Event Recap: HBSA/NC Honors Adobe

Adobe Systems received the HBSA/NC’s 29th annual Entrepreneurial Company of the Year award at a sold-out dinner and reception September 17 at the Hotel Sofitel in Redwood City. Jeff Holland, Chairman of HBSA/NC, started off the evening’s program recognizing Blake Jorgensen, Dan Ahn, and Phil Sanderson for their efforts in helping to raise funds for HBS Community Partners, a group that provides pro bono consulting and management assistance to Bay Area nonprofit organizations. Then it was on to the evening’s honored company, Adobe.

The Adobe story is classic Silicon Valley. Two smart guys, Charles “Chuck” Geschke and John Warnock, with a great idea and a little venture capital to get things going, founded a company in 1982. As detailed in a short video screened for the crowd, the Adobe co-founders struggled with how to turn their Post Script technology into a product and ultimately a business. “We thought the market would be small,” said Bill Hambrecht, an early investor. “I think things changed when Steve Jobs came into the picture. Steve, early in the game saw the program, recognized what it could become and said, ‘This really ought to be on an Apple.’ That’s what drove the product into the broad marketplace, and also, I think was probably the most successful thing Steve did with Macintosh.”

By 1986, Adobe Systems had enough customers and heft to go public. “The thing I remember most about it,” Hambrecht said, “was getting a call from a friend in Seattle who told me, ‘Bill Gates wants to buy some stock.’ I thought, OK, now I know we’ve got a good one.” Gates got his stock, and Adobe quickly became the platform for the digital publishing world. Over the years the company expanded into applications for graphics, video and the web. “Let’s say Chuck and John are before God, and God asks them, ‘What did you do to make the world a better place?’ “posited entrepreneur and investor Guy Kawasaki. “They democratized information, that’s what they did. And, oh by the way God, they also made it great for digital imaging. That’s a pretty good legacy, you can definitely get into heaven for that.”

The man tasked with keeping Adobe’s legacy moving forward, Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen, was introduced by Yahoo CFO and Event Chair Blake Jorgensen (HBS 1988). Chizen offered his thoughts on Adobe and the job of running a $3 billion company in a wide-ranging and entertaining Q&A.

Adobe had just come off a spectacular Q3 earnings day, and Chizen was clearly in a great mood. “I was either going to have a really tough time with the questions tonight, or an easy one,” Chizen joked. “Thank goodness we had such a successful quarter.”

Chizen spoke of the difficulty in keeping the entrepreneurial energy flowing at  a large organization like Adobe. One of the key ways the company promotes it,he said, is to reward new ideas with both people and funding if they show promise. At Adobe employees can take an idea, and practically build a startup within the company around it. These “startups” are measured for success or failure by various metrics - those that are hitting their goals live and grow, those that aren’t, don’t. Risk is embraced and failure is tolerated at Adobe, Chizen said, “As long as there is some logic behind what was done.” Without that risk taking, and the failure that often results, a large company can’t move forward, he said.

Being part of a larger organization often-times frustrates him, Chizen admitted. “It moves too slowly,” he said. In an attempt to try and capture some of the agility of a smaller company he’s been known to make very big, bold and fast decisions. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. Bruce is often the first to try new partnerships, for example with Fed Ex, but he puts in place open channels to partners and customers to provide real-time feedback. Bruce makes it a priority to instill the entrepreneur spirit in Adobe through the company values.

When asked about Microsoft, Chizen responded quickly, “Do we have to? It’s the thing that keeps me up at night.” While he may be losing sleep over the gang in Redmond, Chizen pointed out that Adobe won an important court case in Europe against it, and for all Microsoft’s supposed dominance, Adobe with its PDF and Flash footprint is on virtually every desktop computer on the planet. From three platforms, and with some recent acquisitions, Adobe will continue to battle Microsoft, Chizen said, and is taking the fight straight to the software giant. “Our job moving forward is to enable more and more people to communicate more and more information in a reliable, secure, compelling way,” Chizen said.

Co-chair Dan Ahn then presented Chizen with the award along with Phil Sanderson and Ben Dubin. Adobe generously gave each guest a wrapped box containing Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements, as a parting gift from Chizen and Adobe.

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