Matthew: This is Matthew Wise with FounderLY.com. We empower entrepreneurs to have a voice and share their story with the world, enabling others to learn about building products and starting companies.
I’m incredibly excited today because we’re here with Steve Blank. Steve has had a 33-year successful career as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Steve was a part of or founded eight venture-backed startups. Four of his eight companies went public.
After he retired, he started new careers in conservation, public service, and teaching at Berkeley, Columbia, and Stanford. Steve is the author of “The Four Steps to the Epiphany”, the definitive book on customer development methodology for building early-stage companies.
With that said, Steve, we’d love for you to give our audience a bio.
Steve: That’s pretty exhausting right there. The pieces you left out were next to those four IPOs were two craters so deep they left their own iridium layer. I think part of my story is that actually the failures were sometimes more interesting than the successes as well.
Two, seeing entrepreneurs today, I’d probably rate myself on a good day at maybe a B+ entrepreneur. Actually, I’m prouder that I think of myself as an A teacher, maybe not A+, but at least an A educator in trying to explain entrepreneurship and make it accessible to hundreds or thousands of more people who actually understood it than when I was an entrepreneur.
I think you encapsulated my career well. Perhaps the only other missing piece is, because it’s timely, I just got back from teaching at the University of Michigan which I described as the best school I was ever thrown out of.
It was nice to go back to Ann Arbor and see another nascent technology cluster and formation and also remember what it was like in my first job. I guess most people don’t know that I started as a field-service technician in the heart of the United States manufacturing center when we used to make things in this country in the 1970s.
I got to visit every automobile plant, steel plant and plant that manufactured refrigerators and appliances all across this country and got to see what it was like to actually build things physically on assembly lines. We were installing processing control systems.
As I was also reminded at the University of Michigan, which was kind of unfortunate timing, I was the one who built their SCRAM system on their nuclear reactor which luckily they’ve now shut down because I thought they were going to blame me for some stuff. Those are maybe two things people didn’t know about my career.
I left Michigan 33 years ago, packed all my goods, had $200 in my pocket, and drove west to the promised land in Silicon Valley.
Matthew: Prior to teaching entrepreneurship, you were involved in eight startups. Can you tell us a brief overview of what those startups were?
Steve: Sure. It’s not only the number. I’m a slow learner and so unlike the very smart students I teach and the smart entrepreneurs I run into, I actually had a very different career, It was one I would describe as an apprenticeship where my entrepreneurial career was I stumbled into my first startup and then semi-stumbled into the next, learning from a series of mentors, none of which would ever say they were my mentors, but it was kind of understood.
My first job, again by accident, was a startup that was the leading intelligence company for the United States, Silicon Valley, for what was called National Means of Technical Verification which meant that during the Cold War, how we understood what the Soviets were doing with missiles and spacecraft and other activities. They built systems that today, if you understood what we put in space or under the sea, you’d still be blown away 33 years later.
It was pretty impressive. Just by accident, not by skill but just by luck, I happened to be right in the middle of those systems. In fact, I ended up as the training instructor for both the hardware and the operations people. It gave me an incredible view on at least the state of the military-industrial complex in the late 1970s and the Cold War.
It also gave me another very interesting view. Outside of that company, I noticed things going on with these new devices called microprocessors. People were building things that guys in my company were laughing at because we had infinite cash to build the most complex systems that truly the world had ever seen; in fact, so complex that the mean time between failure was measured in hours. But it was worth doing.
These other guys outside were playing with these toys but inventing things that were more and more interesting every day and they were masters of their own fate. That is, they were being driven by their vision, not some massive 100,000-people engineering project which were the types of systems that I was working on, which required spacecraft and things under the ocean and whatever. These were guys in a garage.
In fact, I remember going to some of the first home-brew computer meetings at Stanford AI lab and just being astounded by the creativity. To me, this contrast between the large company, very interesting technology and crazy people found me more and more attracted to the crazy people, even though I guess I could have had another career.
I decided to leave the black world and the world of intelligence and get out to the world of startups. My next company was a semiconductor startup which was probably the first true startup called Zilog which was an early microprocessor company. There I moved from training and education, which I wouldn’t return to for another 30 years, into marketing. I had my first marketing job. I was the manager of training and education and became a product marketeer for some peripheral chips for their main microprocessors.
Then the next company was another startup where I went in as a product marketing manager, and by the time I left four years later I was the VP of Marketing of the UNIX division of a public company.
I had just ever and ever-increasing responsibilities in different companies. Probably the only interesting pattern was, the only types of companies I did twice were I did two semiconductor companies. I don’t even think of myself as a chip guy. I just went where I was curious. In fact, I guess in hindsight, I was attracted to the most technically-challenging startups I could find, where the technology was unproven, unknown, it was driven by visionaries but really had some interesting core technology.
My skill, since I will never admit I was actually an engineer or bad engineer, was as a marketeer being able to try to explain that technology, as I used to say, to my mother. One of the rare things in Silicon Valley even today is to be able to reduce complexity.
I believe anybody can make a complex thing sound complex, but that’s usually a going-out-of-business strategy. The hard thing to do is to take a very complex set of systems and figure out how to explain it, not only simply, but explain it in a way somebody says, ‘Well, I want one of those.’
That was essentially my career for the next 15 or 20 years, being part of, or co-founder and then founder of companies that did some interesting technical things, with one bizarre exception as a video game CEO.