Watching Larry Ellison become Larry Ellison — The DNA of a Winner

In Oracle’s early days Kathryn Gould was the founding VP of Marketing, working there from 1982 to 1984. When I heard that Larry Ellison was stepping down as Oracle’s CEO I asked Kathryn to think about the skills she saw in a young Larry Ellison that might make today’s founders winners.

Though I haven’t talked to Larry face-to-face for 20 years, and haven’t worked at Oracle for 30 years, he’s the yardstick I’ve used to pick entrepreneurs all of these years since.

Larry had the DNA I’ve seen common with all the successful entrepreneurs I’ve backed in my 25 years of Venture Capital work—only he had a more exaggerated case than most. Without a doubt, Larry was the most potent entrepreneur I’ve known. It was a gift to be able to work with him and see him in action.

Here’s what was exceptional about Larry:

Potent Leadership Skill
Larry didn’t practice any kind of textbook management, but he was an intense communicator and inspiring leader. As a result, every person in the company knew what the goal was—world domination and death to all competitors. He often said, “It’s not enough to win—all others must fail.” And he meant it, but with a laugh.

It wasn’t as heavy as it sounds, but everyone got the point. We were relentless competitors. Even as the company grew from a handful of people when I started to about 150 when I left (yes, still ridiculously small) I observed that, every single person knew our mission.

This is not usual—startups that fail often have a lot of people milling around who don’t know what the goal is. In winning companies, everybody pulls in the same direction.

oracle-founders1978: Ed Oates, Bruce Scott, Bob Miner and Larry Ellison celebrate Oracle’s first anniversary

A corollary to Larry’s leadership style was that, at least in my day, he did it with great humor, lots of off-the-cuff funny stuff. He loved to argue, often engaging one of our talented VPs who had been captain of his school debate team. When we weren’t arguing intensely, we were laughing. It made the long hours pass lightly.

Huge Technical Vision
Larry always had a 10-year technical vision that he could draw on the whiteboard or spin like a yarn.

It wasn’t always perfect, but it was way more right than wrong, It informed our product development to a great degree and kept us working on more or less the right stuff. Back then he advocated for

  • Portability (databases had previously been shackled to the specific machines they ran on)
  • Being distributed/network ready (even though Ethernet was just barely coming into use in the enterprise)
  • The choice of the SQL a way to ask questions (queries) in an easy-to-understand language
  • Relational architecture (a collection of data organized as a set of formally described tables) in the first place—all new stuff, and technically compelling

The final proof of a compelling technical vision is that customers were interested—the phone was always ringing. Often it was people cold calling us, who had read something in a trade magazine and wanted to know more. What a gift! Not every startup gets to have this—but if you don’t, you’ve got a problem.

Pragmatic and Lean
Larry ascribed to the adage, “We don’t do things right, we do the right things.” I’m not sure if he ever actually said that, but it is what he lived.

In a startup you can’t do a great job of everything, you have to prioritize what is critically important, and what is “nice to have.” Larry didn’t waste time on “nice to have.”

I am a reformed perfectionist (reformed after those days) so often this didn’t sit well with me. I now realize it was the wisdom of a great entrepreneur. Basically if you didn’t code or sell, you were semi-worthless. (Which is why I had OEM sales as part of marketing—we had to earn our keep.)

This philosophy extended to all aspects of the company. We always had nice offices, but we didn’t mind crowding in. When I started we were in a small suite at 3000 Sand Hill Road. I would come to the office in the morning and clean up the junk food from the programmer who used my work area all night. This was cool!

Oh, and I should say, even though we were at 3000 Sand Hill, VCs kind of ignored us. They thought we were a little nuts. It took a long time for our market to develop, so Oracle wasn’t exactly a growth explosion in the early days. There we were, right under their noses!

Larry was loathe to sell any of the company stock; he generally took a dim view of VCs and preferred to bootstrap. (Sequoia Capital eventually invested just a little in us). Angel investor Don Lucas had his office above ours. I remember Larry telling me that every time we borrowed his conference room we had to pay Don $50. I’m not sure it’s true, but it’s what Larry said. I wonder if he took stock or cash.

Irresistible Salesmanship
Larry wasn’t always selling, didn’t even like salespeople half the time, but boy, when he decided to sell, he was unbeatable.

I’ll never forget sitting in an impressive conference room at a very large computer manufacturer that was prepared to not be all that interested in what we had to say.

Larry just blew them away. They had to re-evaluate their view on their database offering—and they eventually became a huge customer.

He reeled out that technical vision, described the product architecture in a way that computer science people found compelling and turned on the charm. It was neat to be in the room. I saw this a lot with Larry; the performance was repeated many times.

Hired the Smartest People
The old adage “A players hire A players, and B players hire C players” applies here. Larry often philosophized that we couldn’t hire people with software experience because there were hardly any software companies, so we just had to get the smartest bastards we could, and they’d figure it out.

I think he was particularly skilled at applying this to the technical team.

I remember a brilliant young programmer whom Larry allowed to live anywhere he wanted in the US or Canada, didn’t care about hours, where he was or any of that stuff. We just got him a network connection and that was it. This was unheard of back then, but we did it fairly often to get superstars. I remember when we hired Tom Siebel—Larry was so excited, telling me about this deadly smart guy we just hired in Chicago who was sitting in our conference room that very minute! I had to go meet him!

I should say that Larry looked for smarts in men and women—women have always had the opportunity to excel at Oracle. And now there’s Safra Catz—whom I never met, but even back in the ’80s I remember Larry telling me how smart she was.

