October 3, 2023

You Go That Extra Mile Only If You Care Enough About Being Successful

You Go That Extra Mile Only If You Care Enough About Being Successful

There are many paths to success. For some, it is about playing the corporate game well. For others, it is about striking out and doing things on their terms. But there are a few others who manage to work within large companies even while carving out their own path, taking risks along the way, pushing the envelope, and transforming whatever they touch. Vijay Ullal, former President & COO of Fairchild Semiconductor, and now, Venture Capital Investor, definitely belongs to this exclusive club.

Vijay Ullal is known to be a tough-as-nails leader, who holds everyone, most of all himself, to the most exacting standards. People who work for him love him because he pushes and inspires them to punch well above their weight. But as one can imagine, working with him is not always going to be gentle on one’s ego! Ask him about it, and you find that it is a mantle he wears with self-awareness and integrity. He is the first to confess that he might not win a popularity contest as a leader, but he has always been a person with an opinion, and one who is not afraid to ‘tell-it-like-it-is.” It is also the reason why, many believe, he is the immensely successful leader that he is today. The numbers are telling: at Maxim Integrated, he grew the Consumer Division revenue from $0.35 billion to $1 billion, which led to an increase in enterprise value of $2.5 billion. More recently, he captained Fairchild Semiconductor, through a two-year transformation that resulted in a 50% increase in enterprise value. Today, he is an early stage investor sharing his experience, and strong opinions, with entrepreneurs who are passionate to learn and to succeed.

We, at AnuPartha, spoke to Vijay Ullal to get his views on what it takes to survive in an industry that is going through a major transformation today, on planning a career by anticipating changes, and how to navigate choppy business waters. Needless to say, we got nothing but the hard truth, and are the wiser for it!

Industries Follow A Pattern – Innovation, Scaling And Then Maturation – You Need To Learn, Adapt, And Transform Yourself Along The Way

Having been in the semi-conductor industry for close to thirty years, Vijay Ullal has observed its evolution from a unique vantage point - starting as an engineer in the early 80s when it was a fledgling industry finding its wings, as an operations and business leader through its meteoric rise in the 90s, right up to the late 2000s, when it began its silent decline.

When he first joined Intel in 1982, Vijay said it was a company that was operating like a $1.5 billion startup, constantly experimenting, surviving many hiccups in the supply chain and manufacturing, and experiencing frequent highs and lows. “The bumps were smoothened in the 90s and the industry really came into its own; we were just executing, organized and disciplined, and there was all that energy…I would say the 90s was like the golden age for semiconductors,” he recalls.

However, it became clear to him by the early 2000s that progress in the semi-conductor industry had plateaued, in the way that all mature industries do over time. Semi-conductors were becoming commoditized in much the same way the railways and steel industries went earlier.

Discerning the pattern and being pro-active about making the necessary changes is what sets you apart. First you have to accept that the industry is not coming back. Next you have to move on – to a different industry, learn a different skill, and adapt to the changing environment, so you don’t find yourself in a hole.” tweet

This is easier said than done because transitions are tough especially when you have seen success and you have reached a comfort zone. “Most of us like to get into a comfortable routine, and often that routine sucks you in,” says Vijay. “You drive every-day to the same place, do the same things, you get your cup of coffee at the same time, you go get your lunch with the same folks everyday, and so on…it becomes insidious, and it’s very hard to break”...Something for all of us to seriously ponder about - isn’t this the rut we all get trapped into?!

Push Yourself Out Of Your Comfort Zone To Find Your New Normal

Of making those big shifts, he counsels: “Transitions can be done but they take time. Even though it looks like I've been in the semi-conductor industry for a long time, I've made several transitions within the industry. I started out in operations, and I transitioned to technology development. And then I went into business.” He confessed that, like it was for most people, changes were hard for him to adapt to, and he had to push himself to succeed. Sometimes it meant not taking the easy road. Vijay recalls the time when he got a CXO role, but in operations, with a significant jump in salary and position. He said “No” because he realized it was time to change his career path. Or like when he left Fairchild, the easy option was to take up the CEO offers that came his way. But he resisted it, and took a couple of months off to introspect on where he wanted to see himself in the next few years. That led him to a completely new path of setting up an investment fund.

Most people instinctively know when to make that change, but few have the courage to abandon the comfort and security of a pre-planned career path. You need to break out of it deliberately, if you want to move forward.” tweet

He says that there is no such thing as being stuck in a position and that there are always options for those who are willing to explore a slightly different career path. “You've got to recognize that this is kind of a saturated field, and you have to make the transition before it gets too late.”

Career Transitions Can Be Made If You Want To

To folks in the semi-conductor industry today, his advice is to deliberately start looking beyond and adjacent to the industry. “There are a lot of good things about people who have grown up in the semiconductor industry. They are very detail oriented, they tend to be hard working and pretty technical. A lot of these skills are very useful in other companies, where people are doing a combination of things that involves hardware. IOT, Driverless cars, Cloud computing - there are a bunch of new industries getting formed right in front of us today.”

Push The Boundaries To Get The Best Out Of Yourself And Your Team - The Costs Are Totally Worth It!

We spoke at length with Vijay about his leadership style and what he believes has worked for him. “It all starts with setting very high standards for myself and the people around me,” he says expansively. “And there are clear rewards, and downsides, including for myself, if we succeed or if we don’t. Some people have a hard time dealing with the downsides. People lead in different ways. Some leaders don’t set high standards and they are very popular. But I don’t think you can possibly accomplish anything unless you set very high expectations for yourself and the team,” he says emphatically.

