Journalists, to their detriment, easily get jaded. I was reminded of that the other day, reading Greg Olsen’s new book, “By Any Means Necessary! An Entrepreneur’s Journey into Space.”
You know Greg Olsen, the Sarnoff guy who founded Epitaxx in 1984, sold it in 1990 for $12 million; then started a company called Sensors Unlimited and sold it for $600 million or so; then bought it back for $6 million and then resold it for $60 million in 2005. At that point he wanted to try something different. So in 2005 he paid $20 million or so to become the third private citizen to travel into space to the International Space Station.
When Olsen’s book came out, chronicling his life story, I figured no big deal. Not only are we jaded but we are also clever by a half. Instead of just telling the Greg Olsen story (haven’t we done that already?), we told the book’s story of how Olsen and his co-writer, Tom Lento, had to take the route so many other authors now have to take to get their book self-published after the established publishing industry deemed it not commercially viable.
But we did do one smart thing. We invited Olsen and Lento to an authors reception. And to prepare for that gathering I decided to shed my jaded affectation for a moment and actually read Olsen’s book. I’m glad I did.
The book begins and ends with scenes from Olsen’s rocket ride into space. And, yes, since I am a little jaded about space travel I began in the middle, with Olsen’s working class upbringing in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, Ridgefield Park, and even a stint in northeastern Pennsylvania (not far from the god-forsaken route I take to reach the cottage on the lake). The launchpad of Olsen’s career is a mediocre high school record and a chance encounter in the registration line for incoming freshmen at Fairleigh Dickinson. Olsen ended up standing near some foreign students who were older and more serious about their studies. He became part of their study group. From there he was propelled into graduate school in South Africa, then the University of Virginia and a career that began at the RCA Labs in Princeton, now the Sarnoff research center.
In orbit with Olsen were people such as Vladmir Ban (a co-founder of Epitaxx), Steve Forrest, Marshall Cohen, Henry Kressel, Jim Carnes, Kurt Carlson, and Ed Zschau, people who would be a part of any definitive history of the advancement of technology in the greater Princeton business community.
At the U.S. 1 party Olsen (looking in the direction of senior writer Barbara Fox) graciously acknowledged the many stories U.S. 1 has devoted to high tech companies in the Route 1 corridor and noted how valuable that coverage had been. But as I read his book (and reconsidered my jaded point of view), I realized that we had only scratched the surface of Olsen’s endeavors.
When Olsen’s second company, Sensors Unlimited, spawned in the same Princeton Service Center space that was home to Epitaxx, was sold to Finisar in October, 2000, for $600 million worth of stock it was headline news for all the media. But I don’t recall any of us following the story that quickly evolved. By February, 2001, Sensors got the first inkling of trouble. Lucent wanted to postpone an order of fiber optic components for a week, or so. A week led to a month and then a realization. The orders for the products that Lucent was making had failed to materialize. The fiber optics boom of 1999-2000 had become the bust of 2001-’02.
“That’s when reality hit our employees in a way they never anticipated,” Olsen writes. “Just nine months after they were celebrating their good fortune in owning so much valuable stock, they learned the wisdom of the old broker’s adage: don’t count your money until you sell your stock. I had some very sorry people in my office, including big, grown men with tears in their eyes. They’d hung onto their stock when it was sinking, without understanding the tax consequences . . . They found out too late that they were taxed on the price of their stock option when it was exercised (that is, when they actually got the stock), not on the greatly diminished value they got when they sold it.”
By the fall of 2001, a year after the euphoric acquisition, Sensors had bottomed out. “Laying off nearly 50 people — just about a year after our acquisition by Finisar had brought in all that money — was the worst experience of the whole Sensors Unlimited story.” Making it more difficult was that, thanks in part to a persistent financial advisor, Jim McLaughlin, then of Merrill Lynch, Olsen had sold most of the stock he was allowed to at the earliest opportunity. “There I was, having cashed out for a big pile of money. . . I can’t tell you how difficult it was to present a production worker who had shown up every day and worked hard with that kind of bad news. These were salaried people with kids in college, trying to make ends meet. Now they had to find some other way to support their family.”
So much for the “easy” money that Olsen lucked into.
But some things have been easy, and that’s one of several “take-away” business lessons gleaned from the Olsen book. For example, he writes that “all the best hires at Sensors . . . wanted to sign on just as badly as I wanted to hire them. . . . That’s the way it should be. If you have to work too hard to hire someone, bend the salary rules, give extra bonuses, spend a lot of time convincing them to come . . . then it’s probably not gong to be a successful hire in the long run.”
Other Olsen rules:
“Sometimes you’ve got to lose to win. You have to give up a little, or pull back from your own demands, in order to get where you want to be.”
“When you tell people bad news, you should also give them a solution. Never go to your boss and say ‘I have a problem.’ Instead, say that you had a problem and here’s how you are fixing it or have fixed it.”
“People either have the desire to succeed and the will to make it happen or they don’t. . . . I don’t know of a single example of a company that has thrived solely because its technology was better. But there are plenty of examples of companies that were successful because they had better people and stronger business execution.”
“It’s as simple as that. Business really is that simple.” And, I would add (at the risk of sounding enthusiastic), sometimes business is simply exciting.