Inc crowns Janie and Victor Tsao who co-founded Linksys as Entrepreneurs of the Year. Cisco acquired Linksys for USD 500 million last year. Here’s how they began:
Like not a few business owners before them, the Tsaos heard the entrepreneurial clock ticking: They were determined to be independent before they reached the age of 40. Victor was 37 and Janie was 35 when they decided to put to use their familiarity with Taiwan (where they’d met at Tamkang University). They were both working in information technology–Janie at Carter Hawley Hale and Victor at Taco Bell–and with Victor a step higher on the corporate ladder they decided that he would continue to punch the clock while Janie launched the business, a consultancy they named DEW International. The new company mated American technology vendors like Northgate Computer with Taiwanese manufacturers that could make their wares cheaply.
Soon, one of those manufacturers brought them an idea. At the time, the cables used to connect printers and PCs could extend only 15 feet before the data began to degrade. To solve this, the manufacturer invented a setup that used telephone wire to extend the reach to 100 feet. This company needed someone to market the thing in the U.S. “With companies like that,” says Victor, “actual English was not their strength.” The manufacturer came up with products that connected multiple PCs to multiple printers, and the Tsaos renamed their company Linksys. Victor quit his job in 1991, and within two years Linksys had moved twice, eventually to a 2,000-square-foot office, and each month was selling 8,000 Multishares, as those units were called, through tech catalogs like Black Box. In these early years, the Tsaos invested $7,000 in Linksys, the only capital the company required until it tapped a bank loan for the one and only time, in 2001. (They paid that loan off in less than six months.)
Linksys slowly expanded from printer-to-PC connectors to PC-to-PC Ethernet hubs, cards, and cords, gear that let small businesses and nerdy households connect computers so that they could share data. It was a niche market, and with 1994 revenue of $6.5 million the company was far from a behemoth. But slow growth was the only way the Tsaos could expand without taking on debt or investors. While Victor managed operations and finances as CEO, Janie handled sales in her job as vice president of business development. As Mike Wagner, the company’s director of marketing, puts it, “Janie brings the money in, Victor keeps everyone from spending it.”
Fast and frugal – that sums up Linksys.