Please state your name and a little about your current status.
Ray Zinn, Entrepreneur, active angel and technology investor. I also run ZinnStarter, a university start-up competition designed to mentor and fund the next generation of entrepreneurs.
What exactly does your company do?
Micrel Semiconductor, which I ran for 37 years, made integrated circuits. Tough Things First was created to inspire the next generation of innovators, business people, and entrepreneurs.
How did you start your company/business as a startup?
To start Micrel, I secured a loan from a bank, an unheard funding strategy in Silicon Valley then and even today. One of the unique aspects of this approach was that the bank had never done this before so they had stipulations that no startup had to abide by before Micrel. For example, the bank loan stated that the company had to be profitable from the very first quarter which again, was and is unheard of in Silicon Valley. This actually was a blessing in disguise because it helped form the company’s frugal culture from day one. Because we were focused on profitability, we were always planning for the down cycle that is an inevitable part of the semiconductor industry. During uptimes, we were still frugal, ever mindful of the next downturn and investing carefully but for the long term. Unlike so many CEOs, I wanted to build a lasting legacy. I was not in it to build the company and sell it off in a few years. This mindset kept us thriving and growing in a prudent and lasting manner. In the 37 years, I was at the helm running Micrel, we only had one unprofitable year.
What struggle did you go through to reach your current status now?
I lost my eyesight while we were in the middle of our IPO. It is the most important time in the Company’s history and I was in London doing the IPO tour when I lost most of my eyesight. It set me back, certainly, but I was determined to not let it ruin my life or the Company. I finished the IPO and we went public.
How did you manage to cope up with those struggles?
It was tough, but my conviction that I should continue to run the company that I had worked so hard to build kept me going. That and my habit of always doing the tough things first. With that discipline, I learned how to navigate the world without my sight. I was very motivated by Micrel. I did not want to give up running the Company and I had a skeptical board of directors that naturally needed convincing. Running a company while sighted is tough enough but now I wanted to continue without my sight so I took this on as a challenge. Practicality, I found, is merely another obstacle turned into a challenge. People told me the practical thing to do in 1994 was to resign, to pass the leadership of Micrel to a fully sighted person. But I started Micrel with a vision, and what other people thought was the practical thing to do was not in my mind going to be practical at all. It meant abandoning my company, my employees, my industry, my dream, my vision. That all started in November 1994. More than two decades later, my eyesight remains limited, but my vision has definitely improved. Like marriages, I have long felt that companies should be viewed as enduring, having a forever basis. I wanted Micrel to be enduring like a good marriage, to last forever. Like in a good marriage, you are in it for the long haul, through sickness, and in health, you just never give up no matter how difficult or trying it may be. I have therefore always viewed my wife as my forever partner. I built Micrel with the same intentions and crafted a corporate culture with a forever basis in mind. The traditional Silicon Valley thinking claims that an entrepreneur sees a market opportunity and capitalizes on it. In reality, true entrepreneurs see everything differently. They see relationships, markets, opportunities, and life situations through a different lens than the rest of the world uses. They see enduring meaning, not temporary convenience which was reflected in my approach to building Micrel.
Who inspired you to move forward and influenced you in all your achievements now?
The most influential person has been my wife. She supported me in getting my master’s degree. When I decided to strike out on my own to start my own company, she was there with me all the way. She had more confidence in me than myself. It is very important to have a supportive partner. My wife has always been my rock and I am inspired by her every day.
Do the tough things first. This helps you develop discipline and helps you learn to love the things you hate. This mindset has enabled me to successfully run a company for 37 years and goes back to my formative years living with my family in central California on a ranch. This is where I learned that I had no choice but to do the tough things first, our very existence depended on it. You just don’t take a day off from chores on the ranch, there are animals to care for, water to draw, things that must be done in order to survive. This foundation of always doing the tough things first formed within me a lifelong discipline that endures to this day.
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