On focus: Concur CEO Steve Singh pinpoints the key to making a difference in business and in life

Concur CEO Steve Singh at the Foster School

Concur CEO Steve Singh at the Foster School

Focus.

It was the word of the day and primary directive from Steve Singh, the co-founder and CEO of Concur Technologies, addressing a UW Foster School of Business audience November 4 as part of the school’s “Leaders to Legends” lecture series.

“All of us dream big and say, ‘I’d like to solve this giant problem.’ ” said Singh, as soft-spoken a disruptor as you’re likely to find. “Giant problems are really hard to solve. Focus in on one problem. And then you earn the right to solve more problems, because you become trusted.”

Ironically, Singh’s pleasantly unscripted talk meandered into plenty of other territory as well, from the humble Indian village of his youth to a moment of enlightenment from a distraught investor to his epiphany, at age 40, that what really matters is people.

Most illustrative of his central thesis of focus, though, was Singh’s recounting of the creation and rise of Concur, which makes for a platinum case study in entrepreneurial success.

Concur, and conquer

Singh dreamed up Concur as a means of addressing an acute obstacle to business productivity that he encountered first-hand during a period of excessive travel while working for Symantec: filing expense reports.

Concur began as an expense reporting software solution and evolved—sometimes fitfully—into an automated personal travel assistant, an app-enabled service to handle every step of the business travel process, from booking to reimbursement to accounting. A niche product became a massive global opportunity.

But the move to an SaaP (service as a product) model in 2001 to meet the budgetary needs of even small businesses was met initially with investor flight and a cratering of its stock price.

What saved the firm was focus. As when originally mastering the automation of expense reporting, Singh’s team moved incrementally into new services around business travel, ever focused on an overarching vision to enable what he calls “the perfect trip.”

“The lesson for me was to focus on what you know you have to do and then have the conviction to keep executing against that,” Singh said. “And if you do, it’s amazing how stuff actually works out.”

“Working out” for Concur was more than a decade of consistent and phenomenal growth, and a 2014 acquisition by SAP for a cool $8.3 billion.

What matters most

Taking questions from the capacity Dempsey Hall audience, the reflective Singh touched on a number of topics.

Singh with Foster MBAs

Singh with Foster MBAs

On starting a business: “Make sure that your goals are crystal clear. You can’t have seven goals. You can’t have goals that are all-encompassing. We have two goals at Concur: And we can’t do number two without taking care of number one first. First we wanted to process every expense report in the world on our system. And if we got that right, we would have the opportunity to expand to the rest of the travel ecosystem.”

On corporate culture: “Culture is the thread that binds the company together. Everybody defines it differently. For us it was a set of six values that represented who each of us was on our very best day. The question is: can you string enough best days together as a team? Once (that culture) is defined, the day you don’t live up to it is the beginning of the end.”

On competition: “The single biggest enemy of every business is its own success… If you don’t have the courage to say ‘I’m going to replace myself in a disruptive business model,’ I guarantee that somebody else will.”

On mentoring: “I’ve always felt weird calling people ‘mentors,’ in large part because I think we all have the capacity to add value to each other… In every moment you have a chance to learn. You just have to approach it in a way that says everybody gets to contribute.”

On what matters most of all: “My family, my extended family (called Concur), and making a difference… The idea of changing the trajectory of humanity is important. It sounds ridiculously lofty… But at some point in your life you are going to have an opportunity to make a difference. It may be for seven billion people; it may be for one.

“Go create the world you want, because it is entirely doable. If some schmuck from a little village in India can have a little bit of impact on the world, so can anybody.”


Watch the full presentation.

Steve Singh is an advisor to the UW Foster School’s Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship and recipient of Foster’s 2015 Distinguished Leadership Award. He was one of Dean Jim Jiambalvo’s guest speakers at the monthly Leaders to Legends Breakfast Lecture Series, which include notable leaders in an array of industries from greater Seattle and around the country.