When Jim Barton and Mike Ramsay left their jobs as computer engineers in Silicon Valley, they had only a vague concept for a machine that combined a computer hard drive with a TV. That became TiVo, the world's first digital video recorder (DVR). Since TiVo lets you watch what you want, when you want, it's no wonder it has 1.3 million subscribers. We talked to Mike and Jim about the keys to their success.
Go where the action is
Barton:Silicon Valley was where it was at for what we wanted to do. If you want to play in the big game, you've got to go to the stadium.
Be honest and confident
Ramsay: We went in to these Silicon Valley venture capitalists and said, "This isn't a technology product; it's a consumer service. It's not about computers; it's about television. And it's going to require hundreds of millions of dollars before we become profitable. We hope you like our idea."
Ramsay: When we started, we really thought about the kind of company we wanted to have, rather than the products we wanted to create. We wrote a list of core principles for our company to follow. One of them was "It just works," meaning everything has to work in the most fundamental, easy, intuitive way possible. The principles were strong from day one and set the tone for how our products were created and how we treated our employees.
Barton:The usual comment we got when we first unveiled the concept was, "That's great, I'd buy it, but I don't know anyone else that would."
Ramsay: The investors didn't quite get the idea of TiVo, but they knew we would be able to execute it and recruit top talent, mostly because they could see the passion we had for it.
[pagebreak] Extend yourself
Ramsay: Our attitude was that we were going to go to the extreme and succeed, or blow up and die. There was no middle ground.
Barton:The process of inventing a product is removing all of the bits of distractions. Like a sculptor says, "The sculpture is in the rock." The other bits that surround it don't matter, and that's how you build a start-up.
Work without safety nets
Barton:In the early days of TiVo, the hardware manager came to me and asked, "Where do you want to put the power switch?" I looked at him and said, "There will be no power switch or reset button on a TiVo." We had to figure out how to make this thing work reliably and work all the time, like a television. It has to work when your power goes out and work when your power comes back on, and the only way we're going to get there is by not putting any crutches on the product. We had to force ourselves to get it right.
Know your customer
Barton:My early test was always my mother: If my mother couldn't use it, then we were building it wrong.
Thrive off competition
Ramsay: In the early days, we competed with ReplayTV in a very aggressive way. It was actually quite healthy because it kept us on our toes, made us more aggressive, and forced us to be faster and better.
Quitters never win
Ramsay: The most important thing is to never, ever give up. I can give you 5,000 examples of where that happened at our company. You just have to keep saying inside your head, "Don't give up, don't give up, don't give up!" It would've been very easy for us to say, "The big ideas may be a little too big. Let's make life easier for ourselves and scale back," but we didn't.
Ramsay: We constantly think about how we can make it bigger. DVR is only one application of this platform. We've already expanded into home networking where you can get music and pictures from your PC and connect multiple cables together on the home network, so ultimately you're going to see content delivered to your TiVo over broadband. It doesn't just involve recording your favorite shows but will become a way for you to integrate and manage all your home entertainment and media. We want TiVo to become more important than a microwave, more important than a cell phone, but probably not more important than the TV, because we need one of them.
Failure is not an option
Barton:You have to set yourself up with talented people and determination so you can't fail. It's not a case of can you succeed, it's how you will succeed.