Founder Story: Linc Jepson, 74ze

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Founder Story, skmurphy

This originally appeared in my “Entrepreneurial Engineer” column in EETimes as “Linc Jepson’s 74ze leverages Russian and American engineering talent to persevere” on Jan-18-2011. I have added some additional hyperlinks in this version.

Linc Jepson studied Electrical Engineering at Tufts and after he graduated with his BSEE he was drawn to Silicon Valley’s technology boom in 1997. He worked as an RTL design engineer at several startups including Auravision, Broadlogic, and Believe and in 2002 he travelled to Eastern Europe for two years where he worked for a startup microprocessor company). He returned to Silicon Valley in 2004 to co-found 74ze, a design services firm that leverages Eastern European engineering talent. I sat down with him after a recent Bootstrappers Breakfast to learn more about his entrepreneurial journey; what follows is an edited transcript of our conversation with hyperlinks added for context.

Q: You have a broad base of experience, what kind of work do you enjoy?

I enjoy the fast-pace of small companies, where there is not only the opportunity but the necessity to do all kinds of work. And that work has an immediate and significant impact. Early in my career I was doing clean-slate development, performance research, upgrading and debugging modules of long-gone developers, verification, 3rd-party IP integration, you name it. I didn’t realize it at the time but it was great training for consulting.

Q: Why did you pick Eastern Europe when you left the Valley?

During the 2001 downturn in Silicon Valley I decided to indulge my wanderlust a bit and to get a better feel for the foreign labor market. I had previously worked with a team of engineers in India. I had studied Russian for about four years in high school and college and had a seedling of an idea in mind about starting a services company that would have a portion of its team abroad.

In 2002 I moved over to Minsk and then Moscow for about two years. I brushed up on–OK I greatly improved on–my Russian and found a job doing RTL design in Zelenograd, Russia. Interestingly, the company had been founded by Chinese/Malay investors. I created a CompactFlash controller and a touchscreen interface. I was also making contacts and continuing to think about an outsourcing team.

I had confirmed that there is some exceptional talent there.

Q: How did you decide on outsource engineering as a business model?

We consider 74ze (pronounced 74 Zee) a services firm, first and foremost. We happen to use remote experts when it benefits a project. About a third of our projects never utilize our remote team. In school I studied International Relations as well, for a BA. Working with remote teams allows me to pursue another passion.

While I wasn’t keen on the mercenary perception that many folks have of contract engineers, I knew that there could be improvements made in the outsourcing model. Specifically, most engineers tend to shy-away from verbal or face-to-face communication. It seems easier to be non-confrontational and swap a few emails instead of picking the phone or Skype, but you can delude yourself into thinking that all will be okay. This can be particularly dangerous when you are an outsider of a company. These communication issues are often compounded by cultural issues. Merge a few factors such as a contractor being foreign and also more junior than the client’s counterpart, as is often the case with remote teams, and you often find someone who too often will dodge asking a short, potentially embarrassing question, and try to compensate by putting in more hours.

The fallout from labor globalization can be overcome with stronger communication and more global management experience. It’s not achievable in all stages of development, but someone who work effectively  not only with other engineers in the same building but also with engineers in Krakow or Kiev is growing in value.

Q: How did you get started?

In 2004 I moved back to the US. We incorporated 74ze in Delaware, and then in Russia a few years later, after we had traction. One of our first two jobs was a local one. We had 2-3 people, all US citizens, on site. We only did minor work abroad, such as some analog modeling. The other early job was for a company in Europe. The job was a referral from an existing relationship. That job was done completely remotely. We only met the technical people from the client at a trade show, a few months later, where they demonstrated with our product.

Q: If you are doing RTL design and verification what EDA tools do you use?

An immediate obstacle that we ran in to when we started was the high cost of EDA tools. Right off the bat, this started knocking us out of the running for various contracts. When I was living in Zelenograd, I had used Aldec’s HDL verification tools and had a very good experience with them. After not using them for a few years, because we were using customer tools in the US, one of the guys on our team proposed that we incorporate Aldec’s tools into our next bid.

Over the years, we’ve built up a relationship with Aldec and have grown to rely on their tools quite a bit. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t get much traction in conversations with the other EDA vendors, but I think that we have found a good solution with Aldec Riviera-PRO and a solid partner for moving forward.

Q: Can you give me a brief overview of where the company is today?

We’ve shifted more towards verification in the last few years, both in terms of the jobs we’ve taken and also in terms of a conscious decision to solidify our roots in that space. While most of our early jobs were in or involved some design, and we continue to work in this field, we see that the continuing abstraction of testing is creating a very large opportunity. We’ve been honing our SystemVerilog skills in the last few years and have been doing more verification than anything else, lately.

While we are still a mix of full-time and contract-based engineers, we are a pure engineering team with next to no marketing or sales overhead. This means less overhead cost for the client, but also that we don’t have the sheen of the larger companies. When we meet with a prospective client, they meet the lead engineer in the first meeting.

The economy interfered with our plan to cycle a few younger engineers into our team. Our team has a minimum of 12 years of experience, but I expect that we’ll have an internal project running as a testing ground for some junior engineers later this year.

Q: What are the two or three things that you have been able to accomplish that you take the most pride in or satisfaction from?

We increased our role significantly with two clients over a 2-3 year relationship. With one of those companies, we joined to develop a few blocks from spec and ultimately took on a much larger amount of design work as well as key roles in integration and top-level verification. We helped carry them through full chip functional sign-off and final timing closure. The chip worked the first time. The CTO of one of those companies, Mark Indovina, became an advisor.

We nailed the deadline to get a prototype RTL processor core developed for another client, enabling them to meet the deadline for a multi-day meeting with one of their key clients in Japan. We had to make two flavors, optimizing for power and performance constraints.

I am happy that we have grown to the point where it made sense to incorporate in Russia; growing our team there was a significant milestone.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise? What was one key assumption you made, perhaps even unconsciously, that has caused the most grief?

Sales. Selling is tough. I came back from Eastern Europe and a bit arrogantly thought that as a skilled group of engineers, we would break into the contractor market easily. I have learned that selling is a process. I am not a salesperson in the least. My father was and I didn’t have much respect for the field, until I tried it.

Q: What development, event, or new understanding since you started has had the most impact on your original plan? How has your plan changed in response?

I thought that I would be spending a lot more time in Eastern Europe than I have been. We have a senior team there that runs smoothly. The last time I was there I was trying to hire another engineer for a project and was unsuccessful. Salaries were skyrocketing.

We are more local and on-site and less offshore-centric today than I initially envisioned.

Q: What suggestions do you have for entrepreneurs?

Be willing to deviate from your plan; not necessarily from your objective. I think we can (I did) envision the future too much or too specifically, such that you have a hardened mold in your mind and of how something will turn out and then work like hell to fill that mold with your progress. Sometimes there is less resistance to your goal down a parallel path.

Q: Thanks for your time.

Linc Jepson is a long time attendee at Bootstrapper Breakfasts®, and has a brief video interview up at “Linc Jepson: the main reason I come to the Bootstrapper Breakfast

Founder Story Sam Wurzel, Octopart

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Founder Story, skmurphy

This originally appeared in my “Entrepreneurial Engineer” column in EETimes as “Octopart helps nearly a half a million people find the part they need every month” on Mar-3-2011. I have added some additional hyperlinks in this version.

I originally made a note to blog about Octopart in October of 2007 and again in April of 2008 as I used them to research part information for various client projects. The interface has evolved over the years but the site offers a very clean and information rich way to search for parts and part information, aggregating content from a number of sites into a single coherent view. The company was founded by Sam Wurzel, Andres Morey, and Harish Agarwal in 2006. All three had a common background in physics and they have brought a level of rigor along with a hacker perspective to part selection that has created a useful and innovative part selection site.

When they announced in January that DigiKey was allowing them to include their catalog in the Octopart parametric search results I realized I needed to do an interview with them. I was able to talk to Sam Wurzel, what follows is an edited transcript of our conversation with hyperlinks added for context. I have included more on the founders’ backgrounds after the main interview to give readers who are interested a window into their diverse backgrounds and low key humor.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your background

All of us have a background in physics, and physics is what brought us together. Andres and I became friends while studying physics in college and Harish and Andres became friends while studying physics in grad school. Our areas of research were all different; I was working on plasma physics, Andres was working on experimental cosmology and Harish was working on biophysics.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about what led you to found your company, what was the problem that motivated you?

In 2005 I read Paul Graham’s essay “How to Start a Startup” and it really changed my perspective that I could start a technology company. I was in graduate school in Boulder but it was becoming clear that the academic path was not the right one for me and I had been looking for alternatives.

Soon after that I sent Andres the link, and we started throwing around ideas for startup companies. In the spring of 2006 I got a phone call from Andres. He was having trouble finding a low temperature capacitor for his experiment and suggested that we build a database of electronic parts and make it easily searchable on the web.

Q: Are there any entrepreneurs in your family or who you interacted with when you were growing up?

Both of my grandfathers were entrepreneurs in their own way: one owned a pharmacy and the other owned a car dealership.

