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All About the plan

From the garage: a tech entrepreneur’s story

Happppeeeee New Year! Woo-hoo. Feels a lot like last year, doesn’t it? If you listen carefully, you can probably hear Roger Daltrey belting out Pete Townshend’s lyrics: “Meet the new boss / same as the old boss…”  As for me, I won’t get fooled again. But then again, do you remember another of my favorite quotes, this time from Albert Einstein: “Reference frame is all”?

The New Year is always a time that invites introspection and evaluation, new ideas, plans and schemes and yes, even resolutions.   It stirs some memories, too.

Way back in the mid-eighties, when the Cold War was heating up, Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II were putting pressure on the Soviet Union (here’s a link to a great US News and World report article OP-ED giving some historical context). During that time, I left the security of a position with a well-established computer graphics company to join the ranks of a few unique individuals with an idea to build a better mousetrap — also known as entrepreneurs. We were able to create something almost magical, but it took quite a bit of work to get there.

My group of three friends — the individuals in question — was comprised of an engineer that was (I personally believe) a genius at computer design, a business graduate that could fix or build anything, and a part-time draftsman and river rafting guide. Well, plus me, too — and then there were four.

For my portion, my work in the technology space brought along with it some experience with flight simulation – using computers to make imagery to simulate the view from a cockpit of an aircraft, the lens of a submarine periscope or the bridge of a ship. Way back then — forty years ago now — TV screens were called picture tubes and were, in fact, glass cathode ray tubes. TVs made their pictures by scanning the cathode ray across the face of the screen from left to right and filling in 525 lines of information to “paint” the picture. This happened fast enough (sixty times a second in those days) to avoid flickering and to give the view a non-headache-inducing experience.

Bear with me here while I explain a little more nerd stuff. The design of TV screens, or monitors as we called them, meant that the cathode ray was required to move very fast in a horizontal direction, but not so rapidly in a vertical direction. Then, some smart guys at the major aircraft manufacturers in the United States discovered a solution to this problem.

Part 1 was to use a monitor that could draw very fast in both directions. Part 2 was to have someone design a “magic box” that could interpret a TV signal and modify it to drive this super-fast display. The result: they could set up a simulation in their laboratories and overlay avionics symbology right on top of a flight simulator scene. The aircraft and avionics designers could work with USAF and Navy pilots, based on this technology, to build higher performance aircraft.

And now, worthy reader, it is time to guess who built that “magic box.”  Yep — we did! That motley crew of four entrepreneurs in a garage-size shop in Utah — with a ping-pong table for recreation (and/or electronics assembly.) Our company was called Terabit Computer Engineering. We built a business from an idea, and we grew with the rest of the technology industry during the massive defense build-up during that time.

For me, it was the best of times and the worst of times (come to think of it, I believe somebody else may have used that line before…) The stress of having no investment capital and bootstrapping ourselves from the ground up was unrelenting. However, the joy of working diligently alongside close friends, building successful products, and creating our own company made it worth the effort.

Looking back, I was probably the least important member of the team in a lot of ways.   If you ask me to describe my contribution in the simplest terms, I would tell you I found some guys that had a need — and some other guys that could fill that need — and I put them together. Those times came and went. We eventually sold the company for a goodly sum and moved on to other pursuits.

There is a reason I’m sharing this story with you. To encourage you — not just with the coming of a new year — but with the coming of every new day, to nurture your ideas. America is still the best place in the world for a person with an idea and the entrepreneurial spirit to bring their dreams to life.

It’s the best plan I’ve ever had.

 

January 2020

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