I recently became acquainted with Silicon Valley’s longest serving CEO: Ray Zinn, the cofounder and CEO of Micrel, which was acquired by Microchip Technology in 2015.
Zinn and his friend Warren Muller began the semiconductor company Micrel in 1978 by pooling $300,000 from themselves and partners with $300,000 borrowed from the bank. Their fledgling company flew in the face of the Silicon Valley model of getting venture capital to grow a “built to flip” organization (in fact, the company paid back the $600,000 within three years). Zinn led Micrel for 37 years, producing a profit in every year but one, during the Dot.Com implosion of 2002.
True to his determination to maintain control of his destiny and company, he was required at one point to personally guarantee $4 million in bank debt to keep the organization afloat. When he and I connected this year we became instant friends, or perhaps even brothers, as we realized that our personal philosophies, leadership approaches (with emphasis on the soft skills of respect and courtesy) and even many aspects of our upbringings were very much the same.
Zinn has chronicled his experience in the recent book Tough Things First: Leadership Lessons from Silicon Valley’s Longest Serving CEO. I would recommend it as required reading for all. In short, he maintains that discipline is the very essence of every successful entrepreneur. I agree.
A true entrepreneur knows that almost nothing is insurmountable. Athletic accomplishment, music, academic achievement — if something seems to be impossible to others, a great entrepreneur will see a worthy vision and objective before them, will seek to understand the barriers, and will understand that with determination and practice, there is very little a person or team can’t achieve.
Often, he notes, an entrepreneur’s discipline is so innate that they don’t even realize they it. But, as leaders, they instinctively transfer the skill and priority to everyone in their organizations. Every true entrepreneur, Zinn maintains, possesses the following four traits:
Distractions are an anathema to entrepreneurs. Whether the distractions are people, market conditions or politics, an entrepreneur knows with their full being what they want to produce and they find a way to create it. “Stopping a focused entrepreneur is like trying to halt plate tectonics,” he says.
2. Short time frames:
Entrepreneurs are impatient by nature, but they also understand the value of fast innovation. While a lesser entrepreneur will complain, “What’s the hurry? This is a company so perfectly modeled that whenever we arrive, we are sure to succeed” (spoken, not surprisingly, by a failed entrepreneur). But a great entrepreneur knows that what they fail to bring to market today will be brought forward by the competition tomorrow. The best have learned to temper their desire for speed with proper precaution (such as full testing to avoid outcomes, e.g., the disastrous Samsung 7 phone). But by and large, they move fast.
Those who succumbed to the excesses of the dot-com era were forced to live with regrets. But truly great entrepreneurs run frugal organizations. They also understand that spending their own cash to grow a venture is less expensive in the long run than using investor money or loans. A great entrepreneur is generous with employees, but is able to postpone the gratification of illustrious office space or grand gestures that are funded by investment money or loans.
4. Being the best:
Second place is never where a great entrepreneur is willing to be. For them, nothing is acceptable that is short of their personal best. It is this element, Ray says, that is perhaps the single most important (and most observable and grow-able) trait for entrepreneurs. Being the best at what you do, both as an individual and as a team, is what differentiates you above all others in the marketplace and ensures you’ll succeed.
In contrast, people who are content to follow their innate tendencies are prone to look for the lowest hanging fruit, to find the easiest path, to cut corners, to make excuses and to rest as much as they can. But businesspeople who are not willing to be their best will never become true entrepreneurs. Worse still, they tend to become embittered, bored and resentful as their careers stagnate and they’re forced to observe the legions of disciplined people around them succeed.
For example, Zinn notes, it was complacence that allowed Microsoft, in the 1980s, to take market share away from Ashton-Tate, Lotus 1–2–3 and WordPerfect. Perhaps Microsoft was not a great company so much as that the other companies around them, after a period of time, were satisfied with “good enough” and didn’t expend the effort to continue being the best.
As one of Zinn’s earliest life lessons, he tells the story of being told by a coach in high school that because of his short stature, he would never succeed at running the hurdles. To him, the coach’s dismissive attitude became a challenge. He went home and studied every aspect of the challenge before him, and how he would need to overcome each of these factors to succeed at his impossible goal. His father built a “hurdle” behind the family barn that he topped with a bottle cap Zinn would need to practice removing with each leap while leaving the hurdle itself undisturbed. He also knew that he would have to run 25% more steps than his taller rivals to match their long-legged strides.
Finally ready for his challenge, Zinn implored the coach to let him try out for the team from the farthest lane, reasoning that separated from the other runners, if he flipped a hurdle, nobody else would be impacted or even distracted. The coach relented. From the furthest lane, Zinn proceeded to beat everybody else in the pack.
And just like a shorter man with a desire to run the high hurdles, Zinn recalls that nothing, after this challenge, seemed impossible to achieve once he could see the objective, understand the barriers and employ the discipline necessary to make it happen. In the coming months I’ll share more of Zinn’s strategies in additional posts. But in the meantime, as we keep moving forward in this new year of business, we can use his discipline as an example that can inspire us all.
If you enjoyed reading this post, please share and recommend it so others can find it!
Call to Action
Would you like to know more? You can follow my weekly Forbes.com columns (where this originally appeared) on life, leadership and entrepreneurship here.
You can learn more about my company, Fishbowl Inventory, by visiting our website here. I look forward to hearing from you.