A look at how Larry Ellison and Oracle got its start

On July 20, 1994, I had the unique opportunity to film an interview with one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world: Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle Corp.

The interview was part of a project to capture the unique culture and business environment of the Silicon Valley. What we had learned was that all of the entrepreneurs gave a lot of credit to luck and opportunity. Most had told us that they couldn’t have been successful without the entrepreneurial risk culture of the Valley.

We met with Ellison in an Oracle boardroom. He was 49 years old and one of the richest people on the planet — just a few hundred million dollars behind Bill Gates.

A few of the things that Ellison told us were surprising:
“When Oracle was formed in 1977, venture capitalists wouldn’t spend a dime investing in software,” he said. “And, in fact, I can recall talking to a couple of venture capitalists and, in fact, I can recall not talking to a couple of venture capitalists — I was left waiting in their anterooms. When they heard the investment was about software, they wouldn’t even see me.

In fact, their receptionist would search my briefcase before I left to make sure I didn’t take a current copy of Business Week with me as I left the room. Oracle started without a dime of venture capital. I put in $1,200 and the other two guys put in $400 each, and with that $2,000 we started Oracle.”

Ellison came out to Silicon Valley from the south side of Chicago.

“I was raised on the south side of Chicago,” he said. “Silicon Valley was much nicer than the south side of Chicago because there were fewer gangs, and, you know, you didn’t spend the evening listening to trucks downshift and people shoot at each other. So, the south side of Chicago wasn’t a difficult place to beat.”

When asked about Oracle’s first real successful product launch, this was his reply:
“There never really was an Oracle Version 1 because we thought you had to be half nuts to buy database software from four guys in California anyway. When it’s version 1 of the database software, that’s just impossible. So the very first version of Oracle came out with Oracle Version 2.”

Ellison was very gracious, articulate and genuine. For a guy who could write a check for a professional basketball team, he was well grounded in reality. I asked him after the interview if he could convince his good friend, Steve Jobs, to interview with us. He said, “Yes,” and kept his word. We interviewed a reluctant Steve Jobs about two months later. ●

Portions of the Larry Ellison interview are part of the documentary, “Silicon Valley: A Five Part Series,” narrated by Leonard Nimoy and the free audio program “Billionaires: Silicon Valley Entrepreneurs Who Made Their Fortune Without Venture Capital.” Both programs are available at www.SiliconValleyHistorical.org.