Tag Archives: Indy

The Big Pitch to TJ and the Exec Team

[20 Years Ago, Part 10. Other options: prior post or start at the beginning.]

The big day was finally here. I’d made it down from the city ahead of the rush hour, and arrived at SGI well before the start of the exec team meeting.

I headed down to the Building 6, where the execs had their offices, and found the Board Room. Meeting me there was David Ciemiewicz, a.k.a. “Ciemo,” an engineer as passionate about the web as I was, who had in recent weeks gone from being a friend and occasional technical advisor to becoming essentially the technical co-founder for the new business we hoped to get green-lit. And this morning, he would also be handling an important, if not glamorous task — hitting Page Down to advance the slides of the Showcase presentation, so I could focus on speaking.

The Board Room was enormous and brightly lit, with a long table running most of its length. Ciemo went about getting the presentation on the Indy, while I stashed my props in the belly of the lectern at the head of the table. After a quick run-through of the deck, we exited the room and camped out in small waiting area outside.

We’d end up being there for a while, as our presentation wasn’t scheduled until after the weekly conference call with country managers. Soon, the execs started showing up for the meeting. Though almost none of them recognized me (and vice versa), most of them knew Ciemo, who had been at the company for eight years, so there were a lot of smiles, greetings, and small talk as they headed in.

I was on the lookout for one of the few execs that I actually did know, our division’s GM, Tom Furlong. You see, I hadn’t had a chance to let him know about my last-minute addition to the presentation. By the time Tom arrived, the Board Room was more than half full, as the meeting was only a few minutes away. “All set?” he asked.

“Yep,” I replied, “But I need to tell you something.”

“Shoot,” he said.

“I’m sorry I didn’t get to discuss it with you in advance,” I said. “But last night I decided to end the presentation with a request for investment.”

“How much?” he asked.

“Three million.”

“Okay,” said Tom, with a bit of a chuckle. “Good luck with that!”

He headed into the Board Room, leaving us to ponder whether he thought I was smart or crazy.

After all the execs made it in, the doors closed, and the long wait began. The country manager call took something like 30 minutes, but it felt like an eternity. Finally, the door opened, and Ciemo and I entered a room that now looked dramatically different. What had been bright, empty, and roomy, was now mostly dark and jam packed with people. The long table was full, with five execs on each side and another two on the end. And the back of the room was crowded with another dozen or so folks, including each division’s director of marketing.

Ciemo got the presentation up on the big screen, and I took my place at the lectern, which was now in the only brightly lit part of the room. A few small lights above the table provided just enough illumination for me to see the faces of the execs. Everything else, including all the folks at the back of the room, was in near total darkness.

I looked around the table, and made eye contact for the first time with the company’s President and COO, Tom “TJ” Jermoluk. He sat halfway down the left side of the table. His blond hair and relaxed confidence gave him a surfer vibe. He gave a big smile and said, “Let’s go.”

No recording was made of this presentation, and the digital copies of the Showcase file have long since been lost. All that remains, aside from memories, is one color photo that I used to illustrate one of the slides. But here’s what I remember of the pitch…

After introducing myself, I started with a slide introducing the World Wide Web, illustrated with example web pages.

“The Internet has been around for 25 years,” I said. “But recently it has entered a new phase of explosive growth. Why? Because the Web makes the Internet visual, media-rich, and interactive. And that makes it both compelling and easy and to use. In the process, it is now creating one of the fastest growing new markets for visual computing…”

I should probably point out that I did not have a script or notes, and that this was a true SGI-quality presentation, which is to say that there were no words on the slides other than titles. But my pitch flowed like water that morning 20 years ago, as I was delivering a narrative I felt deep in my bones.

“Let’s take a look at what I mean by fast growth,” I said, and Ciemo brought up the next slide, showing a graph1 that looked something like this:

Early Web Growth

“By every important measure, the World Wide Web is growing exponentially. The number of websites is now doubling every three months! And here’s why that growth will not slow any time soon…”

From there, I showed and talked about a virtuous cycle. (More people getting online, inspiring more websites to be created, leading to more compelling content, leading to more people downloading the browser and getting online, and on and on.)

