This article was published on June 2, 2020

3 business lessons from the ‘90s that deserve a comeback

It's possible to build a successful company without bean bag chairs

3 business lessons from the ‘90s that deserve a comeback
Mark McClain
Story by

Mark McClain

Founder & CEO, SailPoint

Mark has been an entrepreneur in the identity management market for almost 20 years. He is also the author of Joy and Success at Work: Build Mark has been an entrepreneur in the identity management market for almost 20 years. He is also the author of Joy and Success at Work: Building Organizations That Don’t Suck (The Life Out of People)

As our world becomes even more fast-paced, technologically driven and, frankly, uncertain, nostalgia can serve as a helpful coping mechanism. Reminiscing about simpler times by watching throwback TV shows or resurrecting past fashion trends can provide comfort and even inspire comebacks.

While nostalgia is typically reserved for such consumer-facing things, the tech world can — and should — tap into it, too.

Sure, technology has changed in nearly every possible way since the dot-com days, but startups and even more established companies could benefit from revisiting some of the business fundamentals that reigned supreme in the ‘90s.

The new TNW Newsletter

Getting to the heart of the European tech and startup scene

Too often, today’s founders are starting companies by creating culture first and believing (rather than confirming) that their ideas will attain marketability. A couple of interesting ideas and a cool employee lounge with bean bag chairs and ping pong tables don’t make for a successful, long-term business, however.

Rather than chasing the latest quirky employee perks or letting a thirst for vague buzzwords like “disruption” distract from treating employees, customers and products with real attention and care, I’d urge companies to take a walk down memory lane and embrace the following three business lessons from the good old ‘90s:


Trust wasn’t really an issue when tech companies in the ‘90s were launching products — it was just implied. Today, though, mistrust in tech companies and the products they deliver runs rampant.

Given how complex technology has become and understandable concerns about data security, now more than ever companies need to prioritize earning customers’ trust through action.

If you promise a specific feature by a certain date and don’t deliver, trust will instantly be destroyed. If you consistently underpromise and overdeliver, however, trust can be earned and the elusive concept of “delighting” customers can actually be realized.

Also, don’t forget about the value of accumulated trust, because things can and likely will go awry. Even the best-intentioned companies aren’t always able to deliver what they promise, so it’s critical that a healthy level of trust is established as a baseline via regular and honest communication.

(By the way, when things do go awry, make sure you communicate a “get-well plan” as quickly as reasonably possible with your constituents — that’s how trust is maintained!)

Product vs. service (it’s just semantics)

All tech companies sell and develop products, whether it’s a product that’s a tangible thing or a service that lives in the cloud. When you create something that someone else wants and is willing to pay for, the semantics of how you describe what you sell really don’t matter.

What does matter is making sure you’re selling something the market truly wants, rather than something it simply doesn’t have.

A company will never be successful if they develop products that address lower-priority challenges and then chase markets to sell them to. So, focus on uncovering the urgency and pervasiveness of an industry’s major pain points to gain a solid understanding of the potential market for an effective solution.

Also, make sure you understand the importance of developing products that are good versus those that are just okay, or worse, not so good — this is the cornerstone of building successful, lasting companies.


One of the most common reasons why companies fail is because they make too many business decisions without considering their employees and empathizing with their values. You can’t claim to value your team but only do it when it’s convenient or affordable.

This is probably the most important “walk the talk” principle in any business in any decade: treat people the way you know you should and the way you’d like to be treated.

As a founder or leader, listen to what’s important to your employees and what they’re passionate about, and deliberately factor in those values to the mission of your company.

It’s a simple truth: successful businesses are perpetually focused on their market, product, customers, and employees.

They understand that a sustainable culture grows out of innovation (rather than the other way around) and they never incubate a company in a way that resembles a Hollywood pitch meeting, with people throwing around ideas and picking whatever sounds likely to have a killer opening weekend.

As a founder or leader in the ever-turbulent 2020s, look to the ‘90s for sound business guidance and inspiration. Bury the notion that companies can make people happy by delivering half-baked promises and products, and recognize that lasting success requires a genuine commitment to mutual success — of customers, employees, investors, and the company itself.

Get the TNW newsletter

Get the most important tech news in your inbox each week.