Q: So both ran businesses that had complex inventory management issues?

It’s funny, I hadn’t really thought about it before, but now that you ask I remember working in the parts department of my grandfather’s car dealership. Maybe that gave me some insight into the problems that Octopart solves for engineers and electronics hobbyists.

Q: How did you get started?

In mid 2006, we started writing code and learning about web technologies in the little spare time we had. After working in the lab all day, we would come home and write code on a Linux server that I bought at a yard sale for $50. We would often work until 3 or 4 in the morning. By that fall we had a working prototype and applied to Y Combinator. We got some seed funding from them and incorporated the company at the end of 2006. We launched the site in March of 2007.

Q: Can you give me a brief overview of where the company is today?

Today we’ve grown to serve over 440,000 unique visitors per month who are searching for electronic parts. We list the inventories of over 50 distributors, including some of the largest distributors in the industry.

We also have a relationship with Cadence: our aggregated part information is published in the OrCad Component information system.

Q: Octopart is a powerful search tool: what’s the business model? Are you profitable?

Our business model is connecting part buyers with distributors, and the distributors pay for that traffic. We also do display advertising targeted to the electronics industry. We are profitable.

Q: What are the two or three things that you have been able to accomplish that you take the most pride in or satisfaction from?

From a technical standpoint, we’re very proud of the back-end system we’ve built to handle the incoming data feeds and the front end system to serve up fast responses to user queries. From a product standpoint, we’re proud that our users find Octopart useful. Getting emails from users who love the site is great.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise? What was one key assumption you made, perhaps even unconsciously, that has caused the most grief?

When we started Octopart, we were sure that within 6 months, we would have all the major distributors signed up and we would be overwhelmed with users. In fact everything takes longer than we expect it to. That includes building technology, building relationships and getting users. On the surface, it seems like the problems involved in part search are straightforward: get the data, build a system to keep track of it, and build an intuitive frontend interface. But each of those problems have subproblems, and each subproblem needs to be iterated on quite a bit.

Q: What development, event, or new understanding since you started has had the most impact on your original plan? How has your plan changed in response?

Surprisingly, the business model and the design of the site today has not changed that much since we first conceived it. The biggest difference between the original vision and where we are today is the time it took us to get here. We still focus on two critical challenges: getting good data from many sources and correlating it into an integrated view of a part, and offering our users an intuitive and powerful interface for finding the parts that they are looking for. Both are hard problems and although we have made a lot of progress I wouldn’t consider either of them to be fully solved.

Q: You must be doing something right if almost half a million people visit every month looking for part information. Thanks for your time

I have included biographical information supplied by Octopart on the founders as I found it very interesting reading.

Sam Wurzel
Sam graduated from Brown University with a Bachelors degree in physics and engineering. He went to graduate school at the University of Colorado at Boulder where left the PhD program with a Masters degree to work on Octopart.

Sam likes to build things. While a student, he spent alternate summers working in experimental physics labs as research assistant and in bicycle shops as a mechanic. In grad school at CU Boulder Sam joined a newly formed lab testing the design of a fusion plasma confinement scheme which one day might be useful in a commercial fusion reactor.  Although Sam liked the lab work, he realized academia was not a good fit for him. So, he started working on Octopart, and eventually left his PhD program to move to Berkeley to pursue Octopart full time.

At Octopart Sam manages relationships with distributors, writes code to handle their data feeds, and works on techniques to normalize the data arriving from many different sources.

When Sam is not working on Octopart, he enjoys running and reading while on public transportation.

Andres Morey
Andres received his Bachelors degree in physics from Brown University in Providence, RI and attended UC Berkeley for graduate school, leaving the PhD program with a Masters degree in physics to work on Octopart. As a grad student, Andres worked on the IceCube Neutrino Observatory – an experiment that uses neutrino interactions in the ice at the South Pole to map cosmic neutrino sources.

While working on various hardware projects for his experiment, Andres spent a lot of time searching for electronic components. Frustrated with the online search options, he called up his friend and fellow grad student, Sam Wurzel, and suggested that they build an electronic parts search engine. After spending several months working on a prototype they decided to leave grad school to work on the project full time and in November 2006 they incorporated as Octopart, Inc.

Since leaving grad school, Andres has been working on Octopart full time. Andres is responsible for most of Octopart’s consumer-facing features including client-side code and all graphical and UI elements. In the course of working on Octopart Andres discovered that he loves working at a tech startup because it is a platform for solving a series of never ending problems from managing human relationships to squashing obscure Internet Explorer bugs. Andres discovered that he loves coding because of the feeling he gets when he finds an elegant solution to a coding puzzle.

Currently, Andres spends his free time thinking about Octopart.

Harish Agarwal
Harish received his undergrad degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in Engineering Physics and a Masters degree from Cambridge University in Semiconductor Physics. Harish left his physics PhD program at U.C. Berkeley with a Masters degree to join Octopart.

Harish enjoys understanding systems and developing projects that work on top of them. As a graduate student in Jan Liphardt’s biophysics lab at U.C. Berkeley, Harish was tasked with studying nuclear transport in eukaryotic cells. Having come from a physics undergraduate education, this involved hitting the books and pestering kind colleagues for advice and gems of wisdom. This crash course preceded many long days at the bench developing biological protocols and a microscopy system to track nanometer scale cargo transit through the nuclear pore on millisecond timescales.

Harish left academia in the spring of 2007 to join two friends in developing Octopart, a search engine for electronic parts. Having come from a biophysics lab to work on an already launched website without knowing exactly what MySQL stood for, this involved a lot of intense on the job learning. In the past three years, Harish has had the opportunity to work on many nooks and crannies of Octopart, from developing front end user features, to hacking search capabilities into open source search engines.

Octopart has been covered in the last year by

Follow Up: Octopart Acquired in Aug-2015 by Altium

I’m very happy to share big Octopart news today: We’ve signed a definitive agreement to join Altium, a leading provider of design software for the electronics industry. Octopart will become a wholly owned subsidiary of Altium and continue to grow and operate independently from our headquarters in New York City.

First things first: this deal is good for Octopart users. Octopart will be increasing the pace of what we’ve always done: opening up access to part data for design, sourcing, and manufacturing. Our search engine will stay free, fast, and open. Our API will remain available to existing and new users. We’ll continue to provide component data in a clean, straightforward way without any pop-up ads or unnecessary forced registration nonsense.

We’re joining forces with Altium because we think we can innovate and grow Octopart more quickly together than apart. We live in a time when electrical engineers, makers, and hackers have high expectations for their design tools and for component search. Octopart users expect rich content like CAD models and reference designs at their fingertips when doing component selection. Users of PCB design software expect supply chain intelligence at hand when they are designing new products. Bringing Octopart together with Altium will make this possible, and more. We envision a future where going from prototyping to production is a seamless experience and we’re going to work together to make that vision a reality.

From the beginning of Octopart we’ve been encouraged and spurred on by our investors, our families, and our friends, and we are deeply grateful for that. Today Altium joins that group which will only accelerate Octopart’s forward motion. 

Founder Story: Eric Deal, Cyclic Design

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Founder Story

This originally appeared in EETimes on-line as “Eric Deal bounces back from a startup shutdown to establish Cyclic Design” on Dec-20-2010.

I met Eric Deal, president of Cyclic Design, through the IEEE Consulting Network of Silicon Valley and was impressed by his energy and enthusiasm in bouncing back from one failed startup to begin a second one.

The ongoing recession is encouraging a number of engineers to be more entrepreneurial. I think entrepreneurial engineers will find Eric’s answers insightful. His approach to establishing Cyclic Design as a successful IP company had three key components:

  • He built on his two decades of design expertise.
  • He leveraged his knowledge of trends in the solid state drive (SSD) market.
  • He reframed the problems the recession was causing his prospects as an opportunity he could focus on.

What follows is an edited transcript of our interaction with links added for context.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your background

I graduated from Texas A&M University in 1992 with a BS in Electrical Engineering. Over the past 18 years, I have worked in digital logic design and architecture on a variety of projects at IBM, Conexant, and Sigmatel.

In 2008 I left Sigmatel to found an enterprise SSD startup called Multixtor as the VP of Hardware Engineering. In this role I defined, designed, and verified the hardware architecture for a multi-channel SSD. Unfortunately, we began fundraising about the time the market crashed, so in June 2009 we decided to pursue other options.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about what led you to found your company, what was the problem that motivated you?

In the middle of the recession, I didn’t see any interesting opportunities at local companies, so I took the opportunity to start my own business doing consulting. To differentiate myself (and keep myself busy since few companies were hiring contractors/consultants), I took my expertise with error correction and created BCH IP (the algorithm used for NAND flash) that I could license to companies in need of a solution.

When I left Sigmatel, they were left without an ECC expert. I wondered how many other companies would be in a similar position as layoffs and lack of investment in R&D during the recession; when designs started ramping up again as the economy recovered, they would be left with a deficiency in the ECC of their NAND flash controllers.

