Silicon Valley’s longest-serving CEO Ray Zinn, clearly a success by anyone’s standards, wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Ray began his life on a Central California ranch where he learned the value of frugality, hard work and responsibility, in short, from the very beginning, Ray learned the value of doing the tough things first. The oldest of 11 children, Ray went from organizing the chores crucial to the running of a ranch to running an international semiconductor corporation for 37 years, making him the longest-serving CEO in Silicon Valley.
After being pushed to complete college by a strict father, Ray went on to marry and start a family while working in Silicon Valley. However, after being fired, he was finally told by an astute manager that working for someone else was clearly not his path, that he would only succeed if he were to strike out on his own. Inspired, Ray went on to co-found Micrel Semiconductors and true to his independent beginnings, Ray did not follow the traditional Silicon Valley path; instead of courting what he feared would be overly involved investors, Ray eschewed the traditional high-tech startup investment path – venture capital – and actually leveraged his home and savings to start Micrel. The caveat from the bank was that Micrel had to be profitable from the beginning, an all but unheard-of milestone in high tech. But Ray continued to buck convention and made Micrel profitable from the beginning. In all his years at the helm of Micrel, Ray never took venture capital money, yet the company only had one unprofitable year.
Despite what might be seen by most as charmed business success, Ray had to overcome a number of personal obstacles on the road to riches. During his IPO roadshow, arguably the most time-sensitive and critical phase in the company’s journey to go public, Ray went legally blind. Despite this devastating personal setback, he went on to successfully complete the IPO and take Micrel public. He then went on to lead Micrel for another 20 years despite his blindness.
Brought up with such a strong work ethic and in an environment where waste was not tolerated, Ray has always known the value of rational frugality. He kept Micrel lean and mean all those years, forgoing fancy equipment upgrades or expensive expansions. Ray’s frugality is well known throughout an industry that lauds the big spenders and massive budgets. In fact, Ray’s work philosophy has always been that companies need one-third of the employees they think they need. When he started Micrel, he actually sought out discarded equipment. He admits that like anyone else, it would have been wonderful to buy new manufacturing gear, but the price difference between new, state-of-the-art gear and what was used but otherwise viable was too significant. Instead, frugality ruled; he bought pre-owned equipment, refurbished it, and put it into production. A side effect was that Micrel developed a culture of corporate-wide frugality that endured; capital expenditures always needed to be justified and had to show a realistic return on investment. Ray’s philosophy on frugality is that excesses of the dot-com era aside, great entrepreneurs build frugal organizations. “Cash is king” was Ray’s motto and spending a company’s own cash is less expensive than using investor money or bank loans. “Making do” is an entrepreneur’s creed Ray believes.
To that end, Ray’s business success has always based around corporate frugality. Stripped of the inappropriate miserly association, Ray believes that frugality simply means a lack of wastefulness, which has inherent value in running a business. Non-wasteful spending at Micrel ensured that money was available for business cycle downturns and exciting new market acquisitions.
In 2015, Ray sold Micrel but instead of retiring to enjoy his financial success, Ray chose to not rest on his laurels, nor slow down. Ray took his personal philosophy of doing the tough things first – a habit he instilled in Micrel – and authored the bestselling book, Tough Things First (published by McGraw Hill). His second book, The Zen of Zinn, came out last year. Unwilling to slow down, Ray decided to take his considerable experience and success and use it to invest in the future of high tech. As an active angel and technology investor, Ray’s goal is to take the spirit of Silicon Valley out to the rest of the country, establishing technology centers of innovation across the nation. As part of that goal, Ray is now offering entrepreneurial guidance and funding and recently launched a university startup competition called ZinnStarter where he mentors and funds the next generation of entrepreneurs and innovators. No doubt he will inspire them to do the tough things first on their road to success. And for those not in school, his weekly Tough Things First Podcast channels Ray’s accumulated experience as wisdom to everyone.
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