Three ways to drive success in slow economy: OptionsCity CEO

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Hazem Dawani is CEO of OptionsCity Software in Chicago

Don't let a slow economy deter your growth plans, suggests Hazem Dawani of OptionsCity Software. Photo courtesy of OptionsCity.

By Hazem Dawani

Guest columnist

For many companies trying to survive in today’s economy, growth may sound like a far and distant cry. With many organizations slashing expenses, staying above water might seem to be more important than long-term growth. Unfortunately this attitude will not lead to innovation or lasting stability but will instead position a company as a middle-of-the-pack player with no vision for the future. A lot of things worry me, but growth doesn’t.

At OptionsCity, a software company that provides end-to-end electronic trading software, we are celebrating our fifth year in business because we have consistently and smartly invested our resources in key facets of our business when times were tough as well as when they were strong. The result has been 100 percent growth year over year for the past three years.

To understand the relationship between “growth” and a “downward economy” we like to think of a Formula 1 race. The passion that fuels your business—not to mention your optimism— can take you from zero to 60 mph in a couple of seconds. But if you don’t invest in your vehicle, take some practice laps or have the right pit crew and maintenance, you’ll often find yourself eating dust.

I’m not a Formula 1 driver, but I do know OptionsCity has fueled its success by staying financially and technologically innovative through the economy’s tough times. Its results can be achieved by any business owner—not just those in technology. Consider three ways to boost your success rate during a slow-growth economy:

Choose a powerful engine and take practice laps

1. Conceive a strong business strategy and don’t rush to your first race. It’s common for small business owners to use the fact that they are more nimble than their competitors to try and get ahead. At the onset of our company, we were no different. Initially, our goal was to put innovative products on the market faster than our peers. As we grew and expanded our client base, we made a strategic change not only to focus on quickly rolling out products to the market, but also on the stability, safety and testing of our software when others were merely concerned with rolling out the next best thing. We spent a lot of time creating and perfecting our trading engine as opposed to pushing out a flashy product that could ultimately fail. We spent endless hours optimizing the performance of our system to achieve  sub-millisecond execution times. We set the groundwork for a testing and simulating environment so it would be easier to add brand extensions and new products later on.  It was a challenge moving away from what was considered the accepted norm, but the ability to innovate by promoting safe and fast trading software is now an OptionsCity standard.

Round the best pit crew

2. Always hire the best people. We started preparing for the launch of our newest trading platform, Freeway, at a time when most companies were cutting developers and programmers from their budgets.  Because of this, we were able to find great talent that otherwise wouldn’t be available. We wanted to be sure we had the best team possible to code, review and test our systems. Since we include our entire crew in the hiring process, we are able to show how we have built our culture and why we want others to join it. Hiring people during an economic decline might go against conventional thinking, but we want to continue to innovate and have the best talent behind our products, no matter the cost.

As a trading software company, we wanted to bring the best talent to our team from within and outside the trading industry. We hired people from all backgrounds – former traders, customer service professionals from outside of finance and software developers from varied industries. Whereas many trading firms focus solely within specific industry parameters for their talent, OptionsCity chose to go beyond that. For instance, our customer support team bucks that trend and includes former traders among professional customer service people. This has lent itself to a natural cross-training that has powered considerable leverage within our company.

Take time for maintenance

3. Invest in the people you already have and show them their value. If you have gathered the best crew, you want to maintain strong internal relationships and provide high confidence. We stay relentless in establishing a positive yet realistic working environment. Communication is a great tool to increase everyone’s sense of ownership.  If we achieve a goal, we celebrate that together. If we haven’t achieved certain performance deliverables, we communicate openly to the team why targets haven’t been attained and express our plan of attack. Among many other employee benefits, OptionsCity distributes stock options to employees as they grow within the company so they feel that the company is as much theirs as it is anyone else’s.

We fully expect to be around for another five years—and more. While financial conditions will ebb and flow, we won’t change our approaches for building the business.  Our engine is just getting warmed up.

Hazem Dawani is president & CEO of OptionsCity Software, a Chicago-based financial software company. 

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