I also saw the transition in NAND flash correction block size as an opportunity. The companies I had worked for were designing large SOCs, where they typically had designed their NAND controllers as a highly-integrated portion of a larger IO controller. For these companies, buying a new NAND controller was not a good option since it would require discarding their legacy hardware design and software drivers. It seemed that these customers would benefit most from simply integrating ECC IP into their controllers, preserving this investment.

Q: How did you get started?

I started networking with companies in Austin to determine if I could address this disconnect in the NAND market with a service. My goal was to determine if firms would value ECC as a consulting service. If they did, my plan was to offer a faster time to solution by building on a flexible ECC IP platform. I found my first customer at NXP for their SOC applications. I also promoted Cyclic Design online and became a Design & Reuse partner to improve visibility outside of Austin.

Q: Can you give me a brief overview of where the company is today?

There were a few bleak periods, but now Cyclic Design is to the point where we have a few customers and a few more on the way, and it’s getting easier to find and close new business. As a small company, we can provide a high level of service to customers and have the ability to customize the IP in order to better fit their needs. Cyclic Design has also expanded IP offerings to support higher ECC levels for MLC flash as well as providing a solution for SLC devices as customers transition from single-bit Hamming codes to BCH algorithms requiring 4-12 bit correction.

Q: What are the two or three things that you have been able to accomplish that you take the most pride in or satisfaction from?

As a designer, it is satisfying to see Cyclic Design’s IP used in a wide variety of applications across the market. It is also pretty incredible to think that with easy access to global communications, Cyclic Design is providing solutions for companies all over the world.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise? What was one key assumption you made, perhaps even unconsciously, that has caused the most grief?

Probably the biggest surprise is how hard it is to get potential customers from first contact through licensing. Having a solution that meets an engineering need doesn’t necessarily turn into a successful business relationship.

Q: What development, event, or new understanding since you started has had the most impact on your original plan? How has your plan changed in response?

Over time we learned that our initial ideas about customer demand was a little off, but we were able to learn and adapt our offerings. Now we believe we’ve gotten a better understanding of what most of the customers need, and we have a pretty good handle on what product offerings to do next.

Q: Any other remarks or suggestions for entrepreneurs?

You have to find something you love doing; otherwise, it is really hard to make it through the down times with little to no income or when a client changes direction and decides not to use your product or services. Also, before starting a venture, you need to know how long you can afford (financially) to stick with it before moving to something else; in this respect, a good financial adviser is a great asset.

Q: Thank you for your time.

Founder Story: Ghislain Kaiser, Docea Power

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Founder Story

This interview originally ran Nov-4-2010 at “Docea Power Successfully Bootstraps As a New EDA Player.”

I had a chance to catch up with Ghislain Kaiser, CEO of Docea Power, a promising new startup based in France. Their product, Aceplorer, has been gaining increasing acceptance in the power and thermal management space. Ghislain was kind enough to share how they got started and some of the key things he has learned bootstrapping a new EDA startup. What follows is an edited transcript that I have added hyperlinks to for context.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your background?

I’m CEO and one of two co-founders of Docea Power. The other founder is Sylvian Kaiser, my brother, who is CTO and R&D director.

I worked for STMicroelectronics as senior system architect on wireless applications and before that as project leader for the set-top box division. I have a Master of Science degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Supelec (Ecole Supérieure d’Electricité, France).

Sylvian worked at Infineon then TTPCom, covering multiple aspects of 3G/2.5G modem circuit design like system and algorithm definition, embedded software development and validation on FPGA and silicon. He has a Master of Science degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from SupTelecom (Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Télécommunications, Paris, France).

Q: Can you talk a little bit about what led you to found your company, what was the problem that motivated you?

At ST I was in charge of defining power management strategy at system level for wireless applications like Application Processor engine. I had a second role which was to represent ST at MIPI consortium for system power management topics where I had the chance to work with the best power experts from the major semiconductor and system integrator companies.

Most of the time architects develop complex spreadsheets to estimate power consumption early in the design phase and drive implementation teams with specifications. But this approach is not scalable with the increasing complexity of the SoC and in an environment involving multiple teams over the world.

After visiting many companies and meeting many designers and architects I can say that the Excel spreadsheets represent 90% of the solutions used for power planning.  The spreadsheets are a
quite good solution when the system is not too complex and dynamic analysis is not required.

In 2005 Sylvian and I believed two things:

  1. The spreadsheet approach would be no longer be satisfactory for the next generation of SoC designs.
  2. Temperature issues would become a critical constraint for more and more electronic applications because of:
    • Increasing dependency of the leakage current with the temperature at each new technology node.
    • Increasing integration capability also increases the power density and the pressure on costs of chip packages.

This led us to found Docea Power in 2006. We collaborated with research centers for two years to develop our first product, Aceplorer, which helps architects explore low power/temperature architecture.

Q: How did you get started?

In 2006 we started with $400k by winning the national innovation award organized by the French ministry of research. We also received grants also from European and national Research projects as we are involved in several collaborative projects. We had service revenue as well from customer engagements during our first two years.

Q: Can you give me a brief overview of where the company is today?

Aceplorer and our methodology have been adopted and deployed by several major chip and system manufacturers, including ST-Ericsson. At DAC 2010 we announced a common laboratory with CEA-Leti around 3D chip design which raises new challenges like low power / thermal architecture exploration.

Q: What are the two or three things that you have been able to accomplish that you take the most pride in or satisfaction from?

First, we bootstrapped Docea for almost 4 years. Our first round of funding was done only this year. It was not an easy exercise to develop a product, get the first customers and drive our solution to industrial maturity

Second, we have managed to raise an investment round in a tough context for EDA start-ups. Fortunately our revenue growth and strong  customer references made it possible.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise? What was one key assumption you made, perhaps even unconsciously, that has caused the most grief?

The economical crisis was certainly the most unexpected event for us. Late 2008 corresponded to the launch of our first product Aceplorer but also to the beginning of economy slow down. The situation couldn’t have been worse. Fortunately we were able to get our first customers in 2009.

Q: What development, event, or new understanding since you started has had the most impact on your original plan? How has your plan changed in response?

In our original plan we didn’t anticipate the emergence of new standards related to power topic. In 2007 a new area of standardization appeared and two new standards started fighting : CPF first, proposed by Cadence, then followed by UPF driven mainly by Synopsys, Mentor Graphics and Magma.

We have modified our original roadmap to include support for both of these standards in our Aceplorer product.

Q: Any other remarks or suggestions for entrepreneurs?

Three things I have learned in the last four years:

  • Cash flow is key when you are bootstrapping: understand where  you are spending money, what commitments you have made on your  cash, and when you are likely to see revenue.
  • People make the difference, not the technology.
  • Be more than a vendor, be a partner to your customers: you must collaborate with your customers, not just sell to them.

Q: Thanks for your time.

Founder Story: Paul van Besouw, Oasys Design Systems

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Founder Story

This interview originally ran Aug 11, 2010 in EETimes online at–Paul-van-Besouw–Oasys-Design-Systems

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Paul van Besouw, CEO of Oasys Design Systems, and interview him on lessons learned from his entrepreneurial efforts at Ambit and Oasys. I have added hyperlinks where I felt they would provide context.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your background?

I am a founder of Oasys, along with Johnson Limqueco, vice president of R&D, and Harm Arts, CTO. We were part of the core R&D team at Ambit Design Systems, which was acquired by Cadence. At Cadence, the team focused on physical synthesis, connecting traditional synthesis to physical design.

I have a Master of Science degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the Eindhoven University of Technology in The Netherlands.

My entry into the EDA industry goes back to when I was at the University of Eindhoven. I was part of a group doing EDA research and I got an email from Rajeev Madhavan, who was starting Ambit. He was looking for software developers who had experience developing RTL synthesis front-ends. I was just finishing my Masters degree and trying to figure out what to do next, so the timing was perfect.

That was 1995. I talked to Rajeev Madhavan and he invited me to come out to California. I packed up my suitcase and came over, and that is how the whole thing started. It was initially meant to be a six-month project but it turned into 15 years.

Just coming out of University with no industrial experience, it was a great opportunity. There really was nothing there. Everything had to be built from scratch, and it was a great learning experience. We had a small core R&D team of about six that built the foundation of the Ambit technology.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about what led you to found your company, what was the problem that motivated you?

By building synthesis technology at Ambit and separately building physical technology at Cadence, we realized that we were forcing design teams to deal with a suboptimal solution. We saw how hard it was to integrate synthesis and place and route together in a way that produced the best quality of results. Traditional synthesis turns RTL code into a quick-and-dirty netlist and then runs a powerful but slow optimizer on that netlist. Our goal is to produce the best starting point for physical implementation by producing placed netlists that in turn enable the place and route tool to deliver the targeted quality of results.

It took two years to build a new chip synthesis technology from scratch, we call it RealTime Designer. The first prototype solution was qualified on an actual design and the engineer’s reaction was priceless. After they had verified the design and validated the quality of results on site they said: “Holy smokes! The run really did take less than 15 minutes.”

Q: Can you give me a brief overview of where the company is today?

