"When you become an entrepreneur you can go up awfully fast, but you can go down just as fast. It's so ephemeral, like actors who end up committing suicide. One day they're famous, the next day nobody knows who the hell they are."
It may have been a conviction molded by harsh reality, but there was Adam Osborne, sitting in his relatively modest corner office, insisting that he was not a businessman. Indeed, he was saying that he didn't even like business. Rather, he thought of himself as an entrepreneur -- "someone who visualizes a huge undertaking that everyone else is standing around feeling is too awesome. You look at it and you say, 'No it's not."
At age 44, Osborne knows whereof he speaks, for -- in 1981 -- he himself did exactly that. Leaving behind a minor triumph as a textbook publisher, he ventured into the steaming microcomputer market with a product that few gave much chance of success: a small-screen, portable, twindisk computer, which he sold for a remarkably low price, throwing in an assortment of business software for good measure. Within a year, he had confounded the skeptics by building Osborne Computer Corp. into one of the best-known names in technology.
But then the system crashed. In the latter part of 1982, the company's growth came to an abrupt halt -- a fate that had befallen relatively few microcomputer companies up to that point. Early this year, the Hayward, Calif., manufacturer had to forgo a chance to go public through a wide-open window for initial offerings and began laying off employees. Even more damaging, Osborne found itself losing costly ground in the crowded microcomputer field, largely because of its laggard entry into the brisk "clone" market that developed after the introduction of the IBM Personal Computer.
By the middle of September, Osborne's company was in dire straits. Its labor force of more than 1,000 employees had shrunk to less than 100. Faced with mounting debts and dwindling cash, Osborne Computer filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the federal Bankruptcy Code.
A few weeks earlier -- as the end drew near -- Adam Osborne had reflected on his roller-coaster ride through the world of high technology, and you could detect a bittersweet tone in his voice. "It's never fun to be a hero," he said. "When you become an entrepreneur you can go up awfully fast but you can go down just as fast. It's so ephemeral, like actors who end up committing suicide. One day they're famous, the next day nobody knows who the hell they are."
Fortunately, Osborne has not been driven to such extremes, but the experience has left its mark. If nothing else, it has crystallized for him the differences between entrepreneurs and business people and convinced him that he is one of the former. Then again, he says he sensed that long before.
The moment of truth -- or, at least, one of them -- came in July of 1982, a heady time for his company, which was already running in excess of $100 million in annual revenues. Osborne looked in the mirror and saw a natty, middle-aged, mustachioed, somewhat gaunt but still thick-haired visage. On the surface, it was-the face of a man genuinely pleased with the trappings of entrepreneurial success. (He drives the standard Silicon Valley Mercedes-Benz and lives in a house on two acres in nearby Berkeley.) Underneath that visage, however, was someone who was not as comfortable in business as fast-growth groupies assumed.
"[Starting the company had been] extremely pleasurable and exciting as hell to do," he says. "Like most entrepreneurs, I went into it not really certain where it was going to go or how far it was going to take meWhen we began, nobody believed us. They said, 'This guy's off his head.' But I knew we would succeed. To me it was so obvious that I couldn't understand why people thought it was a high-risk venture. And we did it -- spectacularly."
On the other hand, he realized that a successful entrepreneur is often the last person to recognize that he can no longer do the job right as it becomes more complicated. "I have a very large ego," Osborne notes with unassailable self-appraisal, "but I had the advantage of having watched other companies started by entrepreneurs with large egos do a nosedive" because their founders could not face reality. "Here I was, president, chief executive officer, and chief operating officer combined as one, but I didn't even have a degree in electronics and never had run a manufacturing operation. Once I had 50 people working for me in a publishing company; now there were nearly 600. I didn't know business, didn't understand finance. So I said to myself, 'Let's get serious.' [Osborne Computer] had existed only 18 months in terms of operation -- hardly time to get my feet wet; all of a sudden the job was a whole different order of magnitude. I realized it was no longer an entrepreneurial operation in any conceivable way. Nothing was standing still, and the problems became tremendous. You have to understand reality for what it is. If I begin to believe my own PR -- I'm a hero, and I'm going to go barreling along into an area I've never been before, totally convinced I can do no wrong -- I'm dead. That's when I started going after someone else."
On the business side, the person he went after was Robert Jaunich II, then executive vice-president of Consolidated Foods Corp. Last January, Osborne hired Jaunich as president and CEO of Osborne Computer. In the meantime, he had also gone after -- and married -- 26-year-old Barbara Burdick, one of the company's five founders and the pivot of Osborne's mid-life turn.
