. Their experiences included photographing a religious ceremony amid flying knives — the type of thing that Niccum says makes ordinary business problems seem tame.

In his other life, Niccum is president of Lancet Software in Eagan, a firm he started with three partners. He says they’ve realized their No. 1 business goal: To create a successful place to work where you don’t curse when you have to go there on Mondays.

“In March I was in Afghanistan for two weeks, at a Shiite festival that celebrates the martyrdom of Muhammad’s grandson. It’s celebrated by all Muslims. It’s celebrated by mourning, and culminates with self-flagellation with knives and chains. I found myself amid the knives. I was completely covered in blood. That was pretty exciting.

I read four to five books before I went. Typically I don’t know anyone else who has gone there. I try to absorb the culture by going out and hanging around. I learned that from Steve McCurry, my mentor: you walk around and talk to people. I found people to be very friendly. I never felt in danger at all.

We started Lancet in ’97. I met Steve McCurry in ’99, at a photography workshop in Morocco. I started as a photographer in high school, then worked for Sun newspapers.

I like to go to places that most people have not gone. On one side, like Afghanistan, I want to see for myself what’s happening. On another side, like Cambodia, a lot of people haven’t been there. I’m attracted to Asia in general. The cultures are rich and fascinating.

We’ve run these workshops as a side business, a friend of mine and I in California. It gives me a chance to experiment with some marketing ideas and customer satisfaction, which I wouldn’t necessarily try with Lancet. On these photography workshops, you’re basically living with your customers for a couple of weeks. It’s a very good lesson for me in how to deal with customers. The customers for Lancet are so busy I have to schedule lunch three months in advance.

With trips like these I’m walking in the same shoes as my customer. You get a wide range of personalities, and you get it in your face.

When you’re standing in Rangoon, trying to get a visa, and there’s machine guns all around, it takes the pressure off of regular business situations. I’ve become a much calmer person, much more philosophical.

Can we apply any of this to our business? Directly, we don’t do global stuff at Lancet, but from a more philosophical point it helps you realize that everybody’s pretty much the same. Everybody wants to make some money, wants a house, wants their kids to do better than they did. The more you travel the less you’re afraid of other people. There’s some bad people out there, but there’s not that many of them.

It’s cliché, but you get a strange view of the world through the news media. You don’t see anything that’s normal.

You get to Kabul, and you have the expectation and you’re thinking it’s gun battles and chaos.  And you get there and it’s a vibrant operating culture. Normalcy isn’t interesting. I mean it’s interesting to me, but it doesn’t sell newspapers.

That’s a huge lesson when you’re in business. You’re reading the news, you’re getting three standard deviations off of normal.

At Lancet, we’ve had two good years. We’re profitable. We’ve decided not to put a lot of effort into growing. We’re not pushing the envelope to grow.

When we started the business we didn’t know what we were doing. We called ourselves the flounders. We had been in companies and we figured, I don’t see how we could do any worse.  We thought, if this wasn’t a business but a household we’d have money in the bank. We said, we have a goal of no debt, and five to six months of money around in case of emergencies. It took us a few years to get there.

We’re about 25 to 30 percent in health care. We’re in retail, like for Best Buy, Kohl’s and Supervalu. We’re in a narrow focus, helping them get interesting information from their databases.

In the travel sector I talk to people all the time, and they’re afraid to fly to California. You realize there’s nothing fearful when you get there. People say, where’s the scariest place you’ve been. I say New York City in the mid-1980s.

The news about the economy is like that, too. There’s still business being done, people are still buying services. We’re constantly locked in a battle with businesses looking for consulting services overseas. But we’re just going to have to figure out why we’re a better value.

Globalization is hitting the tech services sector hard. Every child in China under 18 can speak English. They want what India has, the ability to tap into American markets for services, not just for McDonald’s plastic toys. They’re cranking out bright engineers. We have to tell clients why they should hire Lancet rather than send their tech services to India for one-fifth the price.

I have a nice balance. I have partners I trust 100 percent, so if one of us is gone, it’s OK. I can go and be incommunicado and I know everything will be fine. During the IPO craze we thought we were missing out. We missed that train and now we’re happy we did.

We just wanted to have a place where we wanted to go to work, where we’re not cursing on Monday morning. We have been 100 percent successful in our primary goal.

— As told to Beth Ewen

Beth Ewen