He practiced what he preaches Featured

9:48am EDT July 22, 2002

Like a photographer trying to take a perfect picture, an entrepreneur must learn very quickly that focus is everything.”

The opening sentence of a research paper David Deeds once co-authored in the Journal of Business Venturing suggests that Deeds has more than a passing familiarity with the challenges of running one’s own company.

Indeed, during the 1980s, Deeds and his older brother Corky established and then ran a San Diego computer systems-integration company, Light Speed Corp., which they built into a reasonably successful organization before David left to attend graduate school in Seattle.

Like most start-ups, the one begun by the brothers Deeds was exceedingly modest at first. Corky had learned electronics in the Navy, and by the mid-’70s, he was living in San Francisco and hanging around with a group of computer geeks who called themselves the Home Brew Computer Society. He recalls one of the co-founder of Apple Computer showing up.

“[Steve] Wozniak, this crazy-haired kid, showed up with his Apple, all these parts, and it really worked.”

After working as a systems designer in the heating and cooling industry for three years, by ’83, he was back in San Diego, where his younger brother was leisurely contemplating his future after recently finishing his undergraduate degree.

“Hey, get your butt in gear,” Corky says he told him. And thus Light Speed, a custom software and hardware integrator, was born.

“We built it on credit cards and surplus electronics,” David recalls. The brothers were lucky enough to sign on as early distributors of a hot computer-aided design product, which provided special entrée into engineering and architectural firms. Still, in its first year, the enterprise grossed only about $25,000.

By the time Dave left the company in 1989 for graduate school, it was grossing a little over $1 million. The proceeds helped David fund a down payment on a house and put him through graduate school, and helped put his brother’s kids through college, he says proudly.

For a time, it was an ideal partnership. Corky was the techie, who helped keep clients on the cutting edge of the emerging technology. Dave, blessed with superior people skills, did the training. While Corky insisted on the final say as a big brother’s prerogative, they were really equal partners, he recalls.

“We tended to compensate for each other’s shortcomings,” says Corky.

David rode herd on the unproductive tinkering of his brother, a self-described “silicon junkie.” That, says Corky, “was always our biggest point of contention. I always wanted to play with the toys.” He, on the other hand, tried to impress upon his brother that various employees were not interchangeable.

Today, Corky, now 50, is still running the company in San Diego. As it turned out, Light Speed’s best year was the year after Dave left. The company’s gotten steadily smaller ever since.

“I’ve dropped back to one part-time employee,” says Corky, who complains that his industry has become a commodity business. “I make a good living, don’t work too hard and I have a lot of nice toys.”

While he’s no longer affiliated with Light Speed, David says he nevertheless derived a lifetime of useful lessons from the experience, even beyond the grubstake it provided for his further schooling. Today, his students “get sick of my war stories, especially about bootstrapping. But it informs my research,” he says.

“I always tell my students that the definition of an entrepreneur is a person with an idea and no money. So the key to my research is how to get access — to money, contacts, you name it.”