TRAILBLAZER, Episode 4: Why this entrepreneur joined a company 2.5 weeks away from failing
July 18, 2016
trail·blaz·er: a person who blazes a trail for others to follow through unsettled territory
GSVlabs is dedicated to accelerating global innovation. With over 150 startups in the EdTech, Sustainability, Mobile, Big Data, and Entertainment verticals, we work with a diverse range of amazing entrepreneurs.
Above all else, we believe the “one-size-fits-all” mold is not what shapes entrepreneurs. We believe each person has his or her own path to entrepreneurship. Their own trail to blaze.
This week, we interviewed Gene Wang, the founder and CEO of People Power, to understand why he took the risks he did to become an entrepreneur.
Gene Wang working at GSVlabs
Finding a Focus
Gene Wang is a serial entrepreneur. He is a four-time CEO and has now worked on a total of five startups. But he did not always plan to be an entrepreneur. Instead, he started out on track for corporate life.
Gene entered UC Berkeley as an intended Computer Science and Music double major. By senior year, he realized that he could not handle both of them, so he looked to his friends for direction.
“I looked around at my computer science friends and they were all doing great. I looked around at my musician friends and they were starving to death. It was at that moment that I realized that I needed to focus all of my time and energy on computer science and make music a hobby.”
After graduating from UC Berkeley with a computer science degree, he secured a full-time job at Wang Laboratories. But after a short stint, Gene decided that life at such a traditional corporation was not the future he wanted.
“I decided after watching Wang Laboratories move from this nimble company to this real market leading sloth of a company, that I wanted to do a startup.”
Unsure how to break in to the startup world or even what it really entailed, Gene took his first step by applying to Harvard Business School.
“I think there was an error in admissions and they let me in — that’s when I really got exposed to startups. I joined the entrepreneurs club. I listened to all these great CEO speakers.”
At HBS, he gained the exposure to entrepreneurship that he wanted and learned what it meant to own an idea and a business. After a year, Gene returned to Wang Laboratories, but this time, in a completely different field: marketing. His goal was to round out his computer science background and gain real life marketing experience.
After just 3 weeks as a marketing intern, Gene’s boss asked him to be the co-founder and Vice President of Marketing for a startup that was an MIT spinoff out of the Artificial Intelligence lab.
“I thought to myself, ‘it doesn’t get any better than this, let’s do this.’”
Needless to say, Gene accepted the offer and spent the next few years helping the team grow from 4 to 105 employees and amassing $8 million in annual revenues.
“I dove into Gold Hill Computers as the junior cofounder and chief bottlewasher. I did everything. I slept under the desk, I found our office space, I did QA on our products, and I also tried to fit in a lot of marketing when in reality I didn’t know what marketing really was.”
Despite initial success, the business hit a wall when the AI bubble burst. Having experienced his first entrepreneurial failure, Gene learned a valuable lesson.
“I used to think that marketing was all about the hype, PR, and the glamour, but it’s not. I personally did not understand that you really had to build products where you were meeting or exceeding the desires of our customers. Now I know that marketing is aligning what the company can really do with what people will really pay for.”
Failure turns to Success
Undeterred by this initial failure, Gene joined yet another small startup. Taking everything he learned from his previous venture, Gene started at Borland International and had his first breakout success. He helped create Borland C++, which became the number one programming language at the time.
“We sold over a million copies. My business unit went from a distant number two, behind Microsoft, and quickly became the dominant supplier in object-orientated programming.”
Gene’s success led him to an executive role at Symantec where he helped roll out another product, visual cafe. Similar to Borland C++, visual cafe quickly became the number one provider of Java programming, ushering in a new and elevated level of programming on the web.
Taking a Risk
Despite the fact that corporate life offered him economic comfort and stability, Gene again started to feel that things were moving too slowly. He missed the excitement of the startup world. So he decided to join his brother as the CEO of Computer Motion, a company that created robots for minimally invasive surgery.
“I joined Computer Motion in a time when it only had 2 and a half weeks of cash. It was a really risky move but it worked out beyond my wildest expectations.”
Computer Motion was running out of money because Gene’s brother, although he was a brilliant scientist with a PhD in robotics, was not yet a businessman. Gene was ready to tackle this challenge as an opportunity to show himself and others what he could really do as a CEO.
With his business acumen and everything he learned from past experiences, Gene turned the company around.