RealTime Designer has proven itself in dozens of benchmarks and is in use in production flows. For example, Renesas in Japan has been working with Oasys for more than two years and its chief engineer considers it to be the most advanced synthesis technology. In fact, he thinks that it has the potential to change the usage model.

Design teams today are more sensitive about letting their company names be used as a reference. Most of the design teams we are working with have single vendor relationships, and several of these customers have EDA CEOs as their executive sponsors. That makes it tricky for them to come out and say anything about another competitive technology.

Just before the Design Automation Conference this year, we announced that Juniper Networks had selected RealTime Designer for the design of its next-generation networking chips. Juniper thoroughly evaluated RealTime Designer and concluded that it offers high-quality results and performed well in the Juniper design environment. Juniper approached us because the runtime of the existing tools was way too slow and took forever to get from RTL to GDSII. Debashis Basu, vice president for Silicon Development at Juniper Networks, gave RealTime Designer high marks, noting that it is a great tool that fits a very real performance need.

We followed this announcement with the news that we signed a multi-year strategic licensing agreement with Xilinx for our Chip Synthesis technology. Vin Ratford, Xilinx’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, said that with programmable chip sizes growing and complexity mounting, Xilinx needed to look at a new generation of synthesis to support the needs of its customers.

Q: It has been reported that Xilinx is an investor in Oasys? Is either Xilinx or Juniper an investor in Oasys? Are any of the executives of either firm an investor in Oasys?

Juniper and Xilinx are customers and not investors. Neither has taken an equity stake in Oasys. None of the executives at Juniper or Xilinx is an investor in Oasys.

Juniper licensed our RealTime Designer software to use in its design flow. Xilinx licensed the Oasys Chip Synthesis technology and is modifying it to support FPGA designs; it will have the Xilinx brand.

Q: What are the two or three things that you have been able to accomplish that you take the most pride in or satisfaction from?

We created a new technology with a small team, and little funding. At first, we were completely self-funded. We rented a small apartment where we spent about a year just coding everything from scratch. Later, we received some seed funding from several EDA-savvy angel investors, which allowed us to move into a “real” office.

We had a working prototype by 18 months to show other angel investors, which allowed us to secure a bit more funding. I was able to attract the attention of some of the best people in the industry. It took some convincing, but I was also able to attract Joe Costello‘s attention. He is now a member of our board of directors.

Joe’s keynote speech at the 43rd Design Automation Conference in 2006 outlined three rules for building a successful company in EDA. The rules talk about how to “think like a fish,” and that you should “write your press release first,” and to “fundamentally change the rules.” It was around the same time that I started my discussion with Joe. I talked him through the technology and how we did things. He definitely saw the potential of this kind of technology where it could fundamentally change the game rather than trying to play the game, which is basically what we had done at Ambit.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise? What was one key assumption you made, perhaps even unconsciously, that has caused the most grief?

From the very beginning, the team was focused on building a better implementation technology, and on getting better quality of results through place and route. We expected to improve the capacity and runtime as well, but really did not expect such a huge improvement. I think this must have been the biggest surprise, although a positive one.

On the negative side, the biggest surprise was when the economy weakened so much. It has made the funding environment challenging, to say the least, and has also caused customers to become cautious about considering new tools.

One big challenge is that we are competing in a mature market. That sets the bar extremely high since design teams only start to become interested once the tool is better than the incumbent technology in pretty much every respect. And, not just incrementally better, but compellingly better.

If you go back to Ambit, the motivation for design teams to buy Ambit was different. Synopsys had a monopoly. Ambit had a good technology, but it was more a “me too” implementation. We had the advantage of doing it from scratch and were able to do it a little bit better than what Synopsys had done at that time. Clearly, one motivation for design teams to go with Ambit was just to have a competitor in the market.

Ten years later, it is more difficult to innovate and come up with new technologies. Nobody got fired for going with Synopsys. Adopting a new technology in a critical path of your design tapeout is a big deal.

If you start a technology company and are able to compete in the market today, it is all about building a complete solution. It is one thing to have a promising technology that shows some good results on one or two designs. You have to be able to build out a technology with all the bells and whistles and still show that advantage over a large number of designs.

Q: What development, event, or new understanding since you started has had the most impact on your original plan? How has your plan changed in response?

Venture capital for EDA is pretty much non-existent. This was a new reality and we were forced to do things differently. We are working with less money and fewer engineers on a longer development time-line than we would have if we had started Oasys 10 years ago.

Nobody embarks on a startup thinking it will take six years just to get to market, but that was the reality we faced. On the other hand, it did allow us to focus on maturing the product before announcing the product and/or company. We were able to close some significant business, which is driving the company right now. We continue to focus on building our customer base and growing the business based their success.

When we started, we had a different perception than we have now. With my background from Ambit, I knew what it would take to build things from scratch, but we were still counting on the funding to be there. In hindsight it was a blessing because we were forced to do more with less. It was a core team that worked on the technology from the ground up rather than having some ideas, build something and then have a big team work it out. In the end, it has helped the technology mature in the way it did because it was a technology completely different from what we had ever done before.

However, it definitely took longer to develop the technology because of a lack of funding. It took us three years to get a prototype to work and to get to a point where we could start engaging with some design teams. However, when we did, we realized that we had something different that was even better than we had imagined.

Q: Any other remarks or suggestions for entrepreneurs?

Starting a company sounds glamorous but it is hard work and takes perseverance. The two pillars that allow the company to go through some of the tough times are the support of your family and a founding team that works well together.

Obviously the founders have to believe that what they are doing will make a difference. They need to learn to balance out the highs and lows to keep the team motivated.

I have been very fortunate in being able to key surround myself with great people. Oasys has extremely knowledgeable people as investors and on the board of directors. It is easy for a founding team to get absorbed by the technology, so it is important to balance it out.

What makes EDA both interesting and challenging is that it is not only about the software. In the end, you are building software to build hardware. You have to start with insights into both and learn a lot more along the way. In many cases it is the experience of what does not work that really allows you to focus on the things that do work. EDA software is built on a technology foundation surrounded by algorithms. Starting out, a lot of time is spent on finding out what does not work. There are many details that need to be incorporated to enable your technology to work in an actual production flow.

Starting with a great technology is not sufficient.

Q: Thanks very much for your time.

B.V. Jagdeesh on “Startup Leadership Lessons Learned”

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 4 Finding your Niche, Events, First Office, Founder Story

Mr. B.V. Jagadeesh gave a great talk on “Lessons Learned Starting, Leading, and Succeeding at Multiple Startups” tonight at the GITPRO meeting.  Mr. Jagadeesh co-founded Fouress (a bootstrapped consulting firm), co-founded Exodus Communications, was CEO at NetScalar (and stayed on after  its acquisition by Citrix as a VP/GM),  was  president and CEO of 3Leaf Systems, and is today  president and CEO of Virtela.  He is an accomplished entrepreneur (more details on LinkedIn and CrunchBase) and he gave a very candid talk on his entrepreneurial journey starting with his arrival in the United States in the early 1980’s to work at Novell.

I have had the privilege of hearing experienced entrepreneurs talk about lessons learned but it’s normally been a small group, a half dozen or dozen folks in a conference room or 15 or 20 around a Bootstrappers Breakfast table. This had that same sense of practical candor but there were perhaps a hundred to a hundred and twenty folks in the Oak Room.  It was a candid an insightful talk punctuated by frequent questions from the audience.  What follows are a few stories that I thought had a particular emotional resonance with the early stages of a startup.

He came from a family of teachers and professors of modest means. They were delighted when he graduated with bachelors degree in engineering and went to Bombay to earn a Masters degree. When he  was able to get a job in America it was unprecedented success. His new job allowed him to buy a used car which was one of the first owned by his family.

This made for a difficult phone call when he called his father to tell him he was going to quit his job to start a company. He had tried to work on it on the side with his future co-founder but came to understand if it was going to move forward he would have to focus on it.

“How much will this new job pay?” his father asked.

“It’s a startup, once we get clients I will be able to make some money” was Mr. Jagadeesh’s answer.

Needless to say his family thought he was making a mistake, but his calculation was that he had enough money saved to live simply for a year, he would pursue his dream of his own company and if it didn’t work out he would go back to being an engineer for a while.

Exodus went on to spearhead the concept of offsite co-location datacenters, changing the model from on-site data center served by an ISP. It enabled a number of companies large and small to establish a significant presence on the Internet.

His tenure at NetScalar saw the company narrowly avoid shutdown and go on to establish a  new paradigm for Internet connectivity management. He had to prepare two speeches for the employees, one where he announced that the company was getting shut down, and one where they announced  new round of funding (from Sequoia as it turns out). He was able to give the second speech and returned 8x to Sequoia when Citrix acquired NetScalar two and half years later.

He had to give the other speech a few years later as CEO of 3Leaf Systems when a key ASIC needed another spin and he was not able to convince investors to help. His point was that in both cases you had to prepare for the likely outcomes and take responsibility as CEO for what happens, doing the best that you can for your employees and investors.

