Ford Tamer, Ph.D. is an Operating Partner at Khosla Ventures, the leading clean-tech venture capital firm spearheading investments into areas such as bio-refineries for energy and bioplastics, solar, battery and other environmentally friendly technologies. At Khosla Ventures, Ford is focused on breakthroughs related to mechanical and electrical efficiency, solar and IT. He has led Khosla Ventures’ investments in and is on the board of EcoMotors, Kaai, Soraa, and Topanga. He also sits on the boards of eASIC and PAX Streamline.
Before joining Khosla Ventures, Ford was Senior Vice President and General Manager of the $1.2 billion Enterprise Networking Group at Broadcom. During his five years with the company, he grew the networking semiconductor business four-fold to leading market share at tier one customers worldwide.
Ford has over twenty years experience founding and building successful technology businesses. He co-founded and served as the President and Chief Executive Officer of Agere, Inc., a semiconductor manufacturer, until it was acquired by Lucent Microelectronics for $430 million. Following the acquisition, he served as Vice President of the Processing, Aggregation and Switching business unit at Lucent’s Agere Systems. Prior to founding Agere, he was part of the founding executive team at Dazel Corporation, which was acquired by HP, and MegaKnowledge, which was acquired by IntelliCorp.
Ford earned a Masters of Science and PhD from MIT in engineering with theses focused on material science and system numerical modeling.
We are thrilled to present this interview with Ford Tamer. For the complete interview with Ford Tamer click Ford Tamer Complete Leadership Interview.
Greg Selker: Ford, when you look at your career and the successes that you’ve had in creating a culture that delivers the results we are talking about, and when you look at the companies you are now investing in and building, what do you see as the consistent core values that you are putting in place, and how do you determine that the leaders you’re hiring have those values?
Ford Tamer: I think there are five principles or values I have always tried to stress, and they are: innovation, focus and execution, open communication, teamwork, passion and fun. Innovation and leap frog-ability is a defining element for a company. This is something I stressed at Agere, and I think you know I ended up stressing in some of my other jobs as well. You want to start with an environment in some of these early-stage companies, where you foster and focus on leap frog-ability. Because you want a team that’s going to be motivated to create and imagine a 10X improvement over what’s in existence today.
If all you realize is a 10% to 20% improvement, by the time you get to market, your competitor - which is a large company - will have already equaled your achievement. This means you can’t just have a commitment to marginal improvement. You’ve got to focus on leap frog-ability and creating a true gap in innovation to stay ahead.
We have also determined the flatter the organization is, the better it is for fostering innovation, and we have learned that you have to put in place a system that rewards innovation in order to continue to encourage behavior that leads to it. For example, creating an incentive structure which rewards patent generation and IP creation can help encourage behavior that leads to innovation. We also look at a balance in an organization between the CTO/Advanced Development Office, and the mainstream engineering organization, paying attention to the number of people working on advanced projects, and those that are executing on the mainstream bread and butter projects.
In terms of hiring, a good measure of whether someone has these qualities of innovation and leap frog-ability is by trying to understand what they’ve done in their past. Have the products that they have introduced in the market created discontinuity, or was it a “me too” product? Do they understand the need for leap frog-ability and gap-opening products and does their career history prove this?
Greg Selker: In particular, how do you define these elements of leap frog-ability and innovation so you know what you are looking for?
Ford Tamer: For example, the Nintendo Wii controller, which was based on Broadcom chips, was a leap frog innovation. The wireless aspects of the controller totally changed how people played with games compared to the Sony PS3 or the Xbox from Microsoft. Having this wireless controller gave a total new dimension to gaming and changed the games which could be introduced into the market.
Greg Selker: So what was it about the culture from a values perspective that allowed for this innovation to occur at an individual engineering level, and then be accepted and embraced?
Ford Tamer: I think by large the founders of Broadcom, Henry Nicholas and Henry Samueli, were able to put in place an early culture that has largely survived until today, and the number one value in this culture is innovation. We talked a lot about leap frog-ability, about “word first” product; a product that represented the leading edge in people’s minds, and was talked about, was on the tip of people’s tongues. Everybody was encouraged and rewarded for coming up with these “word first” products, and you could see how this was very much reinforced in the culture at all levels of the organization, all the way to the top.
