Martin Gren, Co-founder of Axis Communications discusses his founder journey and offers a few pearls of wisdom

Lessons in Exiteering: The Axis Communications Story

Martin Gren, Co-founder of Axis Communications discusses his founder journey and offers a few pearls of wisdom

Axis Communications is the world leader in the manufacture of network cameras for the surveillance and security industries. Its products are ubiquitous in public and controlled environments, from retail chains to prisons. This has opened up a wide range of vertical markets, including transport, infrastructure, retail, banking, education, government and industrial.

Though an IT company in its DNA, Axis started out as a manufacturer.

Founded in 1984 in Lund, Sweden, by Martin Gren, Mikael Karlsson and Keith Bloodworth, the company was dedicated to building print servers. Initially for IBM mainframes, then later for TCP/IP networks.

This put the company in the right place for the coming connectivity revolution: it chose to specialise in making a protocol converter that allowed the connection of PC printers to IBM mainframe and more modern networks.

With mainframes a dying breed, Axis realised that to thrive and survive, it would need to innovate into new markets.

They focused on TCP/IP printing and later multi-protocol print servers, became seen as networking pioneers, and grew explosively with the internet from the early 1990s.

By now with offices in Japan and Hong Kong, as well as a subsidiary in the US, Axis had become the number two in the industry.

A major breakthrough came in 1995 with its invention of the world’s first optical network storage device.

Using the company’s bespoke and proprietary Thinserver technology, Axis became the world’s leading supplier in this field.

The following year, Axis developed the world’s first network camera, the Axis Neteye 200, that transformed video surveillance from analog to digital.

An early application was in monitoring oil spills in the sea via web interface – saving a client two overflights per day.

One of Neteye’s first purchasers was a certain Mr Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, who bought two Neteye 200 units at the N+I Show in Atlanta where the product was unveiled.

By 2002 the company’s transformation from a manufacturer of print servers to the world’s number one in the network video market was consolidated.

Milestones in recent years include 2004, which saw the world’s first network camera with Power over Ethernet (PoE), 2008 when the Axis 1755 established HDTV as the norm for delivery of video and 2010 for the world’s first thermal network cameras for night surveillance.

In February 2015 Canon offered $2.83 billion to acquire all shares in Axis Communications; the Axis board unanimously accepted the offer.

The move by the Japanese giant into video surveillance is seen as a fightback in the face of the shrinking camera market, thanks to sharp competition from smartphones.

Whilst a subsidiary of Canon, Axis operates as a separate entity and retains the pre-existing management board.

Today, Martin Gren is Director of New Projects at Axis.

His awards include an Honorable Doctors title from Lund University, Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year (Sweden) in 2009, security trade magazine Detektor’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010 and Ifsec Global’s Most Influential Security Person In The World (2013).

Martin's lessons

Unlock the power of the channel.

I took my first steps in business aged 14, selling disco lighting systems and using my school friends as resellers.

I learned a few simple rules that have stood the test of time.

I learned the importance of running an indirect business model, and I learned how important it is to treat my classmates equally.

The founding team at Axis was very complementary, myself, Keith Bloodworth, who was very experienced in indirect business models and Mikael.

Keith had been a reseller of IBM and had encountered channel conflicts.

We founded the business on the premise of never bypassing the channel and that gave us the head start we needed.

Thanks to channel leverage, we rapidly became number 2 in the market.

Growth as a business means growth as people.

Being in a state of continuous growth means never being satisfied, both as a company and as individuals.

We made it our business to drive change externally in our industry and internally as a business.

We created a culture where everyone was encouraged to be always open, curious and grab every chance to improve, as individuals and as teams – to rethink, question and learn from others.

Think ahead. Act rather than react. Dare to be pioneering!

A successful business pools its talent to act as one.

Axis has three core values: Act as One, Think Big, and Always Open.

Central to ‘Act as One’ is the idea of co-operating for the benefit of our customers.

The Always Open means always tell the truth, even if it means errors of any type or not being able to keep promises.

In the long run, you win customers because of this.

With a team spirit, dedication, and taking responsibility for each other and the outcomes we created, we could achieve much more than any individual.

That strength supports the more challenging and aspirational values – being open to change, honest and transparent even if it’s hard to do, and challenging ourselves to achieve more.

From committing to the decisions we make and just having a lot of fun, Axis became a single entity in which everyone contributed to everyone else’s success.

That’s why we could push boundaries.

Find a problem and do everything to keep solving it simply.

I had always intended to start a business and was constantly looking for a problem to solve.

At the time, connecting IBM mainframes to printers was very expensive, in that you could only connect an IBM printer.

So we built a box to connect an ordinary printer to an IBM mainframe.

We made Germany our home market (Sweden, the UK were out of scope as we had our roots there and we realised the US was too complicated) and outsourced all our manufacturing.

On the back of the IBM printer connectivity, we saw growth from 1992 to 1996 of 40% CAGR.

Collect different people with different skills – and then act in unison.

The fact that we were three founders with different skills, different backgrounds and different views was essential in the early days. When you start up, you’re learning as you go and you need everyone on board to contribute.

Mikael, for example, gave us the ability to scale – he had the big picture.

Think big, act as one, and always be open with each other about problems.

Innovation needs to be nurtured.

We had two phases of hyper-growth. From 1992 to 1996, Axis experienced 40% growth YoY; and then from 2000 to 2011 we grew by 40% CAGR.

These growth spurts are spurred by product innovation, and it’s not easy.

We made some bad product decisions, but I think every product business does that sometimes. More important is how you manage innovation – it’s really hard to nurture.

Too many processes will stifle innovation. Too much middle management will stifle innovation. And you need to have an eye for opportunity. Mikael was essential – never shy in investing money and effort in new areas, but doing so with control.

R&D cost is proportional to the size of a company, not the complexity of the product.

The big regret…

We made a lot of bad hires which we took too long to discover. There were times where we created a pretty corrosive corporate culture.

And the big take-away…

Never bypass the channel.

First published in The Art of Exiteering: In conversation with European tech founders.

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