One theme he stressed repeatedly was the need to impose the discipline on yourself and your team to prepare and act with the professionalism that your competitors are going to bring to the market. He talked about one team that he is advising that has met with some initial success. They realized that treating their offices as dorm rooms had been OK when there were a few founders, but now that they were growing and had two dozen  employees they needed to establish a more professional tone–without spending a lot of money. So they spent a few thousand dollars at IKEA and held furniture assembly parties. The new look changed both internal attitudes toward the workplace and those of  customers and potential investors who visited their offices.

He talked about volunteering to help the IEEE Silicon Valley put on events and conferences while he was still working at Novell. They met more than two decades ago in the Oak Room where he was speaking tonight .  By volunteering to find speakers he was able to have conversations with managers and executives at many companies that allowed him to develop a network that helped out as he was growing Exodus and NetScalar.  He felt a sense a coming full circle: he was now the invited speaker in the same room where he first started out as a volunteer.

It was a candid and reflective talk, Mr. Jagadeesh not only offered a wealth  of practical advice, answering a number of very good questions,  but he also communicated a fundamental sense of what it means to be a CEO: you need to take action and take responsibility for outcome of your actions.

Isaac Garcia on “Bootstrapping Central Desktop” at Feb-11 BB in Milpitas

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Events, Founder Story, Funding, skmurphy

steaming hot coffee and serious conversationIsaac Garcia, co-founder and CEO of Central Desktop, will share “Lessons Learned Bootstrapping Central Desktop” at the Milpitas Bootstrappers Breakfast® on February 11, 2011 at 7:30am. Central Desktop delivers a SaaS collaboration platform that helps businesses manage projects and documents in the cloud with colleagues, customers and partners.

Isaac Garcia (@isaacgarcia) oversees business strategy and sales for the company. Isaac’s talk will draw on his experience at both early-stage technology companies and in enterprise sales & marketing. He was a founding partner at Upgradebase, where he oversaw all business development and sales for the company. Isaac served as a Director of North America Enterprise Sales for CNET Channel. He was responsible for the acquisition, sales and management of global partnerships with Microsoft, Google, eBay, Yahoo and Best Buy. Isaac led and managed CNET’s global partnership with Microsoft to launch the Windows Marketplace campaign in 14 countries. He received a BA in English from Ambassador University and a Masters degree in English Literature from the University of Northern Colorado.

Isaac and Arnold Hsu, CTO of Central Desktop, were interviewed by the Techzing in February of 2010 on the need for relentless execution, see 34: TZ Interview – Central Desktop / Relentless Execution by techzing

Isaac noted the following in an E-mail exchange with Phil Wainwright in 2007 in answer to the question “Do SaaS Ventures Need VCs?

“In many ways, SaaS companies are not VC plays — at least, not in the traditional sense. Once established with a product to market, a properly run SaaS company can accurately predict its revenues and growth — which means that it can also predict, with relative accuracy, exactly how much cash it needs for expansion and when and how much of an ROI the lender/investor will receive. This time frame is usually much shorter than traditional VC horizons and less risky. This also means that the terms are different than most deals.”

When: Feb-11-2011 7:30am to 9:00am
Cost: $5 in advance / $10 at the door (plus breakfast, tax, and tip).
Where: Omega Restaurant, 90 S. Park Victoria Milpitas, CA, 95035

Register for Feb-11-2011 Bootstrapper Breakfast in MilpitasJoin other entrepreneurs who eat problems for breakfast® on February 11 in Milpitas.

Keep on Walking

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Founder Story, skmurphy, Video

My brother told me about “The Man Who Walked Around the World,” a 2009 long form commercial for Johnnie Walker that was part of their Keep on Walking campaign. It stars Robert Carlyle in a six minute single take.  I am not a scotch drinker but I found Carlyle’s delivery of the story of the entrepreneurial Walker family very inspiring.  In particular I liked this line:

And because there is nothing like a commercial proposition to stir the Scottish heart it quickly grew into an industry, filled with ambitious entrepreneur distillers.

Go ahead, watch the whole thing:

It really is a single take according to an interview with director Jamie Rafn: Behind Johnnie Walkers Walk

How many takes did you have to do to get the whole thing perfect?
The take that you have seen is the very last take we did at 8pm on the last day of the shoot. Take 40. The tension as we watched Robert do this take was unbelievable. It was such a good take at every stage and so the longer it went on without any fluffs the greater the pressure grew for nothing to go wrong. When he got to the end and I got to call cut there was this huge roar and applause from the crew and agency and I knew we had it.

Where was the film shot and what did the location add to the film?
It was shot near Loch Doyne in Scotland. The landscape is a huge part of it. It’s like another character. Its hauntingly beautiful up there and we were blessed with these lovely clouds that gave us this really lovely brooding look.

What was the most challenging element of the job?
By 5pm on day one we hadn’t managed to do one complete take. We therefore had nothing. We soon worked out that the reason for this was the huge bank of TV’s which we’d placed 2 meters in the wrong position. Robert was having to slow down his walking and speed up his talking in a way that was artificial and was throwing him. There was nothing we could do but rebuild the TV’s which meant wrapping and staring again the next day having achieved nothing on the first day. The following morning there were a lot of anxious faces and murmurings of “fixing it in post”. Then Robert turned up and did the very first take of the day in one. As I said – the man’s a genius.

Ken Imboden on Lessons From MMC, Candlestick, and NuSym

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 3 Early Customer Stage, Founder Story

I worked with Ken Imboden at  MMC Networks (acquired by AMCC in 2000). He managed a key group of microcode and embedded software developers whose efforts drove the successful adoption of MMC’s network processor chips. His role required him to manage both development and key customer issues and his judgment was sound across the board. He hired, developed, and motivated a very talented team and successfully buffered them from most of the chaos you would expect to find in a startup.

Ken went on to work at Candlestick Networks (acquired by Nortel in 2001) and co-found the now defunct NuSym Technology with Chris Wilson and Dave Gold. I reached out to him this week to get his perspective on lessons learned from working in software startups and he was kind enough to reply with this list of what he has learned from several startups over the years:

  1. Focus obsessively and relentlessly on providing measurable value for the customer. Ensure that your daily activities reflect this.  Insist that your co-workers do likewise.  Any effort you expend must be justified by value provided to the customer.
  2. All software is crap. (No?  Provide me with a counterexample.)  Most of the training that software developers receive, and most of the effort they expend, does not alter this fact, and in fact is perversely designed to ensure this result.  Decide what you can do to alter or ameliorate this fact.
    Humility is of great benefit in a software developer; hubris is of great detriment.
  3. Aggressively manage multiple development sites. Otherwise the sites will drift their separate ways, often to cross purposes.  Excessive interaction among the sites is a must.
  4. Periodically step back and dispassionately assess your company’s progress. Your goal is to generate profit — obscene amounts of profit.  (If you disagree, be sure to inform your prospective investors of your goals.  When you have gone long enough without funding, correct your goals and come back here.)
    • For a software firm, subgoals working backwards:
      • revenue,
      • purchase orders,
      • customer endorsements,
      • customer use,
      • customer use in a services model (taxicab mode),
      • in-house use,
      • development,
      • customer affirmation.
        (Note that software development is a small portion of the process.)
    • Periodically, ruthlessly measure your progress along the path of these subgoals.
  5. Stop doing the wrong thing. If your periodic assessment reveals you’re on the wrong path, change something in your process.  Otherwise, plan to keep getting undesired results; do not be surprised by this.
  6. Your initial idea is not your final product. Your first several ideas will not be your final product.  Customer affirmation of your idea is a necessary starting point.

Ken noted in closing:

I don’t think I’ve given you anything most folks did not already know.  The challenge is, of course, in the execution, especially reorienting the mindsets of egocentric and introverted software developers (pardon the redundancy), driving home the fact that the customer does not give a damn about their cleverness, the algorithms they implement, or their credentials.  The customer cares only about satisfying their own need.

Interview with Rajeev Madhavan, CEO of Magma Design Automation

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in EDA, Founder Story, skmurphy

Rajeev Madhavan is Chairman and CEO of Magma Design Automation, a public EDA company that’s a broad supplier. Madhavan is a serial entrepreneur, helping to found Logic Vision, Ambit, and Magma in the last 17 years. Ambit in particular was an ambitious startup, Rajeev went head to head with Synopsys and carved out a chunk of the synthesis market. But it was hard to get started, after he came away empty handed on Sand Hill Road he did an angel round with 25 seed investors who four years later were happy to have taken part when Ambit was acquired by Cadence for $260 million. He decided to found Magma in April 1997 after a disagreement with the board of Ambit. At Magma he was even more ambitious, aiming to be a broad line EDA supplier. Although the fund raising was easier, after the 2001 IPO Magma, like many EDA firms, has been faced with a challenging environment.

I was delighted when he agreed to an e-mail interview about his entrepreneurial journey. The words are his but I have added hyperlinks for entrepreneurs outside of EDA who may benefit from some more context to his remarks.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your background?