“As that cycle continues,” I said, as we advanced to the next slide. “It’s giving rise to two ‘picks and shovels’ market segments, that we should not only enter, but that we should, in fact, lead. Those segments are web authoring and web serving.”

“On the authoring front, I should say that I’ve been incredibly frustrated by our experiences in the multimedia authoring market. With Macromedia unwilling to port to IRIX, we’re frozen out of the main action. But with the web authoring market, we have no such disadvantage. In fact, we can (and should) jump in, feet first, and create a visual, media-rich HTML authoring system that highlights the differentiation of our workstations. But even if we don’t do that, we don’t have to stand on the sidelines. SoftQuad, a small software company in Toronto, has created the very first HTML editor and is open to a deal to port it to IRIX.” I paused, reached down into the belly of the lectern, and pulled out my first prop, a shrink-wrapped box of software. “It’s called HoTMetaL Pro, and it’s currently available for Solaris2.”

“Can I see that?” asked TJ.

Attention quickly shifted, first to TJ, then back to the box in my hands. I leaned forward and handed it to the exec seated closest to me on the left. It was quickly passed along to TJ. The room was silent as he slowly examined all sides of the box. “Why don’t we make something like this?” he asked, looking around the table, and then handing the box not back toward me, but to the exec to his left. For the next couple minutes, each VP repeated the little ritual of accepting the box, examining it carefully, then handing it to the guy to his left.

As the box made its way around the room, I returned to my pitch, shifting over to the web server market. Here, I would have emphasized the central role of Netscape (the company having just renamed itself the prior week), and the incredible good fortune of having our recently departed founder, Jim Clark, at the helm there; and them using Indys as their development environment and as the server hosting the downloads of the browser. It was a hot new server market being born on our platform; we just needed to license their server software and bundle it.

I laid out my proposal, at high level, to enter these two market segments with a new product line, comprised of workstations and servers, bundled with all the right tools for kick-ass, media-rich web authoring and serving. To make it more tangible, I teed up a product line slide by saying, “Introducing Spider from Silicon Graphics.” The slide made it look like the product line already existed and was already supported by print advertising. And then I reached into the lectern to get my second prop, the black plastic Indy shell. Holding it up, I said, “And the entire product line will come in black.”

I paused, hoping TJ would chime in, but instead, someone from the other side of the table piped up. (I would later find out that it was the company’s VP of Manufacturing.) He said, “I have to draw the line there. We don’t want that kind of inventory headache.”

TJ added, “Agreed.”

“Okay, not a problem,” I said, as I quickly disappeared my prop. “A different color shell is not a critical success factor.”

My pitch would go on to show how we were already had a warm welcome from the market, with prominent sites already “Powered by Silicon Graphics,” including HotWired and the Internet Underground Music Archive (IUMA)3.

“The web is bringing Silicon Graphics to a whole new set of customers.” I said, as we hit our second-to-last slide. “And these first-time buyers are blown away by our products. For example, the team at Sound Print Media Center were so happy with their purchase of an Indy for web authoring and serving that they mailed us this photo!”

SoundPrintIndy

And then came the final slide, entitled “To Become The Market Leader”. This was the one I added the prior evening, and did not look like any other slide in the deck. Instead of one main image and no words, it was really just a spreadsheet with pretty small font. It detailed what I thought we should spend money on to create and launch the product line — and how much incremental revenue I projected we would deliver in the first two quarters.

I wasn’t sure what detail to go into in my pitch, but at some point TJ stopped me, having absorbed the level of detail he wanted.

“Okay,” he said. “Let me get this straight. If I give you two to three million dollars, you’ll get us into the market in January and take up your outlook for the next two quarters by 15 million?”

All eyes were now on me. It was pretty clear that the right answer was “Yes.” But a few things prevented me from speaking. First, I had never been in a conversation about quarterly “outlooks”. Second, since I didn’t personally have one hanging over my head, I wasn’t sure what it would mean for me to modify one over someone else’s head.

With the extended silence starting to get awkward, my boss, Jim White, stepped forward from the darkness of the back of the room into the dim light near the table’s end. “That’s right,” he said.

TJ turned in his chair, and all eyes followed.

“We will take up our outlook for Q3 and Q4,” said Jim.

