A serial entrepreneur shares her secrets for technology startup success and how she wooed Guy Kawasaki away from Apple.
Outside it looks like a cabin in the woods, but on any given day inside Buck’s Restaurant Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are striking funding deals over breakfast, including such startups as Hotmail, PayPal and Tesla, according to legend. (Flickr photo)
Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, Calif. is the epicenter of Silicon Valley‘s venture capital scene, but it’s 15 minutes up the road at a diner nestled in the woods where many startup funding deals get hashed out over plates of pancakes and eggs.
Buck’s Restaurant in Woodside is where startup veteran Marylene Delbourg-Delphis took time recently to reflect on her legacy as one of the first European women to start a tech company in Silicon Valley.
Decades before organizations such as Women 2.0 and One Million by One Million helped women start their own businesses, Delbourg-Delphis dove in headfirst, developing her own business philosophy defined by friendships and intuition but rooted in a bootstrapping approach aimed at generating revenue before reaching for venture funding.
“Lots of VCs come to Buck’s. I really like the energy I find here,” Delbourg-Delphis said with a smile.
Legend has it that Hotmail and Tesla were founded at Buck’s. Netscape had early-stage meetings at the roadside diner and it’s where PayPal secured initial funding. Over a bowl of mixed fruit and a mug of Buck’s house coffee, the self-professed serial entrepreneur talked about her early-morning meeting at TalentCircles, a job-recruitment company where she is CEO. It’s the most recent of more than 30 companies she has worked on over the years, including Brixlogic, Exemplary and Objective Marketer, all of which were eventually acquired.
“Startups have been my passion, my exclusive passion for the past 25 years,” she said.
In the mid-1980s, Delbourg-Delphis was studying at l’Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris when she first used an Apple III.
“I was working on the history of fragrance, and I needed a database to manage my research,” she said. “I looked at dBASE and thought it was so anachronistic. There was really nothing simple, visual and easy to use.”
Her need turned into an idea that became a business in France. She named the database 4th Dimension, and claims it was the first relational graphical database.
“I was not approaching this from a point of view of a computer scientist, but from a point of view that this is what I really need,” she said, underscoring that this simple, humanistic approach is the essence of most successful startups today.
The French-based database business became profitable after 2 years, according to Delbourg-Delphis. During an Apple Expo in France in 1985, she met Apple software evangelist Alain Rossmann, who strongly encouraged her to visit leaders at Apple headquarters in California — she arranged to arrive in Cupertino post-haste.
Silicon Valley: Florence of the 1980s
When she first set foot in Silicon Valley in 1985, she was fascinated by the sheer concentration of companies all in one place.
“I would not go in front of time looking for what I already know. Instead I always look at time as the opportunity to learn something new that can challenge me,” said veteran entrepreneur Marylene Delbourg-Delphis. (Flickr photo)
“I looked at this as a renaissance world,” she said. “I thought of places like Florence, Rome or Paris, where all of the great minds got together to create things, making these places like the center of the Universe. There is a map of Silicon Valley with names of all of the companies in the area, and I remember looking at this map and saying, this is Florence, only several centuries later.”
“This is when I figured that the market was here,” she said, and quickly decided to start a U.S. subsidiary of her growing French company, and she named it ACIUS 4th Dimension.
“Being one of the very first European women to start a high-tech company in Silicon Valley, it was out of the question that any VC would fund me,” said Delbourg-Delphis. “When I did my startup, VCs would not relate to somebody like me. I had a heavy-duty background in philosophy, was a woman and I was French.”
“I believe VCs were willing to fund women entrepreneurs in the early days, but we just did not have many approach us for capital,” said DuBose Montgomery, who co-founded Menlo Ventures in 1976. He remembers Sandra Kurtzig as being one of the first women entrepreneurs to convince VCs to back her technology startup ASK Computers, which later became a very successful manufacturing software company acquired by Computer Associates in 1994.
This environment didn’t dissuade Delbourg-Delphis. She focused on product development and networking with developers and potential customers, which she says led her privately held startup to generate more than $45 million in revenue in 6 years.
Getting Guy Kawasaki
If there is a line between business and real life, it is blurry if not invisible to Delbourg-Delphis. She believes that the best business relationships develop into true friendships like the one she has with Guy Kawasaki, who today is a top-selling author and successful Internet entrepreneur.
“Silicon Valley is still where you can be genuinely unrealistic and make something real,” said veteran entrepreneur Marylene Delbourg-Delphis. “It’s still a place where you realize that the future is today.” (Flickr photo)
She first met Kawasaki during her early visits to Apple headquarters in 1985. Kawasaki was the company’s chief software evangelist, and Delbourg-Delphis described him as someone who always had his hands on products, and the 4th Dimension database was one product he knew well. That same year, Delbourg-Delphis asked Kawasaki if he would join her startup as CEO.
“What’s the likelihood of a man coming to work for a woman in the 1980s?” asked Delbourg-Delphis. “But he did. I think he liked how I asked him directly without dramatizing my invitation.”
Guy helped me understand American idioms,” she added. “I could speak Shakespeare, but I couldn’t read the Mercury News.”
Kawasaki left ACIUS in 1987 to become an author and speaker, leaving the CEO role to Delbourg-Delphis. Rossmann, who had become a board member at ACIUS, acknowledged that Delbourg-Delphis had built “one of the leading PC databases software companies in the world,” capturing a major share of the Apple market.
Delbourg-Delphis left ACIUS in early 1997 at the request of her then 9-year-old daughter Sophie, who wanted to stop traveling back and forth to France and live exclusively in America. After moving permanently to Silicon Valley, she set up Cilantro Productions, her consulting firm where she uses her knowledge and business process management skills to help entrepreneurs.
Democratizing Magic, Intuition over Experience
Silicon Valley has remained a hotbed of innovation for decades because it is continually “democratizing magic,” Delbourg-Delphis wrote in a recent article for the French publication Atlantico.
She has never followed a career roadmap, structuring her life instead around interaction with people and her intuition. “I have had a lot of experience, but in a way, I always see experience as something that you must forget,” she said. “Experience only helps for routine tasks. I don’t use experience as a filter to evaluate new opportunities. I plan when I see and I don’t plan to see.”
Delbourg-Delphis paused to look around Buck’s, turning an ear to nearby chatter about Google, Facebook, Apple, social networking apps and possibly even a deal or two, before offering a parting comment.
“Silicon Valley is a place where you can just do anything, but geography matters less,” she said. “With the addition of all sorts of nationalities, far more than anything we saw here 30 years ago, it’s a true melting pot for geographies and times. You have people coming from very different backgrounds with completely different histories. It’s truly phenomenal. Here people have been used to inventing and innovation for two generations.”