In the late '90s, Mark Corio found himself just able to make the minimum monthly payments on $300,000 in credit card debt. Profligate spending wasn't his problem, though. Rather, he had succumbed to his desire to start his own design services company and was using plastic as an easy line of credit.
Corio kept his head and kept at it. More business came in and he hired other engineers to take up some of the workload. He earned a reputation for never turning down new business, no matter how busy he was. The effort has paid off: His Rochester Microsystems has been listed in Inc. Magazine's compilation of the 500 fastest-growing private companies for two consecutive years. This year, the company expects to double in size.
Here in Silicon Valley, we're blessed with a lot of smart venture capitalists and even more smart engineers, making this the world's premier greenhouse for startup companies. The problem is that the process of finding and cultivating new companies has become so scripted, so predictable, that we've forgotten what it takes to be a real entrepreneur. Guys like Mark Corio wouldn't stand a chance on Sand Hill Road.
Not enough volume. Not enough profit margin. Market's not big enough. It can be done cheaper in India. These are the cavils that have become credo in Silicon Valley. But how many more excuses must be made until a business proposal is totally devoid of risk? Executives at one large company I spoke to told me they don't want to go anywhere near design projects they consider "roadkill." Have companies here really become this spoiled?
What the U.S. electronics industry needs is more Mark Corios people with good instincts who are not afraid to put their own money and reputation on the line. We've got plenty of visionary PhD types shifting paradigms, thanks; give us more guys in denim shirts who drive around with a scope in their trunk.
Undoubtedly, these entrepreneurs really do exist. They're just hiding behind the walls of a cottage industry known as design services. I've talked to quite a few of these engineers recently, and many tell me they've got more work than they can handle. And they tell me they're working with some marquee names companies like Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Sun and Lockheed.
It's been a while since the advent of the last big thing that shook the electronics industry. Some top-notch chip companies were founded in the '90s thanks to the dawn of the pure-play foundry model. Later, companies found ways to reuse their intellectual property.
Perhaps something meaningful will come out of the current trend toward outsourcing design, led by those unseen engineers who do some great things for their clients and then let them take all the credit.
By Anthony Cataldo (firstname.lastname@example.org), who writes for EE Times in Silicon Valley and is studying electrical engineering at San Jose State University.