How a Rock started the venture capital biz in the Valley
Arthur Rock once savored a monopoly over the minds and money flowing through Silicon Valley.
One struggles these days to imagine anything less than a steel cage, death match as myriad venture capital firms rush to fund the latest and greatest start-ups. Investors fall all over each other, hoping to strike it rich in a flash. This is the Tipping Point mentality promoted by author Malcolm Gladwell and worshipped by lottery aficionados.
Rock and his partner Tommy Davis worked in simpler, murkier times. They started to define the Silicon Valley venture capital culture back in 1961, using Rock's past investment in Fairchild Semiconductor and $5m as proof of their credentials. Back then, $5m bought you plenty of attention.
"We were the only game in town, so they all came to us," Rock said last night, during an event here at the Computer History Museum. "We didn't have to go looking."
On one level, Rock is best known for that Fairchild deal.
While working for an investment bank in New York, he learned of seven unhappy researchers at the Shockley Semiconductor Lab in Mountain View. The workers wanted to leave en masse and find a company willing to employ the entire group. (Fairchild and Intel co-founder Robert Noyce later joined the seven, forming the so-called "Traitorous Eight".)
In 1957, it proved tough to find a company willing to adopt the Shockley workers. Rock pitched 35 businesses, and they all declined.
"These companies all had order and form and none of them could see how they could set up a separate division and give people operating that division a larger profit than their own employees were getting," Rock recalled. "It just wasn't in their mindset. Options were practically unknown in those days."
Eventually, Sherman Fairchild grasped the opportunity at hand, slotting in the eight workers at Fairchild Camera and Instrument. Each of the researchers took 10 per cent of the new operation, while Rock took 20 per cent.
"That is where the famous 80/20 came from," Rock said. "All the venture capitalists in the room can thank me for your 20 per cent."
Fairchild charged the transistor market and thrived off Noyce's integrated circuit discovery. Eventually, however, management failed to keep up with the entrepreneurial spirit of its workers, opening the door for Noyce and Moore to start another venture.
With Rock by their side, Noyce and Moore fired up Intel in 1968, using a two-and-a- half page (double spaced) business plan "designed to say nothing" and $2.5m. Rock remained a director at Intel for three decades.
Germanium Valley doesn't sound quite right
Rock, without question, deserves a place right alongside William Shockley, Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore, Frederick Terman and the HP boys as one of the founding fathers of Silicon Valley.
Shockley brought the actual silicon out this way. Noyce and Moore made a business out the technology and fired up the start-up tradition. Terman orchestrated the links between Stanford and local businesses. Hewlett and Packard pushed the region's electronics roots to a new level. And Rock served as a type of seed spreader, pollinating the Valley with cash and the venture capital spirit.
In the early 1970s, new legislation made it possible for foundations and other organizations to fund venture capitalists. Silicon Valley opened up at that point, and Sand Hill Road swelled.
Rock, however, maintained his prominent position, making a very notable investment in Apple.
Mike Markkula, another Silicon Valley legend, facilitated the initial meeting between Rock and the two Steves – Jobs and Wozniak.
"Boy, I was really unimpressed," Rock said," not by their knowledge or entrepenuerial spirit, but the guys did not have the appearance that one would expect from someone looking for cash."
Rock became convinced by the Apple fellas after he went to a computer trade show in San Jose.
"All of these companies were showing off their gear, and no one was at these other companies. The people were at the Apple booth. It was everybody at the show. At that point, I knew maybe we had something."
Rock eventually resigned from the Apple board when the company, along with partners IBM and Motorola, threatened "to kill Intel" with their new chips.
"You know, I just had to get off the Apple board," he said.
Rock has long prided himself on holding a certain amount of loyalty for the companies he funded. He viewed the investments more as a way to build compelling, useful businesses than as a means of lining his pockets. Of course, the millions didn't hurt.
These days Rock uses his money to back education efforts.
"My theory is that if this country is going to compete with what is going on in the rest of the world, we need to have educated people," he said.
"In the big inner cities, less than half of the kids graduate from high school. That was okay many, many years ago when these people could into steel factories and car factories and use their brawn."
Along such lines, Rock has helped fund scholarships that let Bay Area inner city kids attend private schools. ®
Those of you interested in last night's presentation can check it out via the Computer History Museum's web site. It should be up shortly.
New York Times writer John Markoff did a grand job last night as Rock's interviewer. You'll want to check out his most recent book here.
In addition, anyone wanting to know more about Arthur Rock is urged to check out Leslie Berlin's wonderful biography on Robert Noyce here. Those of you who want to know more about the pre-Rock Silicon Valley should buy my book.
The Rock lecture comes courtesy of a $546,000 grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore foundation meant to increase knowledge about the semiconductor industry. There will be two more lectures in this series.