Inventor Philippe Kahn on Audacity, Talent, and Luck

An email interview with the serial entrepreneur behind the technology inside the Jawbone Up fitness-tracking wristband.
Philippe Kahn and one of his inventions, an early camera phone.
Philippe Kahn and one of his inventions, an early camera phone.

Wikimedia Commons

Philippe Kahn and one of his inventions, an early camera phone.

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In 1983, Philippe Kahn emigrated from France to the United States with just $2,000, and a software program he co-created called Turbo Pascal. The company he built around that program, Borland International, sold for $75 million in 2009.

As a Silicon Valley pioneer, he's been known for developing cutting-edge products such as one the first camera phones and, more recently, the technology inside Jawbone's "Jawbone Up" fitness tracking wristband. Today, he's founder and CEO of Fullpower Technologies.

Inc. Business Owners Council's Lewis Schiff recently interviewed Kahn by email:

You are known as one of the swashbuckling entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley. In my book, Business Brilliant, I wrote about one of your early business adventures launching Borland. When you arrived from France with no money to market Turbo Pascal, you relied on a high-stakes ruse to fool the leading computer magazine, Byte, into extending you credit in order to pay for advertising. What other bold business tactics have you used? 

Another story, and perhaps a more important event as it put me in contact with the key technology influencers of the time, is my first press conference. It was at the Las Vegas Comdex show a few months [after I convinced Byte magazine to run my advertisements on credit]. I asked the--now famous--casino mogul Sheldon Adelson for credit for a small booth and a press conference. He said, "if you can't afford to pay me upfront, perhaps you should ask McDonald's." That wasn't meant seriously, but I thought about it and I set up my first press conference in Las Vegas at McDonald's! Ten journalists came and among them, Jerry Pournelle, who wrote my technology up and got me started with orders pooring in. Jerry became a sort of father figure. And I was star-struck. I loved his book, The Moth in God's Eye

That's an amazing story of business guts.

I didn't have a choice. I had to get creative. What else could I do? I'm not a business guy; I'm a technologist. My family was blue collar. We had a cabinet shop in a part of Paris where we needed to fend for ourselves. If we didn't make or sell a piece of furniture, there was no pocket money. That was my business school. In my family, I had no choice but to get straight A's in math and science, which opened doors for me. Dropping out was not an option. 

Until I came to the Silicon Valley, I never quite knew that I had a mind for business. My mind is that of a scientist and technologist by training who knows that lasting value comes from technology, intellectual, property, and patents. But it's the same thing as my family's cabinet shop. People from fancy neighborhoods would order custom armoires and dining room sets because of my grandfather's cabinet-making skills. That paid our rent. He was a great artist. He could make anything. We got to install furniture in amazing Paris apartments. I always wanted to be like him: a great craftsman. So, like his skill was with woodwork, mine became technology invention and innovation. 

Would you say that you built your businesses through your talents? Your vision? Or your salesmanship?

It starts with hard work, of course. That's a given. Luck first, vision second, and skills third. If I was a great salesman, I would have built Oracle or Microsoft. I wasn't. So I built successful smaller technology leading companies. With the camera phone, I learned that it was best for large established companies to sell and market our innovation. Now I realize this approach complements what we do. We do this with companies such as Nike, Comcast, Pioneer, JVC, and others. I should have partnered earlier and more with sales/marketing people like we do today: Our latest partnership where we invented and created the end-to-end Jawbone Up wearable device for Jawbone is a success with iPhones and Android devices. The Jawbone team is the best at packaging, sales, and marketing. That complements perfectly our innovation, technology, patent, and IP portfolio. It's the mythical "win-win." 

What are you really good at?

I'm a practical inventor, technology visionary, and I make things work with the components that I have. I'm good at creating a practical future like the camera phone or the "quantified self" (the technology inside the Jawbone Up). I'm an excellent team player and leader and I never give up. I take the best care of my team. I'm not good at sales pitches, corporate-IPO presentations, or marketing spin. I am not a very patient person as I want results fast. 

How did you discover what you're good at?

Perhaps that is what we call maturity, knowing what we are good at?

As you were coming up the ranks did you spend time doing things that you're not good at?

Yes, I ran a public company that I had founded, for 12 years, with more than 3,500 employees, and I had to do a lot of corporate stuff. I could do it and I did but I didn't like it. I had no passion for it. Without passion it's just not worth it. I have passion for technology and invention. There are plenty of great managers. 

Does "luck" play a role in your success?

Yes, the harder one tries, the luckier one gets. Luck can be fragile. Luck in life is infinitely precious. I feel incredibly lucky. 

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IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons
Last updated: Apr 25, 2013

LEWIS SCHIFF | Inc. Business Owners Council

Lewis Schiff is the executive director of the Inc. Business Owners Council. His latest book is Business Brilliant: Surprising Lessons From the Greatest Self-Made Business Icons.




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