TJ nodded and turned his chair and gaze back to me. Then he said the best five word sentence of my career, “Make it so, Number One.”

After a moment, he said, “Okay, let’s take a 10 minute break.”

Someone turned on the lights. Ciemo and I shook hands. Jim White came up close to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and whispered into my ear, “Your top priority now is hiring.”

To be continued


1DBased on data from an M.I.T./Matthew Gray report, “Measuring the Growth of the Web, June 1993 to June 1995

2The flavor of Unix of our arch enemy, Sun Microsystems

3Our second website sponsorship deal. This one only cost us one Indy, I believe, and was done out of Corporate Marketing’s budget.

 

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20 Years Ago (Part 4): Indy’s “Catch-22”

[20 Years Ago: Part 3]

By the summer of 1994, just a few months after landing what I asserted was “the best job in Silicon Valley,” I was already thinking of moving on. How was that possible?

Silicon Graphics was still the hottest company in the Valley – and getting hotter. Our much-ballyhooed interactive television partnership with Time Warner was getting close to launch (and stilled seemed like a good idea at the time). We were hard at work on the Nintendo 64, the world’s first 3D game console. Video server partnerships had just been announced with AT&T and Japan’s NTT. And our market cap now topped that of rivals Sun and DEC.

But things were not so rosy for Indy.

In some ways, we were still recovering from an imperfect launch the prior year. The big plan for Indy was to dramatically increase sales volumes by hitting a much lower price point. Instead of the $10,000 price tag of its predecessor1, the Indigo, Indy’s strategic mandate was to break the $5,000 barrier. And Indy did just that, tiptoeing across that magical line with an entry-level configuration priced at $4,995. There was just one problem – that config, with only 16 MB of RAM, wouldn’t boot.

Yes, all around the world, customers excitedly opened their beautiful blue boxes labeled “Serious Fun,” smiled at the bright blue “pizza box” inside (and its accompanying juggling balls), and eagerly set up their system, complete with the trailblazing digital “IndyCam.” But when they powered up their sweet new workstation, its paltry 16 MB of RAM (critical to hitting the price and margin targets) was not enough memory to load the all-brand-new-and-maybe-not-quite-finished 5.1 version of the operating system. So it would just hang. Outrage ensued.

Of course, soon additional memory was shipped for free to irate customers. And the base configuration got bumped to 32 MB of RAM. By the time I joined, that “imperfect launch” was behind us, but Indy now faced a much larger and harder problem to solve — actually achieving the very ambitious volume goals set alongside its pricing strategy.

Indy’s volume problem was really a classic “Catch-22”. From a hardware perspective, Indy was truly a multimedia monster: 64-bit RISC CPU, video-capable 100 MHz system bus, integrated video camera, and enough inputs and outputs that the headline from one ad was “Any port in a brainstorm”. 

Any port in a brainstorm

And multimedia authoring was a super-hot market, driven by the explosive growth in sales of interactive CD-ROMs (such as “Mad Dog McCree,” a Western shootout simulation game which gave rise to my industry nickname) and the popularity of Macromedia’s flagship authoring tool, Director. Imagine the breakout sales that could be driven from a marriage of Indy’s multimedia hardware and Macromedia’s multimedia software! Alas, Director was a Mac application; it was not available on IRIX (our flavor of Unix). And all efforts to persuade Macromedia to port to IRIX were to no avail. Why? Not enough volume.

Lack of volume also meant tepid support from Adobe. There was a version of Photoshop running on IRIX, but it was a generic port via some tool called “Latitude”. It didn’t take advantage of our sweet GUI, nor was it very fast.

I very much wanted to find a way out of Indy’s volume Catch-22. But finding a new “killer app” willing to play nice with us seemed like a big job. I knew I couldn’t do that and handle all of the day-to-day tasks of the Indy product manager.

As luck would have it, I got the perfect opportunity to act on my desire for a new role. In August2, Jim White, the well-regarded marketing leader for the mid-range workstation division (maker of the company’s Indigo2 “cash cow”), was named director of marketing for our division, filling a position that had been vacant for a few months. Jim’s charter was to re-invigorate the efforts to make Indy a high-volume platform.