His first order of business was to buy some more time from the investors.
“It turns out that on my flight down, I was paired next to one of the main investors, and got him really excited about me coming on board. So we ended up figuring out how to relax the immediate cash crunch.”
Secondly, he took over the business side of things
“I think that I motivated people. I took over the business and let these engineers and roboticist get back to work and focus on what they were truly good at. That whole thing accelerated the entire product development cycle of it.”
Lastly, he repositioned the product and reengineered the vision of the company.
The robots that Computer Motion was building was meant to replace nurses and human error when holding cameras and tools inside the patient’s body during a surgery. The problem was that nurses were cheaper, and for some surgeons, yelling at nurses was a staple part of the surgery. Although Computer Motion could improve things, the ROI was just not there.
So they upscaled the vision of the company.
“It’s not just about holding the camera. It’s about revolutionizing and bringing medicine into the operating room of the future where the surgeon can not only use voice commands to control the operating theatre but also robotic precision surgical tools. You can not hold a long surgical instrument perfectly still whereas robots don’t have hand tremor.”
Two and a half years later, Gene took Computer Motion public. Shortly after going public, Intuitive Surgical merged with Computer Motion, giving the company a third of the shares initially priced around $10/share. Today, Intuitive Surgical’s stock is priced around $668/share.
Learning From More Mistakes
After Computer Motion, Gene founded 2 more companies, Photo Access and Bitfone, before moving on to his current venture, People Power. With each startup came more mistakes, but also more lessons to learn and more potential for success.
With Photo Access, Gene tried to do too much with too little. He spent $22 million trying to build a chip called PhotoChip that would be able to take pictures, send them wirelessly, and then get prints by mail. At the time, this was a revolutionary idea, but they ran into problems with the operating system and expenses.
“I think that the vision was correct but I didn’t leverage other people and tried to do everything by myself. Looking back, I should have focused more. I would say that I learned to focus in on the MVP and to really think twice before making a chip.”
Despite the roadblocks, Photo Access sold successfully into two halves: Agilent acquired the chip business unit and ended up embedding PhotoChip into 100 million camera phones, and the company’s photo printing web service was purchased by American Greetings to print photos and photo merchandise.
After Photo Access, Gene’s next business, Bitfone, ended up being a huge success. It became the world’s largest mobile phone device management software and was bought out by HP for $160 million.
Gene has come a long way from the student at UC Berkeley who couldn’t choose between a major in Music or Computer Science, and the full-time engineer stuck in a boring corporate job. He chose to take a risk, and it worked out. And after years in the entrepreneurship world, he learned some incredibly important lessons.
“It’s all about people. People first, product second. As you wander throughout life, you should keep close relationships with the real stars and treat them well. If you do that, they will come back.”
And they really did. Fourteen members from Bitfone now work at People Power, as do Stan Curtis and John Teeter from Gene’s first startup attempt, Gold Hill Computers. Stan is the VP of Business Development and John is the Chief Scientist and Chief Security Officer.
With a solid team backing him, Gene launched People Power and the popular Internet of Things app, Presence. Presence is a free app that turns your smartphone into a security camera with built-in motion detection and video alerts. It also works as a home security monitoring system by providing entry sensors, motion detectors, temperature and water sensors, smart plugs, and other devices that are controlled by brains in the cloud.
People Power will next expand to senior care with a new IoT care service that allows families to share precious moments captured in video and photos, while also helping seniors live more comfortably in their homes.
Gene attributes much of his success to having the right team. He trusts the people he brought on to People Power.
“I share a lot more than I used to. I used to pretend that I knew all of the answers. These days, I tend to be really open with my team. If I don’t know, I’ll tell them that I don’t know. I try and get my folks to rise up and tackle the problems.”
Over the last several years, he risked everything in order to do what he loves and finds exciting.
“Don’t confuse the pressure, the stress, and the obstacles with not loving it. You can love what you’re doing even though it’s hard. 9 out of 10 startups fail. If you want to be in that top 10 percent you need to be resilient, persistent, and form a great team that will stick close to you.”
That persistence and perseverance are the most important traits an entrepreneur can have. It separates the successes from the failures.
“My company mascot is the cockroach because long after humans are dead and gone, the cockroach is going to be here. You can step on one, burn one, or poison one, but these things are tough. It’s not the most glamorous, but it works.”