Jump Ship

Nationwide, cubicle-bound techies are making the leap from tech exec to entrepreneur. Is it your turn?
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the November 2000 issue of . Subscribe »

Whit Alexander and Richard Tait, the minds behind the successful board game Cranium, both have a long history of entrepreneurial pursuits. Alexander, whose father lived down the river from Amway's founders in Ada, Michigan, would sell boat tours to visiting Amway believers willing to pay exorbitant sums to catch a glimpse of the founders' abode. Meanwhile, Tait had a gig selling fish door to door, which unfortunately proved to be somewhat short-lived. "There was a bit of a shelf-life problem," he quips.

Alexander and Tait will have you in stitches as they recount stories of these and other previous start-up ventures, but ask them about the major factors that contributed to the success of Cranium, and both will point to the years they worked for Microsoft. The partners join the ranks of many entrepreneurs who got their start as tech execs at big-name corporations and translated their experiences into innovative businesses.

In 1997, Alexander and Tait decided to leave Microsoft on a high note to start their own business and, surprisingly enough, did not start a dotcom or create a computer game. Instead, they channeled their entrepreneurial energies into a unique board game, Cranium. Since its launch, Seattle-based Cranium Inc. has sold more than 400,000 copies of the game, and Cranium has become the fastest-selling board game in history, says Tait.

So why a board game and not a computer game? Tait and Alexander asked themselves that same question, until they did some research. Apparently, no computer game had ever made more than half a billion dollars, while several board games had.

Still, everyone the partners encountered discouraged them. "We met with the founders of Pictionary, and their advice was not to do it," Tait recalls. "But Whit and I looked around and saw lots of pictures of their big boat, and we said 'Wow-it worked for them.' So we went against the face of better judgment and pushed ahead with our product."

Tait and Alexander assert that much of their confidence to take a chance and develop the game came from working at Microsoft. There, they were able to thrive in a supportive and dynamic corporate culture, developing high-profile products in partnership with the world's largest corporations. In creating Cranium, they drew from the product-development approach they had learned in their former jobs.

"You learn how to define a problem in a way that's going to satisfy a market requirement," explains Alexander. "It's the discipline of deciding on the right thing to do and getting it done."

Getting Experience From Large Firms

Brent Kleinheksel, 28, founder and former CEO of PlanetPortal, brought similar skills with him when he left IBM. The Durham, North Carolina, start-up provides print-to-Web data servicing solutions with mapping services and content tailoring.

Before starting PlanetPortal, Kleinheksel worked at Sun Microsystems in Phoenix for nearly three years and at IBM for about a year, where he played a key role in building brand recognition for the IBM ThinkPad i Series.

Kleinheksel says he chose to work at IBM because of the outstanding reputation of its ThinkPad marketing department. He actually got the idea for PlanetPortal after attending a series of IBM business meetings in Silicon Valley focused on finding a hardware solution to help customers navigate the Web more easily.

Kleinheksel says he can't imagine being successful without having worked at a large firm first. "That's not to say it's the only way to do it," he says, "but if you don't get experience first, your investors, employees and everyone else will pay for your learning curve."

Working at a Tech Company

In some ways, working in a major tech company can improve entrepreneurs' troubleshooting skills by showing them what situations to avoid. In 1996, Amy MacHutta, Tim Ottman and Daniel Blaser left M&I Data Services, a Brown Deer, Wisconsin, software company specializing in banking products, to open their own business, Software Configuration Solutions Inc. The Elm Grove, Wisconsin, start-up assists other tech companies with managing software changes.

While at M&I, MacHutta and her partners developed a software-management tool and process they felt would help other software developers in the industry. They saw it as a business opportunity, but they learned M&I was not interested in pursuing it because it did not fit into their business focus. At that point, the trio decided to venture out on their own.

Within months, Software Configuration Solutions was showing a profit, and it exceeded the million-dollar mark after its second year. MacHutta, 33, says she and her partners learned the importance of creating a solid infrastructure before initiating new services from working at M&I, which she believes often operated in more of a reactive than proactive mode. "We learned that we wouldn't want to always be catching up," she explains. "We wanted to plan for growth and be prepared for it."

MacHutta adds that she and her partners also reaped many benefits from their years in the corporate high-tech world. While the partners' skills are mostly self-taught, they say they wouldn't have had the opportunity to learn or apply those skills without first working at M&I. "Working in a team environment and with the release process was very valuable," she says.

MacHutta says working in a corporation is particularly important for entrepreneurs who ultimately wish to turn these larger organizations into clients. "Before starting your business, you should try to put yourself in an environment where you hope to sell your product or service," she says. "Otherwise, you're training yourself as you're [starting up], and that isn't always the best route to take."

The Difference In Work Environments

Many entrepreneurs who leave large companies to start their own businesses have to spend some time transitioning from a conservative corporate environment to the far less formal, more expressive culture of a start-up. David Cutler, 29, and his partner, Jeff Palmer, 30, both worked in the technology division at Andersen Consulting for several years before starting their own high-tech start-up, Curious Networks, in Chicago.

Cutler says working as an Andersen consultant with Fortune 500 companies and helping them develop world-class computer systems gave him invaluable experience in dealing with clients and handling himself in professional situations. Andersen also taught Cutler how to deal with a variety of client problems. "Once you get a reputation and some experience, Andersen will just plop you down in any client situation, and you have to be productive immediately," he explains. "You also have to be able to accommodate and learn to interact with a wide variety of people and cultures."

"There's a lot to be learned from the right organization and from associating with the right people," adds Alexander. "Some people have that knowledge intuitively; others learn it on the fly. Still others do better when they get swept up in the culture of an organization that performs well."

Julie Vallone is a Walnut Creek, California, business and technology writer who has worked in plenty of big ponds but prefers her little one.

Contact Sources

Cranium Inc., (206) 652-9708, cranium@playcranium.com

Curious Networks, info@curiousnetworks.com, www.curiousnetworks.com

Software Configuration Solutions Inc., (262) 938-0442, www.softconfig.com

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