Madhavan: I grew up in Southern India. I went to college and earned a B.S. in electronics and communication from KREC (Karnataka Regional Engineering College) in Surathkal. I went on to graduate school at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, earning an M.S.E.E. While completing my thesis, I went to work for BNR (Bell North Research), the research arm of Nortel in Ottawa, where I found I needed to create some CAD software applications to help complete chip designs I was involved with. I had no traditional background in EDA or computer science, but while working at BNR, I ended up developing a lot of EDA tools.

By 1991, I was working at Cadence Design Systems in San Jose as a BNR engineer involved in a long-term partnership between the two companies called the Analog Alliance. Jim Solomon was also at Cadence at that time, leading the Analog Division. Jim convinced me to join Cadence as a full-time employee in 1991, and I worked intensely on Cadence’s Spectre HDL for a year and a half.

See below: “For More Info on Rajeev Madhavan” has more on this period from other interviews.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about what led you to found your company, what problem or situation motivated you?

Madhavan: While I was at Cadence, Vinod Agarwal talked to me about licensing BNR’s BIST software since I had worked on it. Ultimately I helped to co-found LV Software with Vinod Agarwal and Michael Howells in July 1992, which became LogicVision in 1996.

While I was at LogicVision, I had an opportunity to integrate LogicVision BIST into Synopsys tools. Having worked on synthesis at BNR and watched the failure of Cadence and Mentor in synthesis, I felt there was room for another synthesis player to compete directly against Synopsys. I looked at Design Compiler, and felt I could do better. So, I left LogicVision and founded Ambit Design Systems in 1994.

After Ambit, I realized that simply building a better synthesis tool wasn’t enough. To truly advance IC design, synthesis and physical design needed to be integrated. We started Magma in 1997 based on that simple idea.

Q: Can you give me a brief overview of where the firm is today?

Magma was founded in 1997 and is my third “official” startup. Magma had a very successful IPO two days before Thanksgiving 2001, at a time when other companies were shelving IPO plans.

Magma is now one of the largest EDA software providers with products used by major semiconductor manufacturers to design the most complex, high-performance analog and digital chips made today. Our revenue for Fiscal Year 2009 was $147 million and we have approximately 730 employees worldwide.

Q: What are two or three key things you have learned?

I’ve learned something from each of the three startups.

  • At LogicVision, I learned that creating great technology is not the only key to success. You have to know how to sell the software to the customer. We were woefully bad at licensing.
  • After Ambit, I looked at myself to see what I could improve. I went over the mistakes I made and looked at how I could correct them. I had fought with some of the board members at Ambit and found that I had had limited ability to communicate with employees. It was a revelation to realize that I was a bad communicator. I learned that I had to be more extroverted and outgoing. This was a life-changing shift and changed the way I ran Magma. Because of this change, I have been able to build a much tighter community at Magma than at Ambit. And, personally, I am glad that I made the transition. I enjoy being part of the community and find that I’m happier.
  • At Magma, the number one thing that I have learned is that, in spite of taking precautions and talking with employees about clean code development, we still had one bad apple. I learned very clearly to trust but to verify more than you think you need to!

Q: How have you changed since you started? What key skill or experience did you lack when you started that has caused you the most problem?

I now try to figure out what a person is all about and use that to help motivate them to do something great for the community. At Ambit, I didn’t. At Magma, I’ve built great relationships. If I disagree with someone, I can agree to disagree without holding a grudge. It’s been a good experience to change in this way.

Q: What are the two or three things that you have been able to accomplish that you take the most pride in or satisfaction from?

First, I’m very proud of creating the first physical synthesis system. Others may now claim to have a similar system, but clearly Magma was the first to deploy one.

Secondly, we survived an unfair litigation. I learned a lot from that experience that I wish I hadn’t had to. And, while I’m happy to say we won one of the key arguments on ownership, we still suffered from the litigation. Early on, I made the painful decision to order the complete rewrite of the Blast Fusion tool. In the end, it wasn’t necessary. The court upheld our position that IBM co-owned the technology and that we could use it because of a cross-licensing agreement we had with them. Given the risks, though, it was the right decision to make at the time.

After the lawsuit ended, we could have continued with Blast Fusion, but we had already launched Talus. I knew that when we had reached a few critical milestones with the new product, our technology lead would be even stronger.

Developing a production worthy version of Talus took some time and meant that we had to support two systems until we could migrate our customers to Talus. The last 18 months have been really tough, but now we’ve migrated our customers to Talus, and reached significant milestones in combining new routing and optimization technology into Talus. This new technology is as innovative as our original physical synthesis was.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise: what was one key assumption you made, perhaps even unconsciously, that has caused the most grief?

One of the biggest surprises in my years in this industry is how short-sighted the large EDA companies are. They shoot themselves in the foot with their licensing models. They literally give away “me too” tools in these “preferred EDA vendor or Flexible Access Model (FAM)” deals. Customers are never going to start paying for tools that they’ve been getting for free. This practice makes it impossible to grow the market. It hurts the large EDA companies, and the smaller companies and it hurts the industry.

It’s amazing that the brilliant technical minds at the large EDA companies continue to make bad business decisions. The good news is that semiconductor companies will always need EDA tools. I believe the EDA industry will transition away from these bad licensing models, but it will be a painful process and everyone will suffer.

What development, event, or new understanding since you started has had the most impact on your original plan? How has your plan changed in response?

For a while, Magma had the intention of becoming a full line supplier, just like the other larger EDA companies. But, I realized that customers won’t buy tools from me that they get free from somebody else –– UNLESS, it’s a truly superior tool. Now, Magma has put its focus back on developing truly differentiated products, rather than “me too” products.

Q: Any other remarks or suggestions for entrepreneurs?

While there’s turbulence in EDA right now, it’s not because we don’t provide critical technology. Once the industry has learned how to properly run a business, EDA will thrive again. So, I would encourage EDA entrepreneurs to hang on!

And for the entrepreneurial community in general, this is actually the perfect time to start a company, if you can get funding. Don’t get dazzled by your technology, make sure you and your team have solid business sense, as well.

Q: Thanks very much for your time.

For More Info on Rajeev Madhavan

I met Lucio Lanza when he was Vice President for Business Development at Cadence and a General Partner at USVP. Lucio gave me several start-ups’ business plans to look over and evaluate. By showing me those business plans, he helped me to understand the venture capital business and how ideas are funded. Specifically, Lucio was instrumental in funding EPIC. Reading their business plan and meeting with some of EPIC management made me realize a few things.

It was interesting to me to learn that you could earn a salary working at a start-up and that you didn’t have to be self-supporting. I wasn’t a rich kid and I had no idea that anyone could work for a start-up if they couldn’t support themselves on family money.

Interview with John Sanguinetti

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in EDA, Founder Story, skmurphy

Co-founder and chief technical officer of Forte Design Systems, John Sanguinetti talks about his experience of turning an idea into a business. He was the principal architect of VCS, the Verilog Compiled Simulator, and was a major contributor to the Verilog’s resurgence in the design community. He has 15 publications and one patent. He also developed the Verilog Online Training course. He holds a PhD in computer and communication sciences from the University of Michigan, 1977.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your background?

I worked for several computer manufacturers: DEC, Amdahl, ELXSI, Ardent, NeXT, doing first performance analysis and later design verification. My PhD was in Computer Science (operating system design methodology), not Electrical Engineering. In 1991, I left NeXT and started Chronologic Simulation, the company that made VCS. VCS was the product of several technologies: language compiling, logic simulation, design verification, and performance analysis. We sold Chronologic to Viewlogic in 1994.

Q: What insights did you take away from the sale of Chronologic to Viewlogic?

  • Take your time. We got rushed into doing the deal and didn’t take enough time to get to know the acquiring company.
  • When a smaller company is acquired by a larger one, expect that the smaller company will lose its identity and disappear. If that’s not what you want, don’t do the deal.
  • Corporate culture matters, and it starts at the top.

Q: As a result of the sale you were subject to a non-compete in EDA until 1998. In California non-competes are enforceable when they involve the sale of a business, on the theory that the seller is reducing the goodwill associated with the company being sold. What advice would you have for entrepreneurs contemplating the sale of their company to a larger firm?

A non-compete agreement is perfectly justifiable, but it should not be too long. Mine was four years, and that was about twice as long as it should have been. It should really be up to the acquiring company to make you want to stay, rather than having a legal agreement forcing you to stay, or at least not compete. I was never going to make a product to compete with VCS –– I loved it. However, I would have liked to do other things in EDA after leaving Viewlogic, and I couldn’t do that for several years.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about what led you to found CynApps: what problem or situation motivated you?

Chronologic and VCS was a great learning experience. I learned that there were two big problem areas in EDA––logic verification and logic synthesis. I also knew that the change in level of abstraction from gates to RTL was a great improvement in both design efficiency and verification efficiency, and that was enabled by logic synthesis. I was familiar with behavioral modeling from my verification days, and I was familiar with different levels of abstraction in system design from my graduate school days. It was quite apparent that the industry would undergo another change in level of abstraction, and that would again depend on synthesis.

In 1998 I got together with Andy Goodrich and Randy Allen to start CynApps, the company that is now Forte Design Systems. We set out to first create a higher level design environment rich enough to be usable, and then to create a synthesis product that would produce RTL from higher level designs.

