Sunday, August 12, 2007

Unable to escape the shadow

Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs has had a really bad year. The company’s biggest customer, Nokia, stopped paying royalties until it gets a better deal. It keeps losing course cases to Broadcom. And there are rumblings among some investors who say he must go.

In a CNN interview published Friday, Jacobs admitted that he may never escape the shadow of industry legend and Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs:
Q: You joined the company established by your father in 1990, in your late 20s. Was there ever an issue for you, do you think, about whether or not to join the family firm?

Jacobs: Oh sure. I was trying to make a decision about whether I wanted to be a professor and go into academia or actually go into industry but you know that I decided I loved having the ability to see my ideas turn into products that other people were using, so that led me to go into industry and I figured that, if I was going to do that, Qualcomm was the best place to go.

Q: As you say, your father's an icon, he is a bit of a legend really in the industry, which makes it all the more difficult for you. How or when do you remember that you thought to yourself I am out of his shadow, I am my own person running this company now?

Jacobs: Oh I don't think that I will ever feel that way. I think he will always cast some shadow. I mean he is the person who built the foundation for the business and it is really up to me to take that platform and take it to the next level.
The last line of Moses’ stone tablets notwithstanding, I have been known to envy the successful tech executive who was in the right place at the right time. Perhaps here’s the cure.

Paul JacobsIt’s hard to see how one could envy Paul Jacobs, who will always be compared to Irwin Jacobs, an impossible act to follow. Yes, it’s tough for the children to measure up (think Ford or Motorola). But even without the nepotism charge, successors to a larger-than-life founder are but a pale imitation (think Apple or HP).

Jacobs fils can’t win. If he does “take it to the next level,” everyone will take Qualcomm’s continuing growth for granted or credit its initial trajectory. If it falters on his watch — whether the problem is maturation or incipient problems not visible at the time of the 2005 handover — shareholders and employees (and perhaps family) will say it was his fault.

On the other hand, Paul Jacobs doesn’t really have an alternative. This is the job he’s been training for for 20 years, and it’s been in the works since mid-2000 (with employees pointing to the (aborted) split between QCT and QTL as a plan to make Jacobs a CEO). There is no graceful way to give up reins of the company, unlike say the founder CEO who decides to become CTO. As Jacobs notes, this is really the only company he can work for in industry: he certainly can’t quit and go work for a competitor. Meanwhile, his older brother Gary been toiling since 1999 as a social entrepreneur, so even that domain would invite comparison.

It’s clear that the only thing Jacobs can do is to tough it out. Since most of the problems seem to be legal, the key thing would be to hire the best patent attorney around, both to retaliate against rivals and to give advice as to how to change the business decisions.

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