06 August 2007

When the Startup You Co-Founded Turns 10

Actuality Systems turns ten this Tuesday.

Yeah, this story is for me, really, and also to honor the engineers I've been working with. But if you're thinking of starting a company I hope you get a kick out of it, too.

Ten years before the ten-years-ago of this story, I was an eighth grader trying to coax three-dimensional images out of laser light controlled by an Amiga 500 and a few surplus mirror galvanometers. I still remember downing cans of Pepsi to stay awake through the science fair I entered in 9th grade:

Fast forward to 1997, when I was pursuing a Ph.D. in engineering sciences at Harvard. A very-connected friend who loves to study the cycles of innovation, Joost Bonsen, suggested I listen to a talk at MIT by the fantastically-successful founder of a networking hardware company that would later be acquired in what was termed "the largest tech acquisition of all time."

At that talk, I started meeting folks who would form an entrepreneurially-young but dilligently practiced business plan writing team in a major competition, the MIT $50k. We pitched the business concept of building hologram-like computer displays for mechanical engineers to see "virtual prototypes" of their products, so that it would be cheaper and easier to modify their designs. We borrowed the name of my grandfather's company, Eastern Delta, that had been a producer of something significantly lower-tech: selenium rectifiers. We figured we'd license some 3-D display technology that was the basis for my undergrad design project at Yale. We won $10,000.

We went our separate ways after that adrenaline-fueled evening in Kresge Auditorium; I later used the prize to start up and incorporate Actuality Systems with co-founders from Harvard and the networking hardware entrepreneur above, whose name is Rob Ryan. My grades started to tank; I left the Ph.D. track, took a leave of absence, and embarked on a three-year effort to raise a meager $1.5 million for a 3-D display startup in the midst of the dot-com craze. (In an attempt to reach out to other young entrepreneurs, I described those three unfunded years in a Cambridge basement in the essay, "Guerilla Survival Tactics: A Top-10 List - How to Survive While Searching for Cash.")

In 1999, we went to the bank and deposited the first part of the seed money. We moved to our first tiny office in Reading, MA, and kicked off development of what would become Perspecta.

I won't try to condense into this note any of the excitement, the struggle, the long (long!) hours, the time spent on mysterious loading docks before customer demos, or any of the usual ups-and-downs that go with any new venture. But I'd like to look back a bit at some lessons learned, and to celebrate a few of the things that our engineers managed to pull off since then.

First, few early stage companies actually end up doing what they initially set out to do. Within months of our founding, we identified a much more promising way to make 3-D displays than my college work. This became the Perspecta Display, the world's highest-resolution volumetric display. Due to a significant amount of behind-the-scenes magic from the software, optics, mechanical engineering, electronics, and manufacturing teams, Perspecta has swept best-new-product awards from major industry groups and magazines. I would consider myself extremely lucky if I ever find myself in the middle of a team with a skillset and comraderie anywhere close to that. And I'm glad we looked beyond the initial ideas.

Good thing we moved beyond this design!

Second, I read somewhere that our Chairman's motto at his startup was "If you don't control your destiny, someone else will." That rings in my head frequently, and has been very useful advice for me.

As I approach sharing a third lesson, I realize that this might all be useful for an anonymous piece on advice-to-the-new-entrepreneur. I still run the risk of burning many bridges! I'll leave my stuffy advice for another day.

Over the years, my colleagues have made images float in the air, painted screens with 20 million pixels, tested software for treating disease, and looked at images of wrecked oil wells that were toppled by Katrina. I feel lucky to have been alongside them; usually as a squeaky-wheel, often as a public voice for their diligent efforts, and on a good day, as a collaborator.

Are You Thinking of Taking the Plunge?
If you decide to start a company, I guarantee you'll find yourself learning and experiencing things that you wouldn't have guessed at the outset. You might find yourself driving up the West Coast from San Diego to Seattle in a van stuffed with technology and progressively emptier beer bottles, in a dark laboratory at midnight inspecting flashes of light dance on the wall to figure out which of 30 steps went wrong, receiving calls during a blizzard along the lines of, "it works! it freaking works!", spending many hours on trade-show floors giving words to the brochures your team made, and seeing how many other people do their daily work, be they doctors, chemists, military officials, geophysicists, or artists. You'll get handwritten letters with questions from 9 year-olds in Australia, and you'll get good-luck emails from 80 year olds wondering if you've gone public. Yes, once you've stepped foot into the land of the startup, you can never go back.

Anthony Daniels with C-3PO in Perspecta.

Well, here's to the next ten years. Here's to finishing the hush-hush new product and getting it into the hands of customers. Here's to weird people, like us - entrepreneurs - and the engineers who make our dreams tangible.

Actuality in 2005.
Happy Birthday!



Anonymous said...

I am so proud of everything you've done, how you've perservered through all the ups and downs, and how much you care about the colleagues and friends you've met along the way.


Flavia said...

Congratulations, G-Fav and Perspecta! You guys are totally my favorite among all my entrepreneur and start-up friends.

Anonymous said...

Hear hear! Keep up the good work. To another excellent ten years, and continuing to be the guy-who-founded-a-company-based-off-his-high-school-science-project who I tell stories about to prospective MIT freshmen and undergrads and, well, people I want to impress with how cool my friends are. ("Well yes, we did live together for a while. Sort of. It probably works both ways, I figure I'm an inspiration to him, too.")

Mazel tov!


Daddy Vin said...

I have watched you develop the
Perspecta project the whole way.
It is an amazing engineering accomplishment and has brought
proof of new methods of visual experience to computer science.
I am very proud of you.

sir black maggot said...

Holy three-dimensional cow! That is amazing and really something to be proud of. (Sorry, "something of which to be proud.")

Just think, in another six years, Actuality will be driving. They grow so fast...

Anonymous said...

Woah - thanks for the kind words, everyone!