Q: Where is the firm today?

Forte Design Systems is the result of two mergers, first CynApps and DASYS, then CynApps and Chronology. The company is now 11 years old. The original vision of high-level design is unchanged. The high-level design environment morphed from C++/Cynlib to C++/SystemC, which was a change in form, but not function. The Cynthesizer, our synthesis product, has been in customers’ hands for over six years now, and there are quite a few end products –– cameras, TVs, printers, and even cars –– which have chips designed either in part or in whole with SystemC and Cynthesizer.

Q: What are some key lessons you have learned?

I have re-learned the value of focus.

When we started CynApps, we knew there was no point in making a high-level synthesis program if no one was writing high-level code to synthesize. That meant that we had to develop and promote a design environment and also develop and sell the synthesis product. This was beyond the resources of a startup. We didn’t really start making progress on the synthesis product until we switched our input from Cynlib to SystemC, and let other people promote the design environment. If I had it to do over again, I would have gone with SystemC originally and done nothing but work on the Cynthesizer.

Having too much money can be a distraction. There is a real value to being lean –– it forces you to stay focused. The single biggest mistake I made with CynApps/Forte was spending too much money before the product was ready.

Q: How have you changed since you started?

One surprising way I’ve changed is that I have become even more optimistic than I was before. You have to be optimistic to start a company, and I’ve always been a glass half-full kind of person. But I have become even more-so over the years. Chronologic was a success, and Forte is an emerging success. After 11 years, and surviving through two bubbles, I think we can say that Forte has been a success, even though our overall impact on the industry has not reached its peak yet. On a personal level, I’ve had to become much less of a technical contributor than I used to be as I’ve gotten older.

Q: What key skill or experience did you lack when you started that has caused you the most problem?

When I started Chronologic, my biggest lack was understanding the EDA industry. I did not realize the staying power Verilog had as a design language, and this caused me to underestimate the importance of Chronologic and VCS. We could have stayed independent a lot longer, and I would have grown a lot more. When I started CynApps, I had never raised money and run a venture-backed company before. I made several mistakes as a result, trying to do too much, too soon, which cost a lot of money.

Q: What were some things that were “too much, too soon”?

I hired marketing and sales people before we had a product that was generally useful. This was when we were trying to sell the Cynlib/C++ design environment, before the Cynthesizer was finished. They were frustrated, the customers we did have were confused, and we drained our cash. We should have stayed in product development until the synthesizer was ready, let other people promote the C++ design environment, and developed sales resources organically.

Q: How do you tell when a product is ready? Where is money well spent before a product is ready?

I am not sure there is a general answer to when you know the product is ready. At Chronologic, we knew it was ready when it ran a particularly large model from Sun. At Forte, we knew Cynthesizer was ready only after it had actually been used to produce working silicon. While you are in product development, money should only be spent on engineering and market development. Market development basically means go talk to customers, tell them what you are doing, let them tell you if they like it, and repeat. It doesn’t take a lot of resources to do that, but it is very important.

Q: What are the two or three things that you have been able to accomplish that you take the most pride in or satisfaction from?

The success of VCS in the market is by far my most satisfying accomplishment. In a few years, I hope that Cynthesizer will rate up there in the same category. There is nothing like knowing that engineers have used your product to make the products that define our age. There is still something magical about your laptop computer, your camera, your iPhone, and your satellite HDTV and DVR. Knowing that your work made those things possible is really gratifying. When I bought a camera at Fry’s for my daughter, I could tell her that a chip inside was made using Cynthesizer. She didn’t much care, she just thought the face recognition feature was neat, but for me, it was a real kick. I think everyone in the EDA industry feels that way to some degree.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise? What was one key assumption you made, perhaps even unconsciously, that has caused the most grief?

The most surprising thing I learned was how hard a problem high-level synthesis is. There are many more degrees of freedom in synthesis than there are in simulation. If I had known that it would take eight years to get a mature product on the market, I doubt that I would have embarked on the project (and I doubt that I could have raised money to do it).

Q: What development, event, or new understanding since you started has had the most impact on your original plan? How has your plan changed in response?

Surprisingly, Forte’s business plan has changed very little since the founding of CynApps (except the time frame). The only real change we made was in going from Cynlib to SystemC. While we felt that Cynlib was more elegant than SystemC, the value of a standard is undeniable. We should have tried to influence SystemC from within sooner than we did. Andy Goodrich, who was the original author of Cynlib, is now the principal developer of SystemC.

Q: As we start to wrap up I wanted to ask you a personal question if I may. You are a cancer survivor. How has that changed your outlook on life?

Being diagnosed with cancer is a life changing experience for everyone who goes through it. You pretty quickly end up asking yourself what you are doing with your life, and if that is what you really want to be doing. I came to the conclusion that I was doing what I want to be doing –– I like EDA, I like small companies, I like our technology, and I like the people I work with. The only real change I made was to slow down a little and take more time off, but it has been a quantitative change, not a qualitative one.

Q: Any final remarks or suggestions for entrepreneurs?

It’s easy to give advice to first-time entrepreneurs. Lots of people will do it. Some of it is even useful. In a technical field like EDA, understanding the problem, and understanding the technology are prerequisites.

This industry is all about credibility. When you speak, you have to know what you are talking about. To be successful, you have to have credibility, and for that, you have to be a techie at heart. With credibility comes vision. If you know what you know, and understand what you are trying to do and why, then you can successfully resist the forces that will inevitably try to change your course.

Don’t believe the conventional wisdom that your startup needs a “seasoned business professional” to step in and run the company at some point. This is part of the VC formula, and it seldom works in EDA. The guy with the vision, and the credibility, is the guy for the job, and that is you. All the other stuff can be learned on the job.

For more information on John Sanguinetti

Update June 2: Welcome EE Times Readers. This post was selected as our first EETimes “Trusted Sources” Blog post. If you found this interview useful, we have other interviews with entrepreneurs in our Founder Story posts.

John Sanguinetti on an EDA Startup’s First Product

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in EDA, Founder Story, skmurphy

John Sanguinetti was the founder and CEO of Chronologic Simulation, a startup that developed a compiled code approach to Verilog simulation. I am working on an interview with John and came across a very interesting position statement he gave as a part of a panel at DAC 98 called “The EDA Startup Experience: The First Product.

The key ingredient to launching a successful EDA startup is customers.

Having a particular type of customer in mind, and a particular customer if possible, and knowing what their needs are is the key. In my case the original customer prototype was myself, since I had been a design verification engineer and used Verilog for regression testing. Very early on, we identified a particular customer, Sun, to be our target customer. We figured that if we made Sun happy, we would make other people happy, too. This turned out to be true.

We also identified the problem we were solving–simulation speed. We focused almost entirely on that, from company slogan (The Fast Verilog Company), to advertising, to customer benchmarks. The acceptance criterion for our product in competitive benchmarks was always “how much faster is it than the competition.” This focus was used internally in making design decisions as it was externally in  positioning the company and product against competition.

If there is anything that can be generalized from Chronologic’s experience it is the value of a single focus on a real customer problem.

Francis Adanza on the Entrepreneurial Roller Coaster

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Founder Story, skmurphy

Francis Adanza worked for us in a project management role for the better part of two years  before taking a business development role with Global West Communications. He was back in the Bay Area last week and attended last Friday’s Bootstrappers Breakfast and we had a chance to catch up. He sent me a short e-mail on his perspective on  “entrepreneurial roller coaster” afterward. It’s a topic I have blogged about in “We Don’t Encourage Individuals to Form a Startup” and “Hugh Macleod’s Thoughts on Being an Entrepreneur 2” but I think Francis has done a better job of explaining it and with his permission I reprint it below:

The funnest yet scariest part about riding a roller coaster for the first time is the unknown knowns. You know there are going to be highs and lows, but you don’t know when they will occur. You know there will be twists, turns, even sporadic upside down thrills, but its hard to forecast them. Sometimes the adventure seems fast, and sometimes it seems long, dragging on forever.

Regardless of how scary the ride may be, we all have choices that can alter the experience. Some people keep their eyes closed the entire ride, trying to mitigate their fears. Others dare to keep their eyes open, embracing each turn of events. Some folks find reassurance and control by holding on to the safety bars. While others fly by the seat of their pants, hands waving free in the air.

At times the ride becomes so frightening, you wonder why you even got on. It doesn’t matter how much you yell or scream, all you can do is wait until it ends. Although you might walk away a little shook up with a few scratches and bruises, you know in your heart that you had the guts to give it a try.

Jeff Bezos on Strategic Planning

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 4 Finding your Niche, Founder Story, skmurphy

Jeff Bezos was interviewed in the Harvard Business Review in an  October of 2007 article “The Institutional YES.” The focus was on Amazon’s strategic planning process. I had a chance to hear Bezos speak in 2004 at a Stanford Entrepreneur Conference and was impressed at how relentlessly inventive and experimental the culture he had created at Amazon was. It made it less of a surprise that a firm that started by revolutionizing the book selling business is now a leading provider of “cloud computing’ infrastructure.  Here are some excerpts that I found thought provoking and useful (bold added).

