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John Pavley Headshot

In the End, We're All Entrepreneurs

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I had the pleasure of speaking at Cooper Union's Invention 2 Venture workshop this weekend. I2V is an excellent program designed to ignite the entrepreneurial spirit of university and college students across the United States. Even with our economy hovering in a slow burbling recovery engineering graduates are still heavily pursued by large, established tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. I2V's mission is to make sure young engineers know that being an entrepreneur is a great alternative to working for the man.

Tech giants compete heavily for engineering graduates from co-called "top schools." This talent war represents a brain drain of sorts for the start-up community: Young people, fresh out of school, are often at the height of their openness to new ideas. Working in a corporate environment with a tremendous number of perks (free haircuts and restricted stock units) and narrow technical challenges isn't a great introduction to the real world where haircuts have to be personally paid for and the value of stock options has to be created.

The engineering students, educators, and alumni I met this Saturday proved to me that the I2V idea is working. Even at 8 a.m. the students were wide awake and asking tough questions. In fact, it was the students who setup and ran the event. The Cooper Union professors spoke to me about how focused they were on creating an environment for innovation and making sure their students graduated with the business acumen needed for starting and running their own businesses. The alumni told great stories about how they tried and failed again and again until they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams at solving real world problems -- while building businesses.

Below is an essay based on my talk at I2V. It's the story of how I came to believe that being an entrepreneur is everybody's business, no matter how small or large an organization you work at and no matter whether you are on the bottom of the totem pole or at the top of heap.

There is a myth about businesses. It goes like this: There are two types: Low-risk corporate firms run by calm, rational, risk-adverse blue-suited businessmen and high-risk entrepreneurial startups run by risk-seeking gamblers.

In my 25 years of working I've only really seen one kind of business: The high-risk and entrepreneurial kind.

My first job after college was not in Tech. I worked in a mall framing posters of sunsets and clowns for a store called Prints N Things. Five years of art school with some of the best teachers in the art world and the only job I could get was in the kitsch biz.

The poster store was a miserable place. Barely making a profit. Always on the brink of closing down. They offered me a job in management. I was in deep despair over this prospect and accidentally cut the tip of my finger off with an X-ACTO knife.

My fiancee also worked at the mall, across the hall, at more upscale version of the poster store. She became friendly, in a platonic way, with part-time sales guy over there.

This sales guy explained to me that he was a computer graphics artist and only worked at the mall to meet girls (like my future wife!). To make sure there were no hard feelings between us he introduced me to the owner of the computer graphics firm.

The computer graphics firm hired and trained me on this fancy 1980-era mini computer, a PDP-11, running the RSX-11 operating system and a futuristic 2D drawing application called Genigraphics. I worked the night-shift making color slides for Fortune 500 companies at $50 to $100 per side. This was five years before PowerPoint came on the scene. Making color sides was like printing gold bars.

And since I worked the night shift, all alone, I started playing with the RSX-11 macro language. I didn't know the word hack back then but my hobby, besides painting pictures, was fooling around with cheap 8-bit home computers. So it was natural for me to figure out how to automate my Genigraphics slide creation work. Soon I was able to automate most of my tasks and had enough time to sneak out of the office in the middle of the night to watch late night movies with a co-worker.

The office manager called the office one night and discovered I was not working and was ready to fire me. I showed the company my macros and I got to keep my job. Eventually I become a manager there and I trained all the other computer artists in using macros.

I thought to myself, "this is great! I'm going to work at this job for the rest of my life!"

But by 1986 the desktop publishing revolution appeared and I bought an Apple Macintosh. I bought a Mac 512KE on a credit card (after convincing my wife that this was our big break) and got my in-laws to buy me an Apple LaserWriter printer. I started my own business with a partner and used my contacts from the computer graphics firm as potential customers. By this time affordable PCs could be used to create color sides at a fraction of the cost that Genigraphics required.

I thought to myself, "this is great! I'm going to work at this job for the rest of my life!"

But my partner's grandmother died and he got a small inheritance. He moved to Vermont, where he could live cheaply off this inheritance. My startup was dead in the water. I couldn't handle all the work alone.

Out of the blue, I got a call from a tech recruiter, about a great job with a desktop publishing software firm called Letraset. They had a full line of desktop publishing software and were competing with Adobe. This was around 1990.

I go on an interview and get a job as a product manager. I'm not sure what a product manager does but I know a lot about Macintosh computers, running a small business, and macros.

One day a programmer quits and I volunteer to help with the coding. After a few months of hard work they promote me to software engineering manager. I'm having a ball. I'm flying out to Apple and Microsoft and Comdex. I'm working on QuickTime 1.0 and Windows 3.1.

I thought to myself, "This is great! I'm going to work at this job for the rest of my life!"

And then the desktop publishing bubble bursts in 1991 and Letraset gets out of the software business. Everyone is laid off.

So I start another business with a buddy from Letraset and we create a video editor and shop it around to Apple and other silicon valley companies. Nobody likes our video editor but they like us so I get a job with Apple and my buddy gets a job with Mark of the Unicorn.

I worked at Apple from 1992 to 1997 as a technology evangelist and software engineering manager. I get to do cool products like ClarisWorks for Kids.

I thought to myself, "This is great! I'm going to work at this job for the rest of my life!"

In 1997 Apple almost goes out of business and I am laid off again.

This cycle repeats again and again through out my career for the next 15 years.

It dawns on me that there is no stable low-risk business. Not Prints N Things, not Genigraphics, not Letraset, not Apple. Entrepreneurship is the only thing I can count on. It's the one set of skills I can fall back on when times are tough.

If you are a student in college, a newly minted graduate, or an old guy like me, take the time to learn how to build and run a business. This way, you'll never be out of work.