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A Swiss (European) way for entrepreneurship?

With my seventh contribution to the Créateurs newsletter, I stay in Switzerland again with two succesful SMEs. Enjoy!

There is a recurrent debate in the world of high-tech start-ups: and if the American model of fast growth supported by aggressive venture capital was not adapted for European or Swiss entrepreneurs? Two examples may contribute to the discussion: Sensirion and Mimotec.

In my contribution to Créateurs last time, I had focused on Swissquote, which has become a magnificent success story, without that venture capital, which is so much criticized these days. Mimotec is an EPFL spin-off with 24 employees and about CHF10M in revenues. The company provides micro technologies for the watch industry. Mimotec was founded in 1998 by Hubert Lorenz who told his start-up’s story during a recent venture ideas conference at EPFL. It is a clear example of organic growth, a steady growth even if not exponential.

Sensirion is probably more impressive. Founded also in 2008, it is an ETHZ spin-off and it sells pressure sensors, another field of expertise in Switzerland. In an article published for the MEMS 2008 conference, Felix Mayer, Sensirion’s co-founder and CEO, described the growth model of his company. Here is an extract: “The Europeans – especially the Swiss – do not go for the big thing! They rather start small and put one foot in front of the other. A characteristic of the European and Swiss mentality is not to promise high returns for a business idea based on an immature new technology. The European way is rather to start with the own money, to try to find customers, and to grow with the earnings. The Americans, as far as I can tell, follow the motto: “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you will land among the stars”. This means: to go for the new big thing, write down a promising business plan, and raise money to realize it. Hunting for potentially high gains means, on the other hand, to take a higher risk. The United States have more of a high risk culture. However, if you fail, you also get a second chance. Europe is different in this respect”.

Mayer adds that because the financial means are lacking, the European entrepreneur will be more challenged to target the very big markets. Therefore he believes in an intermediate path which will not generate Google-like companies, but leaders in their niche. Thanks to the patient support from a business angel and then from its customers, Sensirion can be proud in 2010 of its 180 employees (the revenue numbers are not public as the start-ups is still privately held). I should however add that it took Sensirion six years before ti could fund its growth through its profits; its business angel was apparently critical to its success.

Is there a model that Europe may follow without just copying the Silicon Valley way? Yes, if we notice that very few companies could reach the size of Logitech or Actelion for example. Whatever the success of an Hubert Lorenz or a Felix Mayer, I cannot help expressing again the same thing I did in my book Start-Up. Why should not Europe ambition the same large success the USA experience in addition to our mid-size stories. Don’t you think the Americans do not have companies similar to Mimotec and Sensirion, in addition to Google or Apple? Criticizing venture capital might be an easy way and I prefer quoting an American entrepreneur on investors: “You can’t live with them, you can’t live without them” And let us not forget that Google has today about 20’000 employees and it was founded in… 1998. There is no doubt that our culture and financial support is not made to produce our own Google but I seriously believe that we should not be afraid of having large ambitions instead of criticizing an American model which also has great assets.

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My sixth article in the newsletter Créateurs about high-tech success stories: Swissquote. I am leaving Silicon Valley after purely American stories with Adobe & Genentech, then followed by Europeans in SV (Synopsys, VMware) to talk about a pure Swiss success!

Mark Bürki and Paulo Buzzi are the two founders of one of the nicest Swiss (not to say European) success stories: Swissquote. No link to Silicon Valley, no venture capital, an exception to what I am used to promote. “Just a” local online bank launched in 1997 as a spin-off of a software service company, Marvel, which was founded in 1990. Bürki and Buzzi did not launch their start-up in a Garage like HP, Apple or Google; worse, it was in a cellar! The beginnings were not easy, salaries were not always guaranteed…

The USA played a role however. At a conference in Boston, the two founders discovered a new promising platform: the Internet. Sitting at a tiny booth, the founder of an unknown start-up, Amazon. Later, a contract with the IOC, the International Olympic Commitee, for the design of their web site, gave the much needed cash to Marvel. Marvel had also specialized in financial applications and Bürki could see the potential of the Internet for the consumer of stock and financial news.

