John Thompson still digging the challenge

I got a ton of pitches after Forbes came out with its recent list of Most Promising Companies. But when the CEO of the third-ranked outfit on the list reached out, I took a meeting.

During the decade he ran Symantec, John Thompson became the tech industry’s highest-ranking black executive (and the man who introduced Barack Obama to much of Silicon Valley). Thompson thought he was ready to retire four years ago after growing Symantec from 2,300 employees to 23,000. Instead, he found himself taking over the CEO’s role at a Scotts Valley startup he’d invested in, Virtual Instruments. As Thompson told my colleague Brandon Bailey a few years back, “My interest was in the technology. I decided I would give the team the best effort that I could.”

Since then, Thompson has moved VI from Scotts Valley – which he said was a disadvantage when it came to recruiting engineers – to an anonymous office building near San Jose’s airport. He’s taken the company from 50 people to about 250, with dozens more joining every quarter. And he’s got his eyes fixed on an initial public offering – something he’s never led a company through despite four decades in the industry.

Thompson knows Wall Street is fickle enough that the current love affair with enterprise technology companies could be history by the time VI’s ready to go public in the next 12-18 months. At the same time, he evinces some measure of satisfaction that the enterprise is once again sexy with investors; even with his track record, he said, Virtual Instruments had much more trouble raising venture capital then he’d expected in 2010, when Sand Hill Road was throwing money at social networking.

Thompson described his company as “the plumbers of the infrastructure.” Say you’re running a subscription-based business in the cloud using virtualized servers; while it’s flexible and keeps costs low, Thompson said, it’s also unpredictable. If a lot of users log on at the same time, performance can bog down. Virtual Instruments touts its ability to monitor users’ traffic around the clock and help reroute traffic before problems arise.

The startup’s biggest competition? “Lack of budget,” he laughed, adding that he’d just come back from a CIO’s conference in Tucson to woo customers. While many next-gen enterprise software companies – Splunk comes to mind – keep prices low by delivering services over the cloud via a “freemium” model, Thompson rolls his eyes. “We provide hardware, software, services and support,” he said. In other words, it don’t come cheap. Virtual Instruments courts deep-pocketed enterprises like phone companies, banks and trading systems, which have every incentive to invest in performance reliability.

Like a lot of CEOs I’ve met who keep working long after they can afford to quit, Thompson bristles with energy – his post-Symantec vow to find “a chaise lounge and a mai tai” didn’t last long. At the same time, Thompson’s a grandfather who’ll turn 64 this spring, and I got the sense that what’s motivating him more than anything is the chance to grow a company from seedling to IPO. He left IBM– where he’d worked for “27 years, 9 months and 13 days” – as a vice president overseeing 37,000 employees. (He also sits on the board of Microsoft with fellow Silicon Valley denizens Steve Luczo and Dave Marquardt.) But despite that kind of pedigree, Thompson knows the consummate valley experience is building the startup that becomes a five-year overnight success.



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