He Had Some Quirks
Larry would sometimes take time out to think. He would just disappear for a few days, often without telling marketing people (who may have scheduled him for a press interview or a customer visit!), and return re-charged with a pile of ideas—many good, some not so much.

He liked to experiment with novel management ideas, like competing teams. He would set up some people to develop a product or go after a customer or whatever, and have competing teams trying to do the same thing. It’s always fun to experiment, though I never saw one of these fiascos succeed.

I remember one time he had his cowboy boots up on the desk, saying that we’d be bigger than Cullinet and we’d do it with 50 people, and only one salesperson. He was getting high on ideas. Only a computer historian would know Cullinet, an ancient database company that made it to $100M in sales back in the early ’80s. Yes, he was right about “bigger than Cullnet.” The “50 people” was motivated by his dream that we could just have the very, very best developers in the world, and hardly any salespeople—it was just talk. I think he came to appreciate the sales culture later on.

Larry loved to be called “ruthless.” When I asked what was his favorite book, he told me Robber Baronsworth a read even today! And he used to pore over spec sheets for fancy jets he probably thought he could never afford. Funny, I never heard him talk about sailing back then.

I’m not sure how all of this played out later because I wasn’t there. But it was clear, even back in those early days, that Larry had it all: leadership, technical vision, pragmatism, personal salesmanship, frugality, humor, desire to succeed.

I have to think my success in the VC business was due in no small part to seeing Larry Ellison in action back in the day.

Lessons Learned

Great entrepreneurial DNA is comprised of leadership; technological vision; frugality; and the desire to succeed. World-class founders:

  • Have a clear mission and inspire everyone to live it every day
  • Are the best salesman in the company
  • Hire the smartest people
  • Have a technological vision and the ability to convince others that it’s the right thing
  • Know it’s about winning customers and don’t spend money on things that aren’t mission-critical 
  • Are relentless in pursuit of their goals and never take NO for an answer
  • Know humor is powerful — and fun!

7 Responses

  1. Steve,
    Thank you for writing this article. This is some of the best info/insights that money can buy – and here it is for free! Excellent.
    Question: When Larry would take off for a couple of days… do you think he was using cannabis to help him come up with fresh ideas?
    Thanks again.

  2. There is part of the story that has been left out. I have this friend, “T”, who was one of those smart programmers that Larry hired. “T” was also one of the 4 programmers who created OS X for the Mac, working directly with the VP of Apple.

    What “T” told me was that Larry was forced to hire good and smart programmers because there were problems with the programming that was being done and it was causing problems because he had hired kids straight out of school who did not know enough and that the board and investors told him that he had to hire real professionals.

    “T” eventually ended up traveling around the world and teaching people in companies how to use the Oracle products.

    I used to drive a taxi in San Jose and talked to a lot of tech guys. I was going to school at the time. I remember picking up this guy who had his base of his business in San Jose, but he lived in Phoenix, Arizona. He would fly in once a week to do work.

    He hired people programmers all over the countries and would work with them wherever they were.

    I saw this as the future and saw how the value of having an office in San Jose would diminish in time, as people would in the future be communicating over the Internet with services like Go To Meeting.

    So, even if Larry was “forced” to get the best, he adapted to the future of what was possible. This is a good sign of not only what was possible, but what is going to happen in the future, especially with 3D becoming the reality, especially with the Oculus Rift 3D coming out, along with other companies creating their own version of 3D goggles.

    Also, “T” told me that Larry never did anything, like sailing in the Americas Cup, for just competitive reasons, but also for Public Relations, for advertising to put the Oracle name in front of all people to see. It was basically “killing 2 birds with a single stone”. Similar to having the company name on a race car at the Indy 500. That might also be why he tried to buy the Warriors basketball team.

    Even if he didn’t get it, people took notice of the name Oracle.

    “T” also told me that both Larry and Steve Jobs had big egos. He said when either would walk into the room he was working in, many of the people would be practically bowing down to them, but he would walk out of the room because he thought it was so strange. “T” also is an extremely humble guy too.

    So, I have a question Steve. I believe that a CEO can be humble and competitive at the same time. That someone can find a balance between their ego and the need to be at the top. Steve, I see you as someone who balanced in your ego and in life. I have heard that Larry mediates as part of his life practice.

    I believe that we need to keep a balance in our lives. Isn’t that what you did by getting out of the “game” to be with your family? What are your thoughts?

  3. […] I tweeted this – but for those of you who don’t follow me or are not on twitter here’s the link. […]

  4. Great article Steve. Really interesting to see what attributes helped make Larry successful.

  5. Steve, it might have taken Larry Ellison to “step down” rather than continue at Oracle, but I’m glad the event caused you to write this article. So many basic truths. All that was missing was some acknowledgment that perhaps the move by Ellison—a Chicago guy—to Northern California in late Sixties and being in Cali (rather than Chicago) in the 70s was important to his being able to become Larry Ellison, and also be to hire A type people for software biz. In my neck of the woods, it seems that all A type people are urged to move to the San Fran area

  6. Larry has always been a guy in business I loved following. To bad he’s stepping down as CEO of Oracle.

  7. oh Larry never took no for an answer, that’s for sure!

    Readers may also be interested in Mike Wilson’s perspective. Regular readers of the Oracle dba email list in those days celebrated Mike’s opus titled:

    The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison*. (God doesn’t think he’s Larry Ellison)

    Brilliant read with a more critical view of the famed man behind Oracle.

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