Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Just because something doesn't do what you planned it to do doesn't mean it's useless.

Thomas A. Edison

If you are an experimental scientist, your days are likely to be either incredibly frustrating, or incredibly exhilarating. Actually for many of us this oscillation of emotions is the natural bipolar state of the work that we are driven to do. Everyone has a slightly unique process for experimentation. I tend to start with improvisation, while other, more organized scientists begin by systematic preparation. An improvisation is by its nature different than an experiment. It is more like psychoanalysis, with free association of ideas, without any conscious direction. I remember this being called brain storming in business and school meetings. For me an improvisation can clear my mind, so that I can see what is already in front of me, rather than be trapped by outside thoughts. As I said though, this is not really an experiment. An experiment requires more than improvisation, it requires an idea, or hypothesis, so that a proper test, and set of testing conditions can be designed. In cases like the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN labs in Switzerland, 15 years have been spent preparing for experiments. One of the key experiments at LHC has been sculpted by the world’s leading physicists over much of this time. The Hypothesis is that a unique particle, called the Higgs Boson, can be detected by colliding protons at high energies near the speed of light. Most physicists expect this particle, called by many the “god particle”, to be detected, confirming one of the 20th century’s most famous, yet improvable theories in particle physics. This is what is generally thought of as experimentation. At the 2009 Origins Conference in Arizona, two physicists Laurence Krauss and Brian Greene talked of an even more rewarding, or exciting possibility. Dr. Green said “what would be even better than finding the Higgs at the LHC, is not finding it. It would show all of us that there is something else to be discovered. Of course this wouldn’t be good for financing another large experiment like this.”

Greene was on to something that is generally misunderstood about scientists. Even when an experiment is well planned, and a hypothesis well formulated, we are even more enthralled by the possibility that the experiment leads us to entirely new places. The reason for this is that we trust that nature is inherently more interesting than we can first imagine.

Small technology companies are no less of an experiment than one run in a lab. Like the scientist in the lab, the entrepreneur is putting all of his mental capabilities into a hypothesis, believing that his idea is of value. The good entrepreneur, like the good scientist, is even more moved by the idea which he didn’t have. In other words when the experiment of trying an idea fails, he assumes that it must mean that there is an even better solution. This can make for difficult days, quarters and years, but ultimately the openness to reinterpret the experiment can lead to more beautiful places than the original design.

One area of the start-up which is often misrepresented, or at least not thought of in this light, is staffing. When I was a theatre director I was given a common piece of advice which is that “90% of the director’s job is casting.” This is true of course for directing and hiring engineers, but it is not as rigid as might be implied. When the director Mike Nichols hired Dustin Hoffman for “The Graduate” his choice was mocked throughout Hollywood. Hoffman was too old, to small and too Jewish. The role of Benjamin Bradick should have been given to Robert Redford, by all of the loose metrics of casting wisdom. Nichols was participating in an expensive Hollywood experiment, and one that ultimately paid off with one of the most successful films of its era. In hindsight Nichols is seen as a genius for this decision. When asked about it though, he doesn’t see it this way. He claims that the reason for choosing Hoffman was not based on an imagined box office success, but rather just because he thought Hoffman was good. He chose to experiment on Hoffman, not knowing for certain how he would fit in the role, but believing him to be a good enough actor that somehow he would.

“The Graduate” casting example is exactly what plays itself out when hiring the first few engineers in a company, and probably everyone after that. Sometimes it is not always best to hire the MIT Ph.D. with a specialty in your field. Sometimes that is like casting Robert Redford in “The Graduate”. It would work probably, but it might not be as inventive as you would like. There was also one other small advantage to the casting of Dustin Hoffman, which at first may seem like a compromise. Hoffman was an unknown, and was not as expensive as Redford. I don’t think this was Nichols reason for casting him, but in the end it didn’t hurt either. Because the production was under budget in casting, they were able to reallocate some of that money towards the scenery, which included the famous modern and post modern monochrome homes of the Bradicks and the Robinsons. It also didn’t hurt Hoffman, as he is now one of Hollywood’s top paid actors.

The early years of Tech Pro were much leaner than “The Graduate” pre-production days, but there were some similarities. My parents were looking at doing something that shouldn’t have been able to be done with a small amount of investment capital. They were trying to open a software, and hardware company to create completely new technologies, in order to compete with Monsanto, which was at the time a Fortune 50 company. Although it is obvious that this experiment was a risky one, and that there would be challenges, the challenge of hiring seemed easily approached by following common business wisdom: if a company has only a few dollars, at least those dollars should go to the obviously most qualified person. But, what if there aren’t even enough dollars to work with, or if it means changing your financing model in order to raise additional funds?

