A startup competition at Nvidia’s GPU Technology Conference (GTC) held in San Jose this week sent Jensen Huang and his Nvidia co-founder Chris Malachowsky on a trip down memory lane.
On stage to introduce winners of Nvidia’s Inception Awards, an AI startup competition with a million dollars in prize money at stake, Huang and Malachowsky talked about their own startup journey.
“I was in this position 25 years ago,” Huang said. So “I can’t help but reminisce about the past.”
Although, he pointed out, “We never won anything.”
Huang and Malachowsky recalled what they did—and didn’t do—on the eventual path to success.
For one, they never did come up with a business plan. “I didn’t know how to write a business plan and never did finish one,” said Huang. “It’s not like school; you don’t have to turn it in.”
It’s not that they weren’t asked for one. Malachowsky recalled the question specifically coming up at an early meeting with venture capitalists. “Jensen [Huang] told them ‘I worked on it last night, but didn’t finish it.’ [The VCs] said ‘That’s OK, we wouldn’t have believed it anyway.’”
And that disbelief would have been appropriate, Huang indicated, because “no business plan could have predicted any of the past 25 years.”
Huang and Malachowsky credited their success with their ability to move on when things didn’t turn out as they expected.
“’Move on’ is simple to say, but hard to do,” said Huang. “We competed against [founders of] 100 companies. We all had the same backgrounds, were all clever, and we all worked hard.”
Nvidia succeeded where others failed, Huang indicated, because “we had the ability to pivot, to acknowledge that things were different. When we were plain wrong, we dealt with it with intellectual honesty and just moved on.”
In addition, said Malachowsky, “We surrounded ourselves with people who also weren’t afraid to be wrong. They wanted to succeed in the end game,” but were willing to let what they were doing at the time go if necessary. They didn’t “have lot of ego.”
In the beginning, recalled Huang, “We had this idea that computer graphics was going to be the driving force of technology and [its] fuel would be videogames.”
But, he said, “a year and a half later, we nearly went out of business—the technology was wrong, the market strategy was wrong, architecture was wrong, and the execution wasn’t good.”
One particular embarrassment, he said, had to do with the company’s first graphics processor, the NV1. “We taped it out,” he recalls, “it came back, and 90 percent [didn’t] work. But we were so excited this was back, we took it to Computex. People were blown away by what we showed even though 90 percent didn’t work.”
“Then went to the same conference a year later, and showed the same thing,” he continued. “If you go to a conference twice and show the same demo, it’s not good. We almost went out of business” as a result.
But the most heart-stopping moment on the startup rollercoaster, Huang recalled, was after Nvidia’s RIVA 128 came out. “It was a raging success,” Huang said. “Then Intel showed up and said they were going to build a graphics chip. Meanwhile, we were about to go public.”
Customers quickly backed away and sales plummeted, Huang recalled. “We went from days away from going public to days away from going out of business. That’s what it’s like to be a startup.”
“It’s so good!” Malachowsky chimed in.
“The glory, the tragedy, the glory, the tragedy….” Huang responded.
The winners of the 2018 Inception Awards, hoping their story ends in glory rather than tragedy, were: Subtle Medical, a company using AI to improve the quality, lower the cost, and increase the speed of medical imaging; AiFi, a company aiming to take the Amazon Go checkout-free retail model and expand it to a wider variety of stores; and Kinema Systems, a company designing plug-and-play robots to automate some basic industrial tasks, like loading and unloading pallets.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.