Fred Gibbons

By Karen Thomas (BA '75)

gibbonssmStriding through an alley one day on his way to work, Fred Gibbons (BSE Science Eng '72; MSE CICE '72) stopped in his tracks, attracted by a trio of trash cans and the pattern of shadows they cast behind a Palo Alto restaurant. Taking a short break from his hectic schedule as founder and CEO of Venture-Concept, a high-tech venture capital firm, Gibbons returned the next day, paints and brushes in hand. In less than an hour (his time limit for all his oil paintings), he captured the cans on canvas. The completed gallery-quality work joined 34 others on Gibbons' Web site (, which also contains a number of more conventional items, such as his resume and descriptions of companies he's helped start.

Whether he's painting "Boats at Monganui Harbor, New Zealand," "Umbrellas at Auberge du Soile," an abandoned tractor in Los Altos or an Atlas preserves jar in a garage, Gibbons stresses that most of his subjects have an engineering orientation. "I paint things," he said, "found objects I discover as I'm walking around. I'm a street painter; you'll never find me in a studio." (He also paints people he finds interesting, including three homeless fishermen he paid $20 apiece to linger a bit longer on a San Francisco pier.)

"The process of building a company is almost identical to the way I paint," Gibbons observed. "First, it's a creative problem. When you start a company, it's a blank canvas where a business plan will eventually show up. I also look for that 'Aha!' moment, an immediate reaction to the concept behind the company."

Gibbons reacted that way when several former students (he teaches a business management course for engineers at Stanford) approached him in 2000 with an odd-looking contraption: a digital camera Velcroed to a cell phone. Hijacking the camera's operating system to install a new application, they'd created an elegant, ingenious product.

CEO/artist Fred Gibbons captures the kingdom of cafe mochas on canvas.

"I get it," Gibbons said. "This will help insurance agents take on-scene damage photos." Instead of a cumbersome paper-filing system, one push of a button sent the pictures into easily retrievable Web storage.

Today, ActivePhoto, joined by Sprint and serving half a dozen major insurance companies with 40,000 photos a month, is close to breaking even on annual revenues of $1 million (double last year's tally).

Gibbons started his first company, Software Publishing Corporation, in 1981, based on a similar blend of quick-take assessment and gut-level premonitions. While working at Hewlett-Packard, marketing its 3000 mini-computer line, he "got a call from some kid who said, 'I'm starting this computer company. Want to join?'"

The "kid" was Steve Jobs, who showed Gibbons an Apple I computer, asking if he'd like to do the market-requirement planning.

However, plastic bags lying nearby distracted Gibbons. What was in them? "Oh, that's software," Jobs replied, adding an explanation necessary at the time: "It's stuff people write and sell like sheet music."

"And," Gibbons recalled, "just like walking down that alley and noticing how light played across trash cans, I recognized opportunity." Jobs offered him a position, HP tried to keep him, but Gibbons used his Visa card and $50,000 from a second mortgage to start his company. His products were classic productivity software: word processing, spreadsheets and graphics designed for first-time users.

"My instinct, if you want to call it that," Gibbons said, "was that everybody who was going to use these things had never used a computer before, so they'd better be dumb, simple, easy." Nimbly changing his focus from retail mass distribution as Microsoft emerged, Gibbons invented a new category (presentation graphics) and a hugely successful product, Harvard Graphics.

Starting with one employee-himself-and zero revenues, Gibbons achieved $50 million in revenue by 1985, and $150 million in 1990. The company had 1,000 staffers by the time he sold it in 1994.

Raised in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Gibbons, 52, was an entrepreneur almost by the time he could add. At age 7 he picked blueberries for 35 cents a quart, caught and sold lobsters when he was 12, and later took people on boat trips at 25 cents a head. He credits the College for giving a passionate direction to his drive, exposing him to computers in 1967, when they were unknown or a novelty in most classrooms. Fascinated that he could create mechanical drawings on a Calcomp plotter, Gibbons remains grateful that the College allowed him to create both bachelor's and master's degrees around computer science, when it didn't even offer a formal computer major.

"The school was at the forefront of technology that turned out to be very important to me personally, and I got early exposure to it from a couple of great guys - professors Frank Westervelt and Bernard Galler," he said.

In 1995, Gibbons (who also holds a Harvard MBA) became a teacher himself, putting together, in one course, a condensed first-year MBA program (20 high-tech case studies) for Stanford's Graduate School of Engineering. "Out of 350 students I've taught, at least two dozen have gone on to get MBAs," he noted with satisfaction. "Another dozen or so have started companies." They include Larry Page (BSE CE '95), who created Google, as well as founders of FogDog, an online sporting goods vendor, and Reflectivity, which focused on optical switching (the latter two are among Venture-Concept's successful startups).

Gibbons also told the story about two Stanford PhD candidates who heard about his course and approached him about their startup. "These kids with their golf clubs and pizza boxes everywhere had this thing that found stuff on the Web," he recalled. Gibbons helped persuade a venture capital firm to invest $1 million in Yahoo, wrote a personal check for $50,000, and "the rest is history," he said.

For the foreseeable future, Gibbons plans to balance his life between the two compatible poles of teaching and doing. "I don't raise venture capital in the traditional sense," he said. "I don't put large sums of money into companies I work with; it's typically a half million to a million dollars. I look for small ideas that could be big. But even Yahoo was more hope than certainty.

"I suspect I'll be doing bigger things in the future," he added, "only because in this post-bubble environment, my approach seems more and more relevant."

Gibbons' advice to would-be entrepreneurs is the same for neophyte artists: "Don't be afraid to try." And while he doesn't actively attempt to sell his paintings, people often make on-the-spot offers while he's still layering final flecks of color. Unfinished, unframed, still wet, some have gone for as much as $600. Not bad for an hour's work. (Gibbons donates proceeds to a local arts center.) Like his investors, appreciative strangers see value in what Fred Gibbons creates.

For significant contributions to academia and business, Gibbons received the 2000 EECS Alumni Society Merit Award from the College. -E

Karen Thomas is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in McCall's, Family Circle, American Profile and other national publications.

- Michigan Engineer Fall/Winter 2002 (College of Engineering)