  • First, we are willing to plant seeds and wait a long time for them to turn into trees.
  • We may not know that it’s going to turn into an oak, but at least we know that it can turn out to be that big. I think you need to make sure with the things you choose that you are able to say, “If we can get this to work, it will be big.” An important question to ask is, “Is it big enough to be meaningful to the company as a whole if we’re very successful?”
  • What I have found—and this is an empirical observation; I see no reason why it should be the case, but it tends to be—is that when we plant a seed, it tends to take five to seven years before it has a meaningful impact on the economics of the company.
  • It helps to base your strategy on things that won’t change. When I’m talking with people outside the company, there’s a question that comes up very commonly: “What’s going to change in the next five to ten years?” But I very rarely get asked “What’s not going to change in the next five to ten years?” At Amazon we’re always trying to figure that out, because you can really spin up flywheels around those things. All the energy you invest in them today will still be paying you dividends ten years from now.
  • Whereas if you base your strategy first and foremost on more transitory things—who your competitors are, what kind of technologies are available, and so on—those things are going to change so rapidly that you’re going to have to change your strategy very rapidly, too.
  • I think most big errors are errors of omission rather than errors of commission. They are the ones that companies never get held to account for—the times when they were in a position to notice something and act on it, had the skills and competencies or could have acquired them, and yet failed to do so. It’s the opposite of sticking to your knitting: It’s when you shouldn’t have stuck to your knitting but you did.

It can be hard to cultivate a five to seven year perspective in a startup, but I do think the asking the question “What’s not going to change in the next five to ten years” is a good way to try and develop one.

Odd Jobs With an Even Temper

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 2 Open for Business Stage, Founder Story, Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

When you are very angry, think about how momentary a man’s life is.
Marcus Aurelius

I worked in the router software marketing group at Cisco in the early 90’s. I had left engineering and taken up residence in the marketing department. I was playing asteroid to a number of dinosaur protocols: we had realized that it wasn’t about supporting as many different protocols as possible (PUP, Chaosnet, Arcnet come to mind as examples) but to be really good at supporting IP. At one point I sent out an e-mail with the subject line “The following protocols are ‘on the roof‘.”

We had male admin named Ken. Cisco was a rapidly growing company then, with the stock doubling every year, and the culture was tolerant of a high level of direct conflict, what we would refer to as “a full and frank exchange of views.” Ken maintained a small but durable force field of calm in the midst of the frenzy.

I made him a sign for his cubicle wall (clearly I didn’t have enough to do):

“Boy Scout in Residence: Odd Jobs With An Even Temper”

He was always prepared and never rattled. He came from a family of four boys raised by a single mother. He told me a story of the time that his mother had saved up and bought a couple of gallons of yellow paint to re-decorate the kitchen. The boys woke up early and decided to paint her Volkswagen bus with the latex paint. He said “she went right past anger to tears. She was so angry and then she just started to cry. It took a while to get most of the paint off the windshield and windows, the rest of the car stayed more or less yellow.”

Ken passed away a few years later. It was a sad death for so young a man. I am not sure how he maintained his calm, perhaps it was such a huge opportunity for him compared to where he started that he was just grateful to be there. Or he may have been blessed with equanimity.

I think every startup above a certain size needs someone who can do “odd jobs” with an even temper. Especially as things get tougher in Silicon Valley, don’t underestimate the value of small kindnesses, a sense of humor, and cultivating calmness.

Update June 20, 2014: I think everyone on a startup team needs to do “odd jobs with an even temper.” It’s useful to bring on someone, even part time, who is detail oriented and can tackle the swarm of small tasks that need to get done.

Scott Sambucci on “An Entrepreneur’s Lessons Learned”

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Consulting Business, Founder Story, Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

I met Scott Sambucci when I spoke at TVC in July of 2007 in Menlo Park as a part of their “Entering the Entrepreneurial World” seminar. He was kind enough to blog about his take away from the talk in “Definition: Entrepreneurship” where he concluded that even though it was a noun it should be defined as a verb:

“Leveraging resources to get things done” & “Prudent risk-taking.”

Norm Brodsky’s Guidelines For Entrepreneurs

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Founder Story, Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

The October issue of Inc. magazine made it to the top of my reading pile today and I was delighted to read another great “Street Smarts” column by Norm Brodsky “Secrets of the $110 Million Dollar Man” which offers ten guidelines for starting a successful business. Brodsky’s definition of success should be familiar to anyone who is bootstrapping:

By successful, I mean a business that lives off its own cash flow, provides a good living for its owners and employees, and generates the profit it needs to keep growing.

He offers ten rules from 30 years of entrepreneurial efforts that he continues to rely on. I have picked what I think are the top three for software entrepreneurs and encourage you to read the rest of the article

Numbers run a business.

If you don’t know how to read them, you are flying blind. A business is a living entity with needs of its own that the leaders must pay attention to or it will fail. the business will fail. The only way to determine business needs are to look at key numbers and the relationships between them. We spend a lot of time with clients on determining what the dashboard for their business should look like, typically starting with their sales funnel, and tuning strategies and tactics in response to the numbers.

A sale isn’t a sale until you collect.

You don’t collect on bad debt and how long it takes to collect can leave you short of cash even though you’ve made a lot of sales. Every business with receivables is in effect a bank. As I have written previously, every business that generates receivables is, in effect, a “bank.” When you deliver a product or a service in the belief that the customer will eventually pay you for it, you are making a loan. You need to determine whether a customer is creditworthy and monitor your average collection time on outstanding debt. Understanding cash flow and the credit risk you are assuming is key to getting through the downturn we are currently experiencing.

Forget shortcuts.

Everything a great business needs takes hard work and time:

  • a diversified base of loyal customers
  • experienced managers
  • a vibrant culture
  • efficient systems throughout the business
  • a sales force that works as a team
  • a great reputation in the industry.

This might also be called “the old man’s business model” in contrast to Paul Tyma‘s “The Young Man’s Business Model.”

So why was Brodsky a $110 million dollar man? He is as frank about his shortcomings as his success:

I am more impatient than most and tried just about every shortcut in the book — like hiring salespeople from competitors and promoting employees just because they are available. It finally dawned on me that my shortcuts were serving only to prolong the process of building the great company I wanted. Why was I in such a hurry, anyway? A great company is one that can last forever, and I needed to make decisions in that frame of mind — even though I fully expected to sell the business someday. My records-storage business, CitiStorage, would be worth more if I took my time and did what was best for the company in the long term. Indeed, it was. As you may know, I ultimately sold it and two related businesses for $110 million.

Diane Green Out At VMWare

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Founder Story, skmurphy

I was sorry to read the “VMware Announces Change in Executive Leadership” press release today from EMC.

VMware’s Board of Directors announced today that it has made a change in the leadership of the company with the departure of Diane Greene as President and CEO. VMware’s Board of Directors has appointed Paul Maritz as President and CEO of VMware effective immediately.  Maritz was also named to VMware’s Board of Directors.

I heard her speak at a October 2006 Fireside chat at TiE and was extremely impressed by her low key style and forthright manner. She also said a number of smart things and as I blogged back then “I got a real sense of her as a genuinely caring leader (what Jim Collins would call a “Level 5 Leader” ).”

I always hate to see a founder get ousted from a company, especially one that’s still wildly successful (VMWare is expected to grow revenue almost 50% this year over last). I am interested in her perspective on events: she was against VMWare being acquired by EMC, mentioning it as one of the two “blackest days” she faced at VMWare during the Fireside chat, so I look forward to her being able to speak more candidly about the last few years once she is fully separated from EMC.

Update July 12: Ho Nam at Altos Capital has an interesting take–especially for a VC, but Altos is an unusual shop–in his post “Ousting the Founder.

I was shocked to learn this week that Diane Greene, the co-founder and CEO of VMWare was ousted. I was not alone. Except for senior management (who found out very late, the night before) the employees of VMWare read about it, just like I did on Tuesday morning. […]

As co-founder and CEO, Diane Green built one of the all time great successes in Silicon Valley. Very, very few companies ever reach $1B in revenues. Even fewer in the technology industry. Even fewer in the software industry. And even fewer ever exceed $10B in market cap.

Why the hell would you fire her?? No, don’t tell me…I’ve heard all the reasons. VCs oust founders all the time. I’ve been in plenty of board level discussions around this topic! It’s almost a rite of passage in Silicon Valley. As a founder, you start a company, get VCs to fund you, recruit a “world class” management team…and eventually, find your replacement (or get ousted).

What people seem to miss, however, is that just about every great company ever created – in technology as well as low-tech, was built by a founder (or a CEO who happened to join the company very early in its growth phase) and a team of dedicated people who grew with their companies.[…]

I’d rather take my chances with the people who built the business and grew their companies than the “professionals” – the hired guns – the mercenaries – coming in, after the fact, to “fix” things or to “take it to the next level.”

We tell all of our companies this – if you want to build the leader in your industry, you have to have the world’s leading experts in your field working for you. But do NOT expect to find them outside of your company. Someone senior from the outside won’t come in to show you the way. They won’t save you.

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