With a Zurich-based bank as a financial partner, Marvel launched Swissquote in 1997. The beginnings were very encouraging and at that time, most investment banks were competing for the fast-growing start-ups to be quoted on stock exchanges. Swissquote went public in 2001 with less than CHF20M in sales and a huge loss. The future would not be as nice as the pre-IPO boom and the burst of the Internet bubble threatened the mere existence of the company. But Bürki and Buzzi were not part of the mass of entrepreneurs who disappeared as fast as shooting stars. Decisions were tough, many employees were fired but Swissquote survived. In 2009, its sales were about CHF100M with a net profit of CHF35M, and its market capitalization was nearly CHF600M.

In August, and then in November 2006, I had invited the two founders to share their entrepreneurial experience on the EPFL campus. They had explained the importance of a vibrating ecosystem, as they had enjoyed it in Lausanne during their studies, years before. “When we were students in computer science”, Bürki noticed, “the sixty or so students in the department belonged to about twenty different nationalities”, a diversity that can be found in the best technology clusters. Without any business training, they learnt how to manage a company with two hundred people. The two founders are convinced that you learn these things by doing. Two founders. Another important topic. Your co-founder can challenge you with the right questions that a lonely founder may not solve easily.

Bürki also mentioned the vital role of the dream by quoting, in a rather surprising manner, Che Guevara: “Be Realistic, Ask for the Impossible.” As a reminder of their beautiful years at EPFL and also as a sign of their success, Marc Bürki and Paolo Buzzi took in 2008 a typically American decision by creating an endowed chair in quantitative finance.

A Swiss in Silicon Valley

Here is my fifth contribution to Créateurs, the Geneva newsletter, where I have been asked to write short articles about famous success stories. After Synopsys, women and high-tech entrepreneurship, Adobe and Genentech, here is an short article about a Swiss founder in Silicon Valley.

Do you know Edouard Bugnion? I am not sure that Switzerland knows about its child, who grew up in Geneva and Neuchâtel before graduating from ETHZ (Zürich) in 1994 and moving to California where he obtained his MS from the University of Stanford in 1996. Yet he is the co-founder of VMware and Nuova Systems, two recent success stories from Silicon Valley.

Edouard Bugnion with the author in the middle of « cubicles » at Nuova in May 2006 (Picture: Mehdi Aminian).

As I was preparing a short trip to San Francisco, I had been advised to meet this Swiss citizen that I had never heard of. The meeting was planned in his office which we found thanks to a quickly printed logo posted on his door: Nuova Systems. The place was gigantic for a start-up which was less than one-year old. But Nuova was hiring fast. I should add that Cisco would soon invest $50M in the start-up. Why so much money? Because the founders of Nuova were exceptional: Mario Mazzola had just left Cisco and had also been the founder of Crescendo, the first start-up acquired by Cisco (in 1991). Edouard was one of the five co-founders of VMware in 1998, which was bought in 2004 by BMC for $625M. VMware was so successful with its virtualization tools that BMC gave back its independence to the company which is today quoted on Nasdaq (its market capitalization was above $10B at the end of 2009) and has more than 6’000 employees and $1.8B in sales. Nuova has been acquired by Cisco in 2008 for $600M.

When I told my surprise in front such a big office space, Edouard told me the story that when VMware had grown to a workforce which forced the company to move, the company proposed to lease its old offices to a small new start-up. Its founders looked at the place and declined: “Too small!” The start-up was unknown and its founders were very young people. Edouard was as surprised then as I was when we met. Was it ambition? Was it arrogance? The start-up was Google and its two founders, Page and Brin, were, without any doubt, visionaries

Nuova’s front door logo in May 2006.

