By Karen Thomas (BA '75)
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 (www.venture-concept.com/cv/resume.htm),
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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)