SuperMac War Story 1: Joining SuperMac

After leaving Ardent (a supercomputer company I’ll blog about later) in 1988, I consulted for Pixar when they were still in San Rafael and were a hardware company trying to make software and commercials. While I was consulting for them, I got a call from a recruiter for a company called SuperMac, which made add-on products for the Macintosh.  They were one of the first companies to sell an external disk drive for the original Mac; they had the first “color paint programs” for the Mac; and when the Mac was just black and white they had the first color graphics boards and large screen color monitors for the Mac.  And with all of that they had gone broke, out of business and into Chapter 11.

Yet two smart VC firms, Sigma and Matrix Partners, realized that somewhere in this mess there was value. Their guess was that they would find value in the high margin graphics business.  Now with a new infusion of $8 million dollars of venture capital, SuperMac had been resurrected from the dead and was attempting to restart.  The first step was to recruit a new management team.

Why they were looking to me to run marketing wasn’t clear.  They sold their product through the computer retail channel, something I knew nothing about.  They sold to a set of customers I knew nothing about.  Yet somehow they thought that my prior experience in high-end computer graphics might be relevant.  Why I was interested was equally obscure.  The company was the laughing stock of the Mac market.  The two other players in the add-on graphics business, Radius and RasterOps, had a combined 90% market share.  After talking to its resellers and customers I realized that SuperMac was the only company that could be described as “fifth in a group of three.”

In essence it was a restart with a mixed bag of assets and liabilities.  The assets were a series of products already developed and on the market or in the development pipeline.  So perhaps a more accurate description was that the company was a “restart.”  The new products potentially looked to be industry leaders if and when they came to market. When I went through their financials as part of my due diligence I realized that if they ditched their low margin disk drive products, it wouldn’t take much to make them a profitable company.  They had an existing distribution channel and their dealers and customers thought they knew who the company was and what it stood for.

The liabilities were equally clear: the existing distribution channel and their dealers and customers thought they knew who the company was – a failure – and what it stood for – a mixed bag of commodity products with low margin, no compelling reason to sell and a set of competitors with much better products.  Worse, no one inside the company had a profound belief in who the company was and why they existed.  They had no model of who their own customers were and what it would take to make those customers bang down their doors to buy their products.

Nothing I couldn’t fix.   I took the job.

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One Response

  1. Thank you for the “between the lines” advice on managing relationships with your distribution channel (vendors, dealers etc.)

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