Edouard might be qualified as a school dropout. Even with his diplomas from ETHZ and Stanford, he quit the Stanford PhD program in 1998 to launch VMware with his professor. With $20M of venture-capital, they could grow the company until its acquisition six years later. In 2000, he gave an interview to SwissInfo. With 120 employees, VMware was only two years old. “In Switzerland, young entrepreneurs do not dare dreaming about such a scenario. If you have a good idea, you can find a few million and your product can reach the market for better or worse.” Such is the quote from the author of the interview, Pierre Godet, who, then, says his concern about this brain drain. Bugnion is more optimistic: “Swiss people in Silicon Valley develop a very unique experience, as well as a network. Then, most of them come back to Switzerland at some point in their professional life.” It is one of the theses in my book. It may be a good idea to go and work in the Bay Area, a region where anything is fast, very fast, where ambition can be expressed and where failure is tolerated. I hope that someday, Edouard will come back to Switzerland to tell his story himself and share his experience and know-how…

A European in Silicon Valley, Aart de Geus

Here is my fourth contribution to Créateurs, the Geneva newsletter, where I have been asked to write short articles about famous success stories. After women and high-tech entrepreneurship, Adobe and Genentech, here is Aart de Geus, founder of Synopsys.

Aart de Geus was born in the Netherlands in 1954. At the age of 4, he moved with his parents to french-speaking Switzerland and in 1978, he graduated from EPFL, the Swiss Institute of technology in Lausanne (where I currently work). He then moved again to the USA and got his PhD from the Southern Methodist University in Texas. After a few years with General Electric (GE), he founded Synopsys in 1986, raised $15M of venture-capital before Synopsys went public (in 1994). In 2008, Synopsys had 5’600 employees, $1.3B in sales and a $3B market capilalization.

According to him, « Everybody from Europe who comes to the U.S. or Canada is looking to discover something ». In his case, when he arrived to the USA, he was lucky in being assigned as a graduate student to Ron Rohrer “He took a liking to me. […] Rohrer essentially gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted within the graduate school research facilities”. Rohrer became his mentor. He learnt how to manage a team, a know-how he changed in a management style. “everybody counts on the team and there’s always a role for everybody, which produces an ecosystem that manages itself.” He recognizes it is as much luck as destiny.

He also shows how difficult it is to predict anything: “In fact, I’ll tell you a story. In 1978 or ‘79, I attended a conference in Switzerland of leaders in the field of electronics, or microelectronics. They all agreed on 2 things. Number 1, electronics was going to be a big deal and would move forward for many years to come. Number 2, one micron was the hardest barrier that we would never move across. And [laughing again], those same people who made the predictions are the ones who made 22 nanometers happen!” and he adds: “The lesson here: whenever one predicts the end of something in high tech, there’s always a twist or new perspective that makes a new breakthrough possible.”

Aart de Geus, a born entrepreneur?

The art of metamorphosis…

Aart appreciates complexity and metamorphosis. Everything is important and everything changes. In the early days of a start-up, ideas and people matter. When you have an idea, what do you do? “First, you write a business plan. Then, you ask, is it ethical? Is it okay to do that? How do you go about planning the business so as not to go up against GE?” Well, according to Aart, “there’s a simple answer. You write a business plan and propose it to GE. After all, it was clearly their IP. Period.” GE not only backed the idea but invested in it. Money and values are essential at that stage.

But the baby has to grow. The teenager will have to develop the products, sell them to customers. This may be a tough crisis. Does Aart feel lucky to have survived? “Luck favors the well prepared,” and added that a fortuitous combination of management, graduate students, geographic location, viable business plan, and marketing expertise were augmented by having the “right technology at the right time.”

Back to EFPL in 2007.

… with the risk of becoming a dinosaur !

