Career Path: From college drop-out to CEO success story | Crain's

Career Path: From college drop-out to CEO success story

Larry Zulch has always been passionate about business. He even dropped out of Reed College, in Portland, Oregon, to run a company left to him by his late uncle. It was there, Zulch says, that he learned most of his lessons.

He later returned to college — this time, the University of California at Davis, to study economics — but never dropped his entrepreneurial spirit, founding a couple of different businesses before graduating.

One of those companies was bought by EMC Corporation, an information storage and management company where he worked as vice president for several years before moving on to lead companies specializing in biotechnology and internet-of-things software.

Today, he is the president and CEO of Savvius, a vendor of network performance monitoring and packet analysis solutions in Walnut Creek, California. Zulch recently spoke with Crain about his career trajectory and leadership style.  

What were some of your business experiences leading up to Savvius?

In 1984, my brother and I started a data-protection software company called Dantz Development. I ran that business as the president and CEO for nearly 21 years before selling to EMC, where I [subsequently] worked for a time. Although my experience at EMC helped me figure out how to be successful at a very large company, I decided to semi-retire after a while because I got tired of the overhead it took to run a company of that size; I like a little more efficiency.

Later, I ran into a brilliant scientist who wanted to apply lasers to skin cancer but didn't have a lot of business experience. It was a huge leap from what I had been doing before, but after a bit of discussion, we decided to start a company together. We got human clinical trials of a therapy for skin cancer and [then] developed and patented a laser that, unlike current skin-cancer treatments, doesn’t cut out huge amounts of skin cells to eradicate cancerous tissue. It is actually in the process of being commercialized.

I came to Savvius three years ago, having seen the enormous potential in this very engineering-driven company. [I discovered] that being engineering-driven wasn't enough to stimulate growth in this new era because in tech, the mantra has always been: If you build it, they will come. If we build a better mousetrap, people will hear about it and love it, and we will build and accelerate on that. But the world is different now, in that it requires a more comprehensive view of things. It was time for Savvius to make that shift because sales weren’t growing.

That’s where I came in.

How did you fix the problem?

My job had three interrelated pieces: To establish a vision of what success looked like, to actively manage a culture and to establish accountability. Establishing a vision is important because it gives you something to measure yourself against. Managing a culture is important because it helps determine how everyone works together to achieve the company’s goals. And establishing accountability is important because it’s the only way to make sure you succeed at achieving your vision.

One of the first things I did was say, “Where is our core expertise? Let’s put all of our energy into that and then look to the outside for the best solutions in areas that are not our core expertise.” Being an engineering-driven company, we knew engineers could create great things. So we built our entire internal and external ecosystem. All of the things we had done as a company were pretty much things we did ourselves, from our website to the management of our email system.

The other piece had to do with product and our product view. Where we were previously really focused on providing tools to people who interacted with networks at a very low level, we have since moved into saying, “We provide visibility into what’s going on in a network.” We hadn’t previously taken advantage of the fact that we could look at network traffic, take it apart, and make it visible and understandable in ways that could help people solve problems. So we had to shift our product development in that way.

What are the challenges you face at Savvius?

As a small company, we have the advantage of being able to stay very focused. Larger companies have a much broader footprint and can’t really focus as hard as we do on network visibility for enterprises, which is an area increasing across the enterprise — and that’s great for us. At the same time, however, it also presents a big challenge: Because we are limited in size, it’s harder for us to keep up with this growth.

Bigger companies have different challenges. At EMC, although we had more than enough resources, we still weren’t as efficient, focused or innovative as the smaller companies. I remember that at one point, EMC had just bought a company that had built something really cool. [That company] had about 20 engineers. We had many more, but because we weren’t as focused, they out-innovated us.

To what would you attribute your success as a business leader?

One of my core philosophies is: Make lots of mistakes — just always make new ones. I’ve always been a creative person, in terms of business, in that I tried things. When I tried something that didn’t work well, I learned from that and then tried something else. If you’re too afraid to make mistakes, you won’t take risks.

To be clear, I never try to make mistakes; I just try not to be paralyzed by indecision. I’m determined to make the best possible call I can, based on information we have now.

Have you developed a particular philosophy when it comes to your management style?

I believe that the best ideas should win. That might sound pretty obvious, but it can be tough to consider ideas independent of where they came from. For example, people may initially brush off an idea from a new employee [precisely] because he or she is new. But I always evaluate things based on the quality of the idea itself.

February 5, 2018 - 2:13pm