The story of Jeff

The summer of 1985 was a period of transition for Tech Pro. The company itself was experimenting through improvisation and hypothesis, starting as a garage refurbishing shop. That is really all it was. My Father had worked in Akron, the rubber capital of the world (at least then), in many areas of the industry, from manufacturing rubber, to working in a testing lab, to working for Monsanto, who made testing instrumentation. During this time period Monsanto had a near monopoly on a type of instrumentation called rheometers, which were the only practical way of evaluating vulcanization of rubber. In the mid 1980’s there was a transformation in the industry occurring. The large tire companies were being acquired by foreign firms, and local factories were being closed. At the same time smaller US companies were filling some of the gap left by the departure of the major players. These smaller companies couldn’t afford the rheometers that were by natural supply and demand standards expensive from Monsanto. My parents made a logical bridge between the factory closures, and the need for low cost instrumentation. They purchased used instruments from shuttered plants at auctions, and rebuilt them to resell to the new companies needing cheaper instruments. This was, not surprisingly, welcome news to the industry. It was also a lot of work. Tech Pro hired first a night maintenance man from Kmart to help with the rebuilding. Joe Bulman was a superb tinkerer, and even though hired mainly as a technician, showed creative interests, and abilities. So, he became a design partner, and was the first person to design, along with my father, an original rheometer, not just a refurbished old one. Actually, I will digress for a moment on this story, as it is a perfect example of an experiment that needed adjusting.

In 1985 Tech Pro was actually happy, and even profitable in its business of refurbishing and reselling rheometers. With Joe building, my mother doing the administration, and my father doing sales and installations, it was a nice, very small business. The way the process worked was that Tech Pro would find the old, usually not functional instruments, at an abandoned factory and cheaply acquire them. They would then strip the instruments to only there bare physical structure. They would buy all new parts, from Monsanto, rebuild the instruments, paint them, test them and resell them. This was the entire business at the time. Then a shock that could have stopped Tech Pro at this stage happened. Monsanto refused to sell Tech Pro any more parts. Since Monsanto was the only supplier, there were no other choices. That is except the one that now seems obvious. Tech Pro started to make its own instruments. At this point my father moved from being a salesman, and installation man, to a designer, and Joe became an engineer.

Once Tech Pro had an equivalent, but less expensive instrument to Monsanto, the idea of being just a second supplier lost its excitement. My father was an experimenter at heart, and wanted to experiment with the most exciting technology of the day, the personal computer. Personal computers in 1985 had started to find their way into corporations in many ways. The large main frames of the past were no longer necessary for many applications. Spreadsheets and word processing were being used by nearly everyone. Accounting departments and human resources were starting to use personal computers. In the rubber laboratory, however, analogue devices, called recorders, were the only way to acquire information from rheometers. Personal computers seemed like a perfect fit. A computer would be able to acquire data from the instrument, and store the information. It should also be able to do mathematical calculations to help with the interpretation of that data. The problems in pursuing this line of experimentation were: 1). Joe, my mother and my father had never programmed before, and 2). Computer scientists were scarce and expensive.

Though Joe was the only engineer at Tech Pro in 1985, the work load for building and rebuilding instruments had increased to the point where some hourly employees were necessary to help with the manual labor involved. When a company is as small as Tech Pro, every hire is important, and risky, no matter how unskilled, or low paid the job appears to be. My parents even had a test, which was not so much based on knowledge but instead based on problem solving and creative manipulation. An example from this was putting together a pizza box quickly. Another involved an aspect of design. The only knowledge based questions were ones of electronics. It was important that every early Tech Pro employee know some basics, as everyone needed to multitask. There was also a search for a computer geek. For people who spent time building their own computers, and coding video games. Tech Pro was looking for people who had fun with computers and electronics, not people who were educated in them.

One of these early shop hands was Jeff Archer. Jeff was in his early twenties, high school educated, and clumsy with tools. In such a small firm, where the ability to use a broom, and a drill were more important than your ability to do differential equations, this could have been a problem. Instead months went by with Jeff working hard, but not extremely effectively as an assistant of sorts to Joe. Jeff’s potential during this time was growing, as he was indeed leaving work to build his own computers, and doing programming. When my father decided that he wanted to create the first PC applications for rheometers, he did not search for capital, and computer scientists, he instead looked for the geek with the broom. Jeff, and my father worked together to make the first ever PC driven rheometer system. Jeff was not just good technically, he was creative, and smart, and understood, like my father did, the psychology of the user. Together they created a system which was such a smooth transition from analogue to digital, that within 5 years the entire industry had embraced it.

Jeff was an experiment that paid off for him, for Tech Pro, and for the rubber industry in ways that were never hypothesized when he was hired. Still the flexibility and insight to see in him as a potential partner made something unique possible. Only in a small company where the owner knows the worker can this discovery be made.

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