The adult age means processes, experienced managers so you need to survive the tornadoes that Geoffrey Moore describes so well. Aart summarizes these permanent metamorphoses through a parallel management of teams, customers, investors, products and their cycles, but also managers, leaders, implementation. All these things are interdependant and it is often underestimated. In a talk he gave to EPFL in 2007, he showed the history of Synopsys acquisitions in the form of the animal below! His sense of humour was certainly very useful. This sense of humour hides the humbleness of the individual who succeeded without giving any lesson. If there is one lesson in all this, is that you must try, be curious and flexible. Success may come.

As usual, I finish with my beloved capitalization table and charts.

Sources :
-Aart de Geus at l’EPFL (vpiv.epfl.ch)
-Peggy Aycinena (www.eetimes.com)
The Aart of Analogy is alive and well at Synopsys -2001
The Aart of Analogy Revisited -2009

Next article: A Swiss in Silicon Valley

Women and High-Tech Entrepreneurship.

Here is my third contribution to Créateurs, the Geneva newsletter, where I have been asked to write short articles about famous success stories. After Adobe and Genentech, here are some thoughts about women and high-tech entrepreneurship.

Women Entrepreneurs? Carol Bartz, Sandy Kurtzig…

… but also Ann Winblad, Catarina Fake, Kim Polese, Candice Carpenter, Mena Trott.
The list may go on but would not be much longer. Why so few women in high-tech entrepreneurship? And even worse, why are they so little known? The answer is simple: the situation is just an illustration of their position in science, in high-level positions in companies or in society more generally. A few anecdotes will show however that they have nothing to prove their male counterparts.

Sandy Kurtzig is a school dropout. She stopped the PhD program she was following at Stanford University and joined General Electric. She discovered there that computer science must help in improving manufacturing (such as in inventory management or logistics) and left again to found Ask Computer in 1972 with $2’000 from her own savings. “No venture capitalist would have given me money in the beginning. First software was seen of no value and then I was a woman.” She declined an acquisition offer from Hewlett-Packard in 1976 and in 1981 Ask Computer went public on Nasdaq. (The reader should remember that Apple had gone public in December 1980 and Logitech was founded in January 1981.) When she left Ask in 1989, the company had $189M in sales. Her advice to entrepreneurs? Believe in yourself, hire the right people and share success. Do not be afraid of making mistakes.

Carol Bartz also began her career in a big company: 3M is the inventor of the famous post-it. She heard there: “you are a woman, what are you doing here?” She left the company when he understood she would not be promoted because she was a woman. A few years later, she moved to Silicon Valley. “Even in this region, being a woman is belonging to a minority.” Her comment will not prevent her from becoming CEO of Autodesk in 1992. (Autodesk is the world leader for 3D software for architecture and mechanical design with $2B in sales in 2008.) That same year, in 1992, she was diagnosed with cancer. She will have chemotherapy while managing her company. She succeeded twice. “With private life and work, you do not have time to wonder if you are all right or not.” Work was a distraction and the leadership she showed was a strong motivation for her colleagues.

She is also fighting for the position of women in science: “I sincerely believe that women are dissuaded [from doing science]. They are told it is not important. Another female entrepreneur, Ann Winblad adds: “The daughter of a friend of mine is worried about appearing too nerdy if she invests in science. However some of the successful women – myself, Carol Bartz – all of us were math whizzes and we really had fun teenage lives as well as adult lives and have been very successful. The problem is that we need role models like Steve Jobs with this inspirational product, the iPod. Something is getting lost in the message because not many say I want to be like them.”

In January 2009, Carol Bartz became Yahoo’s CEO. The task may not be easy. Should we listen to Caratina Fake, founder of Flickr: « There is a lot of institutionalized sexism working against women in business and I think that people aren’t even aware that it’s there. » This post is unfortunately too short to celebrate women as entrepreneurs- Those who succeeded had to be exceptional and those who try also, without any doubt. The barriers entrepreneurs face are amplified for women. I will just conclude by copying the poet in saying that, in the start-up world maybe “Women are the Future of Men”.