After Jim was introduced to the team and gave a great pep talk, he came up to each of us individually for a quick chat. I think he asked me something like, was I “liking the role of product manager?”. His positive energy and unblinking you-can-trust-me eye contact inspired me to do what many at Silicon Graphics would consider career suicide. I told him there might be a better role for me than product manager.

“And what is it you want to do?” Jim asked.

“Marketing with a capital ‘m,’” I said. “I think our breakout growth opportunity will come from a new market, and I’d like to focus on looking for it.”

“Okay, let’s work to back-fill you ASAP,” he said. “Go find us a new market.”

To be continued

_________________________

1Press release announcing Indigo

2I confess I’m not sure what month this happened; August is my best guess.

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20 Years Ago (Part 1): A Very Good Month

[1994 was an historic year, both for Silicon Valley and for me. So, this will serve to kick off a series of “20 Years Ago” posts to try to capture some of the missing history from the year when the web began its transition from something just for science and academia to an exponentially-growing interactive medium for everybody. This first post focuses on the first month of the year. And to put it in perspective, January 1994 was the month in which Jerry Yang and David Filo launched “David and Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web,” which they would later be rename “Yahoo!”.]

20 years ago this month, I got my “golden ticket” into Silicon Valley.

I had graduated from Stanford Business School seven months earlier, but between an economy still slowly emerging from recession and having an undergraduate degree that was neither engineering nor computer science1, I struggled to find a full-time job at a tech company. But by December of 1993, I had managed to land a very promising contractor position at Silicon Graphics in the “low-end” division that had recently launched the company’s newest product, the Indy workstation. And that proved to be quite fortuitous in a number of ways.

First off, Silicon Graphics was going to have its first-ever presence at MacWorld Expo a few weeks later, and, strangely, everyone seemed keen to let “the new guy” take the marketing lead, not just for the low-end division, but for the whole company. (This, despite the fact that I didn’t know any of our products in depth, hadn’t been to a MacWorld, and had never organized a major trade show presence.) There was a lot to do, with great urgency, and there would be a big spotlight on my effort. So, whether I succeeded or failed, the results would be spectacularly visible.

Second, the guy who hired me as a contractor, the Indy product manager, was already eyeing his next role, a chance to participate in the birth of a new division within the company, something called Silicon Studio, that was setting out to create high-end authoring software for interactive multimedia content. But for his transfer to be gladly accepted, he had an obligation to find a back-fill for his current role. And so, when I managed to not screw up our debut at MacWorld2, I essentially got hired and promoted at the same time, stepping into the shoes of the guy who had signed me to a try-before-you-buy contract just weeks before!

sgi_logo1

Soon, I would enthusiastically tell anyone who would listen that I was thrilled to have “the best job in Silicon Valley.” Why? Because I was the freakin’ product manager for the newest, sexiest, highest-volume product for what was clearly the hottest company in Silicon Valley. Yes, now but a dim memory, in 1994, Silicon Graphics was so hot that it was featured in a BusinessWeek cover story, breathlessly entitled “The Gee-Whiz Company”.

In that feature, Rob Hof would describe us as “the most magical computer maker on the planet” and then go on to report:

In an industry marked by huge hype, Silicon Graphics is the genuine article: a truly innovative company with clearly unique products. “They’re the new Apple,” says Morgan Stanley & Co. analyst Steven M. Milunovich. Then, mulling Apple’s recent struggles, he corrects himself: “The Microsoft of computer graphics.”

So, there I was, no longer searching, having landed at the best possible place, with the best possible job. That alone was enough to make January 1994 a very memorable month, but there was one more door about to open for me. And it was to a far bigger opportunity – but one that would take me more than a few months to fully grasp.

It started with an invitation in the mail to a party celebrating Wired magazine’s first anniversary.

Image

[Photo credit: The Original Wired Magazine, 1993 on Facebook.]

I was a Wired fanboy. I’d read every issue cover-to-cover, and even tried landing a job there a few months earlier. So I was thrilled to get an invite (likely only as a result of spending a lot of Silicon Graphics marketing dollars at MacWorld). The event was in San Francisco, in a huge brick warehouse on Third, near Wired’s headquarters in South Park. Back then there weren’t very many startups in San Francisco; that was yet to come, with Wired to serve as “ground zero” for the City’s emergent “dot-com” scene.