Vijay is of the strong opinion that in order to succeed, you first need to care whether you will be successful or not. “To those who don’t have that ‘fire in the belly’, it’s okay to not make it! You won’t work that extra hour, the extra day, make an extra phone-call or whatever it takes. You won’t go that extra distance because you don’t care enough to be successful”. And Vijay doesn’t care to work with such people. “All these guys, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs - I’m not trying to compare myself with them, don’t get me wrong - these people are not easy to work with. But also what they have set out to accomplish is far beyond what ordinary people thought possible!” As he goes on to explain his style of working further, he adds, “If your focus is on just being an easy person to work with, then you get this political environment; trying to make everybody happy. That just doesn’t work for me”! Well said Vijay!

I set very high standards for myself and the people around me. I don’t think you can possibly accomplish anything unless you do. You go that extra distance because you care enough to be successful. tweet


People With Passion, Integrity And Open-Mindedness Are A Great Asset

Vijay has been known to have a great eye to spot and nurture talent. “I always look for people with passion. Those are the people who are constantly looking to improve themselves, and who aren’t satisfied with just getting by.” Integrity of purpose is also a trait he values greatly. “What is your mission in life? Are you trying to accomplish something great?” He asks these questions as much of himself as of the people he’s looking to welcome in his team, for therein lies the synergy to accomplishing great things together. He insists, “The driver cannot be money, because when people are driven by money, then it’s not long before they start compromising on their principles.” He also looks for people who are open-minded, those who aren’t fettered by one particular way of thinking, as those are the types who embrace a newer way of doing things.

I look for people with integrity of purpose, people who ask themselves, “What is my mission in life? What is the framework around which I build my life? Do I want to accomplish something great?” tweet

Knowing that Vijay’s opinions are not limited to the semi-conductor industry alone, we did a bit of star-gazing with him during our conversation. We asked him about the future of Manufacturing and Outsourcing, IOT and the Cloud, and about Venture Investing…

Expect A Resurgence Of Manufacturing In The US

“Jobs being lost in the US in the manufacturing industry is old news. Expect a resurgence in the manufacturing industry here,” says Vijay. He is very sure that manufacturing is making a comeback in the US. Even if wages are lower in other countries, he feels the effect is evening out due to technology advances, stagnating wages in the US, and the cost of energy & shipping. He believes that the new manufacturing units in the US will be like the Tesla factories - employing fewer but highly skilled and knowledgeable people. The kind that you cannot offshore easily!

Technical skill and knowledge will be the foundation of the manufacturing industry in the US. It is an opportunity for specialist industries to offer high quality, tailor-made products, that businesses need. tweet


Cloud And IoT In Combination with Hardware Is The Next Generation Of Disruption

Vijay considers the IoT (Internet of Things) and Cloud to be the real successors of the semi-conductor industry. Vijay believes that the next wave is not going to be driven by hardware alone. “It is not enough anymore to just offer a device, because a competitor can replicate it in no time”. He thinks the Internet has democratized knowledge, and any new IP can be replicated in different parts of the world in internet speed. So it will be the services layer delivered from the cloud that will be the game changer for IOT companies.

Having said that, he thinks the semi-conductor industry has the engineering talent within itself to adapt to this change. In the Information Age of today, where data is all-pervasive, companies will have to devise innovative ways to collect data, and be knowledgeable enough to then derive insights from that data. “The future is going to be about a plug-and-play, DIY kind of IoT model, where companies will have to break the traditional mould and tap into a fragmented market that is brimming with potential, to find the commonality and build platforms.”

You can’t make money on the hardware alone. The real value lies in using data to offer a service or a platform. tweet


Operational Experience - That Is, Often, A VC's Greatest Value Add For Entrepreneurs

As Vijay embarks on his latest role as an active venture investor, he is looking forward to working with entrepreneurs in a meaningful way, not just with capital but also with hands-on mentorship. He says enthusiastically: “You end up interacting with founders who are full of ideas and energy. They are pathologically optimistic and I find that completely rejuvenating.” It’s a two-way street, and he advises them on the three things that makes a company successful.

You must have the best team, really good product differentiation, and a really good market for a company to be successful. tweet

Vijay is well positioned to invest in, and advise, young companies because of the breadth and depth of his operational experience - in managing a business, sales & marketing, technology development, manufacturing or supply chain management. “Unlike the old days, most of the VCs today have an MBA/Finance background rather than operating experience. There are many Angels with strong operating experience, but there aren’t a lot of those who will write a $100,000 to $500,000 cheque, like I will.” A candid opinion, from one who isn’t afraid to back his conviction with his financial might.

Vijay Ullal’s Venture Fund, Victory Capital (http://victory.capital/) is already over a year old now, and off to a flying start. With over a dozen investments to-date, across an exciting portfolio of product companies - from 3D Fitness Tracker to a Refrigeration Battery - Vijay Ullal is investing with an open mind, betting on ideas that most mainstream VCs won’t easily fund! If you have a great technology idea, and the passion to change the world just that little bit, you know who to reach out to!

Vijay, we wish you the very best, and look forward to seeing a host of wildly successful companies coming out of the Victory stable!


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