To know more:
Carol Bartz in “Betting It All” by Michael Malone (Wiley, 2002).
Sandy Kurtzig in “In the Company of Giants” by R. Dev Jager and R. Ortiz (McGraw Hill, 1997)

Next article: A European in Silicon Valley, Aart de Geus.

Bob Swanson & Herbert Boyer: Genentech

Here is my second contribution to Créateurs, the Geneva newsletter, where I have been asked to write short articles about famous success stories. I began last quarter with Adobe and its founders John Warnock and Charles Geschke, here is now Bob Swanson, Herbert Boyer, founders of Genentech.

Bob Swanson and Herbert Boyer: Genentech

In the start-up world, biotechnologies do not seem to belong to the same world: they seem to always be reserved to high-caliber scientists not to say Nobel prize winners that investors would back with their money. So… where is the entrepreneur?

The story about the Genentech beginnings is probably the best illustration that a visionary entrepreneur is also necessary in biotechnologies. Much more than just a start-up, it is an entire industry that Bob Swanson founded.

The legend says that Bob Swanson, a 29-year old venture capitalist, met Herbert Boyer, a professor at the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF). The money of Bob and the ideas of Herbert made possible the creation of Genentech in 1976, followed by its IPO in 1980. The story deserves however a little more attention. Bob Swanson was not really an investor. He is an entrepreneur. he has been hired by Kleiner and Perkins (KP) who had understood that the real value of a venture capital firm is to create company and not only to fund them. They understood this after the success of Tandem and Jimmy Treybig whom they financed from day 1 in 1974. (See KP first fund).

Bob Swanson is fascinated by the potential of biology and genetics. (He has a BS in chemistry from MIT and an MBA). After helping KP for one their portfolio company, he leaves the fund to dedicate himself to his new passion. He meets many professors in the Bay Area but all of them explain him that their work is about science, leading edge science for sure and very far from commercial applications.

Herbert Boyer is not a typical professor. Together with Stanley Cohen, he is the inventor of a patented technology, which was not common in the academic world of the seventies. Known as the Cohen-Boyer patent, it describes how to manipulate the DNA and it is so fundamental that any new technology in the field needs to use this patent, which means obtaining a license on the technology and paying royalties to its owners, Stanford University and UCSF. In total, more than $250M was generated in royalties over 20 years.

The beginnings of Genentech are a combination of history and legend. Swanson calls Boyer who tells him he is very busy but he agrees on a 10-minute talk on a Friday afternoon. Swanson is obsessed about one single thing: the applications of research. Boyer replies that there is certainly some potential but it will require another 10 years of research. “Why, why, why?” Swanson does not stop saying to the point that Boyer finally concludes “why not? May be it can be faster.” The 10-minute talk has become a 3-hour discussion. Genentech is born, at least in two minds full of beer!

They still have to convince the skeptics. Among them, the potential investors. A week later, Tom Perkins meets with the two men and he remembers: “the technical risks were huge. I was very skeptical. I did not know anything in biology.” Kleiner is however very impressed by the energy of Swanson and the expertise of Boyer. He decides to try, step by step in order to diminish the risks and minimize the initial investment. Kleiner invests $100’000 which will last nine months.

The rest is History. Genentech synthesizes insulin in 1978 and growth hormone in 1979. Genentech also raised $10M with private investors before going public on Nasdaq in 1980. For the first time, a biotech company goes public with no revenue and its first product is not approved yet (it will be in 1985 only). In 1990, Roche and Genentech will sign a strategic partnership which makes the Swiss company its major shareholder. In 2009, Roche acquired all the remaining shares of Genentech.

Swanson was not an investor, but a visionary entrepreneur. Boyer was not a professor in his ivory tower. They were also lucky to have the best of mentors, Tom Kleiner. A lot of energy and passion, great ideas, some money. It is an almost accidental meeting which is responsible for the growth of a industry worth tens of billions of dollars.

