Being a young executive in a startup, I frequently like to study startups that made the transition to successful public companies. What made them click? Who are the people and personalities behind these companies? What are the lessons I can learn from them? Today, I'll share some thoughts about Eli Harari, the recently retired CEO of SanDisk, who founded the company in 1988 and played a pivotal role in its success and growth.
As an employee at SanDisk between 2006 and 2010, I had a chance to interact with Eli and observe his management style. Below are a few of Eli's incredibly successful management mantras...
Many companies invest resources in multiple research options since they are not sure which one will win. Eli's philosophy was unique. Among the various research options possible, he would pick the one that he thought would win (based on his technical assessment) and then invest all his resources on that. According to him, if one research option has a 10% chance of winning and another research option has a 10% chance of winning, by investing in both, you get a 10%*10% = 1% chance of things working out, since you have divided up your (limited) resources and cannot get momentum into your project. This strategy paid rich dividends for SanDisk, and was successful due to Eli's phenomenal technical expertise.
The people maketh the company
Among the managers I've observed in my career, I would rate Eli the highest in terms of hiring and retention policies. During the first few years of SanDisk, they managed to sign-on some really talented people such as Sanjay Mehotra, George Samachisa, Adi Cernea, Dan Guterman, Yoram Cedar, Yupin Fong, Jian Chen and Khandker Quader. These are some of the best people in the company right now, and I heard Eli was closely involved with several of these hires...
The story of my own hiring at SanDisk is revealing. I was interning at SanDisk in 2006 during the middle of my PhD studies at Georgia Tech. I had done well - I had 10-12 patent applications to show for my first three months of work at SanDisk, and many of these ideas were getting implemented in commercial products. Liza Toth, the person responsible for SanDisk's IP division at that time, told Eli about my work in a hallway conversation... Believe it or not, Eli (the CEO of a 4000 person company) called my manager and asked him about me! On hearing some good stuff there, Eli told the SanDisk HR folks to hire me and then allow me to take leave for 1-2 years to finish my PhD and return to SanDisk. If I didn't accept their offer, Eli was going to talk with me personally and persuade me to join, I heard. Needless to say, when I heard all this, I was thrilled. Very few CEOs of 4000 people companies get involved with hiring entry-level engineers! Obviously, I joined SanDisk...
If an important employee handed in his resignation, Eli would personally meet with him and try to persuade him to change his mind. SanDisk's technology team hardly lost anyone in its first 15 years (of course, the company's IPO and rapidly increasing stock price helped).
Learn from your past mistakes
As someone who failed with his last startup (Wafer Scale Integration - WSI), Eli was paranoid about learning from his past mistakes when he founded SanDisk. His management philosophy and style changed significantly between WSI and SanDisk, according to people I know who worked in both places.
Don't tolerate bureaucracy
Around 2008, SanDisk had more than 4000 employees with the acquisitions of M-Systems and Matrix Semiconductor. Due to this growth, the company started getting hierarchical with multiple management levels. Layers of this hierarchy sometimes put their own spin on issues before matters reached the CEO-level... To tackle this, for projects strategically important to the company, Eli often talked with engineers on the front-lines and also with old SanDisk employees whom he trusted. Believe it or not, Eli read any technical report I sent him, and understood the content a lot better than many Directors involved with the project! He certainly kept the Directors and VPs for various projects on their toes!!!
Stategic partnerships are crucial
In today's world, alliances between chip makers are quite common, with alliances between IBM-Globalfoundries-Samsung, Intel-Micron, Elpida-Powerchip-ProMOS, etc. The SanDisk-Toshiba alliance, however, predated all of these and was setup in 1997 when alliances were a (relatively) foreign concept. Toshiba brought its technology expertise and patents to the partnership while SanDisk brought its MLC and systems capabilities and patents. Toshiba and SanDisk jointly invested in production facilities and each got half the output. SanDisk was quite a small company then, and it took tremendous negotiation skills to work out this deal. Many believe this Toshiba-SanDisk deal was crucially responsible for SanDisk's success.
As you might know, Eli Harari retired from SanDisk at the end of 2010, and Sanjay Mehrotra, another co-founder of SanDisk is the CEO now. Sanjay is an excellent manager, and has his own unique style and approach... As far as Eli goes, below is the video of a talk he gave at Stanford Business School 4-5 years back. Hope you enjoy watching it. In the middle of this talk, Eli brings up the end of scaling and makes an analogy to the boiling frog syndrome... interestingly, Zvi Or-Bach, MonolithIC 3D's CEO, talked about the boiling frog syndrome in an old blog post too. I'll leave you with one comment Eli makes both inside and outside SanDisk, "The Future is 3D". We folks at MonolithIC 3D Inc. certainly believe the visionary founder of SanDisk is right!
- Post by Deepak Sekar