Osborne came late to entrepreneurism, or perhaps it came late to him. Born in Thailand -- where his father was a professor at the University of Bangkok -- he spent most of his youth on the move through southern India and England. (He became a U.S. citizen in 1967.) Even as a young man, he was blissfully unaware of his entrepreneurial future, although there were telltale tendencies. "I was pissing off everybody around me," Osborne says, recalling his first job as a chemical engineer at M. W. Kellogg Co"I quickly became the guy everyone wanted to watch slip on a banana skin."
At the urging of his first wife, he reluctantly took a PhD in chemical engineering and went back to work, this time at Shell Development Co., which put him into a "fast-track, very-bright-guy program." After two years, Shell apparently decided he was neither fast nor very bright, and advised him he had but a mediocre career to look forward to there. "That," says Osborne, "finally forced my hand. That's when I said to myself, 'Don't go out and get another job with another company. Do it yourself.' Originally it came to me in a kind of negative way that I was a misfit. Then it occurred to me that maybe I wasn't a misfit after all, I was just at the wrong place."
Where the right place was, Osborne had no particular idea. Like many corporate drifters he became a consultant, specializing in minicomputer software and manuals. To distinguish himself from the hordes of consultants roaming around during the recession of 1974, he wrote a book on microprocessors. It was turned down by commercial publishers, but, undaunted, he printed 20,000 copies on his own and ran a couple of ads in trade magazines. "Lo and behold," Osborne remembers, "the lot was sold in four months." Books soon began to crowd out the software consulting business, as he signed up more and more outside authors. Finally, he was forced to conclude that he was "the founder and proud owner" of a publishing company. "I backed into my first business," he admits. So much for the irrepressibility of entrepreneurial zeal.
At the time, Osborne was also enmeshed in an unhappy marriage that kept him away from hearth and glued to office. Indeed, he estimates that he was devoting 95% of his time to the company. "You can put up with five percent not doing well. Business was an escape," he explains. "I dreaded going home. I had a zero relationship with this woman who was my wife, and I made business overwhelming. I succeeded because I could control it, I could devote all my energies to it. Had my business been less successful, I'd have gotten divorced much sooner."
When the breakup finally occurred in 1981, after 19 years of marriage, Osborne chose to spend a few months "dispelling some myths about myself" by bonvivanting around the Bay Area as a "wealthy hero bachelor of San Francisco." Eventually, however, he decided he wasn't cut out for the role of cutup, and began to contemplate retying the knot. This time, Osborne was determined to enjoy both business and matrimony. "I matured when I got divorced, and was able to develop the rest of my life," he says. "To me now, there's a lot more than business. What being successful in business does is give you entree into other aspects of life."
Those aspects have included sailing (a bookcase in his office is crowded with racing trophies), collecting classic cars, and taking frequent vacations. In this, he has enjoyed the full support of his wife. Her role in Osborne Computer notwithstanding, she "would probably curse like hell if I was to work as much I used to with my first wife." Accordingly, he resolved to put in a 40-hour week and devote but half his energies to the company. Not only was domestic life enhanced, but so he says, was the environment at the plant. "If I were there 100 hours a week, I'd be getting into everybody's hair."
Osborne also turned to writing again. Both his father and uncle were well-known academic authors, and an Adam Osborne play was once performed by the American Conservatory Theatre. He is now working on the third draft of a novel. "Basically, I enjoy writing more than anything else,-" he says. "Even more than starting a business." If the novel -- a futuristic view of society in the technological age -- proves popular, "I would probably get as much satisfaction from it," Osborne says, "as I did starting OCC."
As for that earlier accomplishment, Osborne has been able to put it in perspective -- with the help, no doubt, of recent developments. "It's very easy to overestimate the contribution of an individual," he says. "If Henry Ford hadn't built the Model T, would the auto industry be any different today? Ford Motor wouldn't be in existence, but somebody else" would have made the Model T. "Certainly there would be no discernible difference in the automobile industry today. If you look at the microcomputer industry, you're going to see the same thing. Maybe I moved a little part of it a bit faster than might have been. But 5 or 10 years from now, I don't think there'll be any difference in the industry. It was either me or someone else -- and it was me."
As of this summer, Osborne claimed he was not about to start another business, although he has given some consideration to founding a San Francisco nightclub patterned after the Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris. Then again, it remains to be seen how much he will salvage from the wreck of Osborne Computer. Entrepreneurs may become rich on paper, he observed, but "it's quite a significant question to ask if they'll ever realize it. One has to guess how many of these companies are going to remain viable long enough for these paper millionaires to become real millionaires. Not only that, some of these millionaires will go out and spend it again, and lose it all.
"Obviously, I believe I will realize it and that OCC will be one of the ones who makes it in the long run. But statistics say that a large number won't. You can draw your own conclusions: I'm part of the odds."