At a time when most people thought of technology as boring or nerdy, Wired managed to make computers, software, and networking seem as edgy as a new designer drug and as wild as a rave (at a time when those were a thing). So, dressed all in black, I put on my new Doc Martin boots, and headed out from my Lower Haight apartment, ready to rock.

Looking back now, I can hardly distinguish that particular party from many others in the ‘90’s – dark setting, loud music, drinks, packed crowd. What I do vividly remember, thought, is meeting Jonathan Steuer, who worked at Wired and had the tantalizing title of “Online Tsar”. I suspect he is the very first person I handed a business card with “Indy Product Manager” on it. Once he heard where I worked and what I worked on, Jonathan got very excited.

“I want to use Indys as the web servers for a project I’m working on,” he said.

“Awesome,” I replied, without missing a beat. “Just one question – what’s a web server?”

To be continued

____________________________________

1 Although my first major at M.I.T. was Physics, mid-way through my sophomore year I did the unthinkable and shifted over to the Humanties department, majoring in Creative Writing

2 MacWorld ended up being a great event for Silicon Graphics. Here’s a great quote from a piece in the San Jose Mercury News by David Plotnikoff, entitled The house party at the end of the Interactive Highway:

Raster Masters, a team of performance artists from Silicon Graphics, put on the best demo of the week, in the McBean Theater. The live interactive graphics show was downright seamless. The performance, which featured algorithm technology developed recently at NASA, was an M.C. Escher-meets- Brian Eno-on-acid kinda thing. They should have required seat belts in the theater.

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Recalling the Early Days of the Web

I was there at the birth of the web, and I’d like to share my story…

(I’m not talking about the awesome sprouting of the underpinnings of the World Wide Web in the early ’90’s at physics research hubs like CERN and SLAC, but rather the Big Bang of the commercial web that rapidly emerged upon that foundation in 1994 and 1995 at a bunch of startups across Silicon Valley, unleashing one of the biggest waves of game-changing entrepreneurship the world has ever seen.)

I was at the veritable right place at the right time for this once-in-a-career opportunity, having become the product manager for the Indy workstation at Silicon Graphics (SGI) in early 1994. That bright blue UNIX “pizza box” (which, painfully, I admit most of you have probably never heard of) was truly at the center of the action at the earliest days of the commercial web.

SGI_Indy_front

You see, the Indy workstation was the development platform for Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina at NCSA when they created the Mosaic browser. And it became the primary software development and web-serving platform in the earliest days of Mosaic Communications Corporation (an electrifying startup, founded by Marc and SGI’s founder and recently departed Chairman, Jim Clark, that would soon change its name to Netscape). And it was the sexy server hardware proudly used by some of the most prominent sites of the early web, including HotWired (the first online magazine), Organic Online (the very first interactive ad agency), and Virtual Vineyards (not only the first online wine seller, but the very first web-based retailer, period). As Indy’s product manager, I had a unique opportunity to follow my product into one of the most rapidly exploding markets in the history of computing — an opportunity I seized with gusto.

But as it turns out, those very early days of the commercial web, long before the “dot com bubble” of 1998 and 1999, are, for the most part, ironically and tragically ungoogleable. Of course, the Way Back Machine gives some glimmers of the old days, but its earliest records go no further back than 1996. And while Wikipedia has posts that give some of the backstory, the fact is that very little remains of the websites, press releases, and news stories of 1994 and 1995.

So, I believe that now is a good time for me to start writing down my memories of that historic time. With luck, it might inspire others to come forward with their own anecdotes.

In the coming weeks, I plan to share first-hand accounts of the inside stories behind a number of industry “firsts,” including the first advertising deal of the web, the first business-oriented web conference, the first platform-wide licensing deal for Netscape, the first visual HTML editor, the first web server product line, and the first licensing deal for Java. Back then, we cared a lot about what print publications wrote about us, so I hope to include some photos of long lost pubs, like Interactive Week. 🙂

If you were a part of those stories and want to add to the narrative, please email me or add your comments along the way!

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