Greg Selker: Ford, there are many organizations that would like to be innovative, and even say they have a commitment to it, but there are few that actually achieve a culture that supports risk taking, allows rapid decision making, is a learning by doing culture, and supports fun and passion.
Ford Tamer: You’re right; those are all supporting elements of innovation. Because if people cannot take enough risk, and failure is not okay, then innovation does not happen. In an innovative company, the only issues should be, technically does the product make sense, and, is there a market discontinuity in which we can introduce this product?
You also have to manage the company so this innovation can actually move from R&D into the marketplace. This is where the top management and leadership of a company make a huge difference, and the CEO is the key person. Meaning, if the CEO and top management understand and embrace innovation, and they allow it to happen, it will happen. In addition, you also need an environment that encompasses financial discipline and is focused on execution, to drive innovation to market.
Execution is the second value we look to create and try to find in the people we hire. I used to give new hires a pep talk focused on culture, and my second tenet was execution, and what I used to say is “listen, these innovations are not going to just languish in a closet somewhere, we’re going to find a path to bring them to market”.
An emerging company lives or dies by getting products to market that are going to work, are high quality, and are ahead of their competition. The phrase we used to coin was, “over-promise and over-deliver”. The definition of mediocrity in my mind is “under-promise and deliver.” This is making it too easy.
The third value in building a highly successful company and culture is open and constructive communication, as opposed to a culture that frowns on tough communication. We used to teach people in meetings that if you’ve got a problem with the direction of the business or technology, just say it right then and there in the room full of people. There is no need to have a one-on-one chat in the back room. Yes, you’ve got to be sensitive to people. But you don’t have the time to be private or secretive with your concerns. You do need to take the time you have to provide constructive criticism.
’You just need to remember, that what goes around comes around. If you present your feedback from a personal rather than a technology and business perspective, at some point somebody will present their feedback to you from a personal perspective. The most important thing you can do is to stay focused on the business problem at hand.
The fourth value is teamwork. You want to hire very smart people, and create a team that checks their egos at the door. Egos destroy companies. It has to be a team that’s going to work well together, deliver together, and go through the difficult and tough times together.
And finally, I think the last necessary value is passion and fun. You want to recruit people that are passionate about what they do, and are interested in changing the world. This is especially true on the green side. The good news for green companies is that by default, the people that want to work for them truly do want to change the world, and at the same time, have fun doing it. Regardless of what kind of company you work for, life is too short to say, “I’ve got to go to work in the morning.” You can’t build and sustain a highly successful company if people are not going to be passionate about what they do, and have fun doing it. This allows you to create a culture of passion and fun.
Greg Selker: That’s great, Ford. We’ve had a far ranging and fascinating conversation, but I’d like to get back to several of the things you’ve spoken about in terms of green technology. You’ve talked about the building of clean tech companies as a movement that is giving rise to a whole new generation of businesses, and people who have a focus on green educational learning, particularly the technology and science aspects of this, in addition to an emphasis on public accountability. Given the emphasis on “green” science, technology, and on public accountability, what would you say to young people who are in the middle of their college years about green technology, green business and the importance of this in their careers?
Ford Tamer: I think it’s a very important trend that’s here for the long term. The one thing I would say is, go back to basic science. These technologies, whether we look at new car engines, or lighting, or new materials like cement, or solar and new types of bio-fuel, all of these go back to the basic sciences such as thermodynamics, fluid dynamics, material science, chemistry, and biotechnology. The basis for all these green companies and businesses is all fundamental science.
Greg Selker: I just have one more question I’d like to ask you. When you look at your career, what do you think is the best or the most important piece of leadership advice that you’ve received?
Ford Tamer: I think it’s interesting. Probably the phrase that I would say is probably the most important, is one that I learned from Vinod [Khosla]. “Dare to be great.” I think this is true. If you want to be great, imagine the future and amplify your goals, and dare to imagine that you can reach them.
Greg Selker: Yes. Well that’s excellent, Ford. That’s something that I personally believe in at a very deep level as well. And it’s thrilling to hear you say that - as one of the most important pieces of advice, in terms of leadership, that you’ve received.
Ford Tamer: Thank you. This has been a very good and a very interesting discussion.
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