McCormick School of Engineering,
Year 2000 Commencement Ceremony
Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, June 17, 2000
Thank you Dean Birge. Distinguished faculty, guests and the McCormick School of Engineering Class of Year 2000. It is a privilege to be here with you and an honor to deliver this convocation address.
I sat in your place 12 years ago with hope, confidence, and just a little trepidation. I had a passion for the software business and was determined to pursue it!
Like many of you, I wanted to be an entrepreneur; to build a company with a useful mission, and provide software products that made a difference to the world. So with my friend, Rick Harold, who sat in your seats 14 years ago, we pooled our meager savings and ¾ since we didn’t own a garage ¾ started our company in the basement of a public library.
Today I am going to share with each of you how passion, persistence, and pragmatismare three key elements which will help you launch your career.
I don’t want to speak in lofty generalizations. Instead, I’d like to tell you about my entrepreneurial journey and share what I have learned over the course of the last 12 years in starting and growing InstallShield Software Corporation. And I hope these experiences will help you chart a course for a successful career in the new Internet economy.
Beyond the passion to do what you wish, you must also have persistence. My partner, Rick and I worked hard for three years in the late 80’s developing a software product, that we thought would change the world; but the world did not see it that way. Our original plan was to develop a pc based desktop mapping software, just like what you use on mapquest.com today. At the time the PC platform was not robust enough to handle the megabytes of geographic data needed to make such a software product work. In fact, when we started downloading the Chicagoland geographic data from the mainframe computers here at Northwestern to our pc desktop, we ran out of hard disk space just after downloading the city of Evanston. So one would not even be able to use this software product to get directions from Evanston to Skokie. We persisted for three years trying to figure out how we could compress all the data to fit on a desktop personal computer. In the end, we discovered that our vision was just a little larger than the hard disks could handle at the time. It was time to think different.
Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. Failure is, and should be, a great motivator and with a positive outlook is the mother of success.
Persistence means trying until you succeed. And success is going from failure to failure without giving up and if you feel you have gained nothing, actually you have gained experience. As Franklin Roosevelt said of the programs his administration introduced during the depression: “It is common to take a method and try it. If it fails admit it frankly and try another. But above all, keep trying something.”
In 1990, we took the remnants of our failed software project and turned them into five new software development tools. We packed our bags and our computers in our car and drove from Chicago to Boston to attend the Windows Conference. We wanted to share with the world how these tools would improve the Windows software development world. Before leaving town for Boston, we created a full page advertisement for our five new products.
A marketing consultant took one look at our full page four color ad and said that it was not balanced with three products on one side and two on the other. He said: “Don’t you have one more you can add to the right hand side?”
So to create balance in our ad we listed a sixth product. Our sixth product was only a description of an idea. Initially, we did not include it in our ad because it was just an idea and not a product.
The response at the Windows conference was overwhelming. Software developers from many companies told us they were interested in trying our products. We returned incredibly excited, knowing that we were on to something. Upon our return we had one order for our sixth product. The only dilemma was that this sixth product was still an idea in our heads; so we sat in front of our computers and the spent the next 96 hours creating it. We then shipped this to our first customer. The customer was delighted. This time the world was ready for us.
So the passion to succeed in the software business, plus the persistence of many long years met with a touch of pragmatism when the marketing consultant made a suggestion and we took it.
Now, in our minds we maintained passion for all six of our software products. We continued developing, expanding and fine-tuning ALL six of them. But, the world saw things a little differently. It didn’t see our passions the same way. They were most interested in our sixth product. To prove them wrong, we worked harder to improve the other five, determined to show the world their value.
After another three years, we began to recognize the realities of our software business. You must be able to sell what you make. Our sixth product was the most successful, that is – it sold itself, and made the most money. It was time for applying a little pragmatism to our passion. This time we didn’t need a marketing consultant to tell us to drop the other five products and concentrate on the sixth.
A lesson we learned first hand was that everything starts with a customer and works back from there.
Getting back to our 1990 ad and the marketing consultant story. I am sure that it’s not lost on you, that when we launched the six products we ran into a little bit of luck. Suppose we hadn’t persisted and used the remnants of our failed first venture? Suppose we hadn’t gotten the suggestion from the marketing consultant? Suppose we hadn’t taken the suggestion? I’ve always felt that luck is a by-product of persistence.
As Alfred P. Sloan, the legendary, mid-century head of General Motors said: “………The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
You simply don’t get to the marketplace successfully without the hard, slogging effort. Any business achievement that is worthwhile — is difficult. You must persist in your passion for success. Despite many challenges along the path, despite many set backs, you must believe in your passion, persist and apply pragmatism to your future.
Through luck or not, the sixth product, better known to you as InstallShield, grew from a first sale of $300 to a $50 million dollar a year business today. In fact, InstallShield is the only non-Microsoft product installed on more computers than any other software in the world.
So that was my entrepreneurial journey and I hope that each of you walks away with a few lessons. Remember, as Aristotle said: “The secret of success is constancy of purpose.”
Many of you will choose to gain experience before embarking on your entrepreneurial journey. In fact, I did the same thing. For the first year after graduation, I worked for a large corporation. As soon as pragmatically feasible, I quit my day job to redirect all my time and energy to my passion. It is important for you to recognize your individual situation and make realistic choices that are best for you. It is easy to be influenced by the many opportunities available to you in the new Internet economy, and it is important to be pragmatic in making choices that are right for you, when they are right for you. If I hadn’t worked, I wouldn’t have eaten. When the time is right, pragmatically persist with your passion.
You, the McCormick School of Engineering, Class of 2000, are the explorers of the new millennium. Success is available to each and every one of you. Think big, and persist to fulfill your dreams with a passion.
Good luck and thank you very much for inviting me here today. Oh by the way, if you are still looking for that first job, please send me your resume.