Raymond D. “Ray” Zinn is an inventor, entrepreneur, investor, angel, bestselling author, and the longest-serving CEO of a publicly-traded company in Silicon Valley. He is also the founder of a nationally-launched ZinnStarter program at colleges around the country, providing the financial and mentoring support for students to launch new products and companies. In 2015, Ray published his first book, Tough Things First, with McGraw Hill. The book covers Zinn’s analysis of his nearly 40 years at the helm of Micrel, a Silicon Valley institution along with the critical factors that entrepreneurs and seasoned executives alike need to know, including the intricacies of nurturing corporate culture, how to make every employee (and every human) feel valued, the impact and limitations of policies and procedures, and how to manage growth.
Zinn is also known for conceptualizing and in effect inventing the Wafer Stepper, and for co-founding semiconductor company Micrel (acquired by Microchip in 2015), which provides essential components for smartphones, consumer electronics, and enterprise networks. He served as chief executive officer, chairman of its board of directors, and president since the company’s inception in 1978.
Zinn led Micrel profitably through eight major downturns in global chip markets, an impressive achievement. Many chip companies weren’t able to make it through one downturn and very few have survived through all the major downturns. Micrel has been profitable from its very first year, aside from one year during the dot-com implosion.
Tell us about the early days of Micrel.
I started Micrel with a bank loan, no VC money, which was and is unheard of in Silicon Valley. Because the bank loan stipulated we had to be profitable in our very first year of operations (also unheard of), we focused on profitability from day one. This helped establish a frugal company culture but also enabled us to persevere. We knew from the get-go that we lived and died by profits so everything we did was designed to maximize profits so we could continue.
What did you start with?
We started out strong as I said, focusing on profitability but hit a bump during our IPO when I lost my sight. Talk about persevering! I had no choice but to solider on…keep moving ahead. I not only had to complete the mission at hand, the IPO, but I also went on to convince a naturally-skeptical BOD that I could continue to run a company without my sight. Because I had to learn to navigate the world nearly sightless, I stayed the course. Mastering a whole new set of skills gave me focus, which in turn, enabled me to persevere. Also, I had and have my faith. Being religious I believe really helped me because when I despaired, I would pray and feel stronger in my resolve. Also, I knew I had but two options: I could either battle through an entirely new set of challenges or simply give up. Since giving up was never an option for me, I continued to work toward my new goals, every day, doing the tough things first. That really helped me to persevere, simply doing the tough things first every single day. It is a habit that has stayed with me my entire life.
How hard was it to gain traction?
Most customers want quality and service as opposed to only the lowest possible price. The name of our company “Micrel” stood for “micro-circuits that are reliable.” We believed that like Hewlett Packard, quality and service would be our hallmark. By focusing on quality and service, it gave us the traction we needed to grow and stay profitable. We became known as “the biggest little company in the industry” because we had such a great reputation.
What have you have accomplished so far today?
Micrel endured for 37 long years with only one year being unprofitable, so we accomplished a great deal. Micrel was sold in 2015 and since then, I’ve gone on to author two books (Tough Things First and Zen of Zinn) and now run ZinnStarter, which grants seed money and mentoring to the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs in various universities around the country. Oh, and I continue to do the tough things every single day, without fail.