Icing on the cake, the Genentech capitalization table at its IPO:

Pour en savoir plus:

Internet Archive:

The Genentech web site:

Next quarter: Women entrepreneurs, Carol Batz and Sandy Kurtzig

A success story: Adobe Systems – John Warnock and Charles Geschke

Créateurs, a local newsletter asked me to  write short articles about famous success stories. I decided to begin with Adobe and its founders John Warnock and Charles Geschke. You will find the full text below as well as the usual data I like to give about start-ups: the capitalisation table of the company at its IPO and how shareholding evolved from foundation to public offering. Here is the article you may found in french in the Newsletter.

John Warnock and Charles Geschke: Adobe

Start-ups are very often associated to their founders. Entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs or Bill Gates are obviously linked to the company they created. John Warnock and Charles Geschke may be less famous but their story is as fascinating.

Without the profile of the atypical entrepreneur (they are not “school dropouts” who launched their venture in their twenties), Warnock and Geschke founded Adobe Systems in 1982 when they were more than 40-year-old. Adobe is famous for some of the most popular software worldwide such as Acrobat and Photoshop.

From the printer to the printing protocol
It all began in the 70’s, at the renowned Palo Alto Research Park of Xerox, the vendor of copy machines. The two engineers are more and more frustrated. Xerox may have enabled the development of the computer mouse, word processing, email or Ethernet, but it has been incapable of transforming them in commercial products. Warnock and Geschke cannot convince their management of the potential of their research. “Part of it was fear and misunderstanding” but they also admit that “in fairness to the management, I think we as researchers were a little naïve about what it would take to get these things from conceptual operating prototypes all the way to full-production, supportable products. But we sort of hoped that they would hire the people who could do that.”

They left Xerox in 1982 and raised $2.5M to develop their project: high quality printers and a system which connect them to computer networks. When they met potential customers (Apple, Dec), they discovered that nobody is really interested. Steve Jobs explains to them that he needs their printer protocol, Postscript, for the Macintosh he is developing. They immediately change their business plan. Adobe became a software company with the success we all know.

Some good advice
Their vision of what is an entrepreneur is enlightening. It was more an accident than a destiny. But today their advice is worth reading.

You should always be flexible. You should try and explore many solutions, test them with customers and abandon the wrong ones very fast. They have the same views on the personality of entrepreneurs: “99% of founders fail because they cannot change and want to control too much”.

Passion, risk taking and self-confidence seem to be the critical strengths of entrepreneurs combined with intelligence and hard work. “But this is not sufficient. Luck also plays a major role.

When their age and experience is mentioned, Geschke adds that “I don’t think there’s any mystery in running a business. I think it helped that we were in our 40s, that we had worked for a variety of organizations. We had worked in other companies, but tried to leave their bad ideas as proprietary to them. We tried to pick the best things that we saw.” What is essential is to have a vision of what you want to do. “I am not a hunter, never have fired a gun, but I’m told that if you want to shoot a duck, you have to shoot where the duck is going to be, not where the duck is. It’s the same with introducing technology: if you’re only focused on the
market today, by the time you introduce your solution to that problem, there’ll probably be several others already entrenched.”

The ingredients of success
From the initial frustration which is at the origin of their departure from Xerox to the success of Adobe, the lessons are many. Never be a one-product company; technology cannot be simply transferred, you need to add brain power, hire good professionals; and as founders, you need to have “the intellectual capability, inherent honesty, ethical behavior and principles by which we lead [your] personal and business lives.”

In a few sentences, the ingredients of success are numerous, complex as well as simple and probably common to all great entrepreneurs.

To know more about Adobe:
The Revolutionaries: www.thetech.org/exhibits/online/revolution
Adobe Systems, Computer History Museum: www.computerhistory.org
Founders at Work, J. Livingston, Apress (2007)
In the company of Giants, R. Jager and R. Ortiz, Mcgraw-Hill (1997)

Next Article: Bob Swanson: Genentech

Now the cap. table in 1986

and the shareholding structure from 1982 to 1986: