Earlier this week, Adobe celebrated its 30th year in business. In its storied history, it has grown from a small private company focused on developing and promulgating a common way to exchange documents – a major problem during the advent of the PC era – into a wellspring of innovative technologies that enable people to create digitally and to receive more tailored and personally relevant digital marketing.
When I interviewed for my new role, I had the opportunity to meet with the two founders, John Warnock and Chuck Geschke. At the end of our conversation, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to ask them a distinctly non-interview type question: “Do you ever take a look in the mirror in the morning, consider Adobe’s size, the jobs you have created and the technological impact you have had on the world, and wonder – how did this happen?”
The immediate response from both: “Every single day.”
While Chuck and John are legendary in the tech industry for many reasons, including their warmth and humility, another way to understand their response is as an acknowledgment that there are many external factors that are determinative of a company’s success. For inchoate technology businesses, one of the most important is whether they are located in Silicon Valley. With all deference to Seattle, Bangalore, Tel Aviv and even Des Moines there is something truly unique about this thirty mile stretch of the world. Countless MBA students, journalists and consultants have tried to analyze why this area has spawned so many successful global companies. Some say it’s the result of ready access to capital flowing from Sand Hill Road. Others attribute it to the proximity of educational institutions like Stanford, UC Berkley and the University of Santa Clara. For others, it’s the cultural and intellectual diversity.
Most likely it is all of these. Longtime residents (I’m one of them) tend to take it all for granted as the innovation surrounds us.
Take a day I had a few weeks ago, as a case in point:
- I started the morning having breakfast with a board member of a company where I had previously worked. He wanted to move back into an operating role and was trying to decide whether he wanted to go to a large public company or a small, pre-IPO, start-up.
- At lunch that day, I spoke with a friend who had spent the last 10 years working as a senior engineer at a half dozen companies in the Valley, including a couple of start-ups and several technology behemoths.
- Driving back to the office, I passed the campuses of Oracle, Facebook, Intel and Cisco representing a collective market cap of over $400 billion and employing over 600,000. At one point along the drive I was passed by a Google’s driverless car. We see them so often now during rush hour that they are often unnoticed.
- When I returned to the office, I exchanged emails with a couple of former colleagues. One has created an interesting social networking company for people who are caring for loved ones with medical conditions. The other works for a private company that has developed a small, unmanned, self-propelled, ocean going device that can be used for an array of tasks ranging from mapping the oceans to monitoring oil spills and the effects of climate change.
- To close the day, my wife and I attended the Tech Museum’s Tech Award dinner as guests of some friends, one of whom is an entrepreneur with a company that has developed an application that provides users with awards for the miles they walk, run and cycle, which they donate to the charity of their choice. If getting healthy isn’t enough of a motivation, how about exercising to help others?
- The Tech Awards is an impressive event where several thousand people come together to celebrate entrepreneurs who are creating technology to solve some of mankind’s more pressing problems. Three award winners that stood out included: Simpa Networks, a company that has created a pay-as-you go mobile payment system permitting people to access affordable solar energy in areas lacking access to reliable electricity; Professors from UCDavis who received an award for developing a rice gene that permits crops to be grown even in flood-prone areas (Rice, a key dietary staple for much of the world, is grown in areas that are susceptible to flooding, which, given the impact of climate change, will only worsen); and the developers of the BioLite Home Stove who received recognition for their solution to health problems impacting rural citizens of the world who rely on indoor fires for cooking. The BioLite stove uses an innovative design to deliver a low cost, highly efficient, wood burning stove that not only greatly reduces smoke and other harmful emissions, but also generates electricity to power cell phones and LED lights.
Driving home from the event at the end of that day, I felt profoundly inspired (and wishing I had gone to engineering school rather than getting a law degree). Looking out at the lights from the office buildings around me, I decided that what’s truly unique about Silicon Valley isn’t days like this, but rather that every day is like this.