Ann Winblad, Partner Hummer
Winblad Venture Capital
by Peg Townsend
Ann Winblad walks through the door of the tiny San
Francisco coffee house and within seconds is being eyed by three young
men in button-down shirts and slacks.
Within minutes, they've managed to get Winblad's
attention and make their pitch.
A few minutes more and they're walking out the door
with her business card, looking like guys who somehow found themselves
in possession of a baseball signed by Babe Ruth.
That's because the petite woman in the brown
leather jacket and khaki slacks is one of the most powerful women in the
world of high-tech venture capital.
She got that way with a stake of only $500.
Raised in Farmington, a sleepy town of 2,500 people
in eastern Minnesota, Winblad was the oldest of six kids.
Her dad was the high school basketball coach, her
mom was a nurse, and their house was filled with that kind of energy
that comes when six kids are born within eight years of each other.
Winblad was a smart kid, a girl who got all A's in
high school and was named class valedictorian.
The kind of girl who wanted to be a biochemist when she grew up.
But says Winblad with a laugh, "I wasn't the
She was also a cheerleader and dated the football
It wasn't a combination most people expected.
It's the same way today.
At first it's hard to reconcile the 5-foot-2 woman
with the huge blue eyes with the notion that she was named by Vanity
Fair as one of the top 50 leaders in the New Establishment and picked by
Upside Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the digital
But listen to her talk about her first business,
her five-year relationship with Microsoft mogul Bill Gates and what she
looks for in a startup company and the two sides begin to merge.
And the valedictorian.
Winblad didn't take a typical path in college.
She was one of 25 students in an experimental program at the
College of St. Catherine and the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul,
Instead of taking the required Western Civilization
class and English 101, Winblad could choose her own course of studies.
So she picked math and business, falling in love with computer
programming and the intricacies of the corporate world.
It was 1973 and the push was on for Affirmative
Action so Winblad, who was often the only women in her business classes,
had a host of recruiters waiting for her when she graduated.
One of them was a big corporation who said right up
front it wanted a strong woman with an unassuming manner to run a
"That sounded like a lose-lose situation to
me," says the 49-year-old Winblad, sipping from her latte. "You were supposed to trick people into
Another offer was from the FBI, who wanted her to
track down tax evaders because she was smart and didn't look
But, that would have meant packing a 45-pound load
of gun, holster and bullet-proof vest on occasion.
"I would have tipped over," the slender
Winblad says with a laugh.
So Winblad picked a top-level programming job at
the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis.
The pay was good, she says, the programming staff
seemed creative and the new building was beautiful.
It nearly sapped the life out of her.
She remembers noticing in those first few weeks how
one of her cubicle mates would get up and leave his desk every day from
2 to 3 p.m.
Finally she asked him what he was doing.
He said he went home to watch "I Dream of
Jeannie" and drink a beer.
"He'd been doing that every day for five years
and nobody even noticed," Winblad says.
For everyone but Winblad, work had become a 9-to-5
job with no commitment to building something, or pride in what was being
It wasn't the way Winblad wanted to live her life.
She had worked since she was 6 years old, picking
strawberries, then becoming a babysitter and sewing Barbie doll clothes
to sell. In college, she
even got a job as a cocktail waitress in one of those places where the
women had to wear short shorts and platform heels.
But no matter what Winblad did, she was always
This job seemed like one of those highway
overpasses that ends in mid-air.
The final straw came when she noticed that since
all the programmers worked the exact same hours from a shared computer
mainframe, the system would slow to a crawl every day about 10:30 a.m.
and production would drop.
So Winblad went to her supervisor, a perpetually
rumpled man who could never get his shirt tucked in exactly right, and
suggested that they set up flexible work schedule.
While her supervisor hemmed and hawed, she lied and
told him that his boss, the department head, had already approved the
"But I told him, 'he wants us to do this very
quietly. He doesn't even want us to mention it to him again,'"
Winblad says with a grin.
So the unsuspecting supervisor put Winblad's
flex-time plan in motion and it showed such an increase in productivity
that the department head later took full credit for it.
At the same meeting where he announced his flex-time success, the
department head told Winblad that he wasn't going to honor a commitment
to pay for the advanced degree coursework she was taking since women
didn't need advanced degrees.
"I decided I had to get out of there,"
Winblad says simply.
She took three of the top programmers with her.
It was 1975, and there were no dot-com millionaires
to emulate, no high-tech venture capital to seek out.
Two of the programmers were so unsure about this
venture with the tireless young woman that they took sabbaticals instead
of quitting, but Winblad didn't feel that way.
She figured since she had nothing, she had nothing
Winblad got a $500 stake from her brother to
supplement her meager savings, incorporated the business, and rented an
apartment where they would work.
The four programmers trademarked the name Open
Systems, which later would come to be used to describe standards and
systems architecture, and looked around.
"We decided to build a general accounting
system," Winblad says, "so I took out my college accounting
book, which I had bought used, and we began to build a program."
At night, they wrote their new accounting program.
During the day, they built software for a large school system in order
to pay their bills.
Because she qualified, Winblad applied for food
stamps, bringing home grocery bags of food for the partners to share.
That first year, the company lost $85 and her
partners who were on sabbatical nearly panicked.
"I said, 'hey, I could have rounded it up and
we would have broken even.'" Winblad says.
"They stayed and we built a company."
Six years after it started, they sold the company
for $15.5 million cash.
Winblad could have retired like two of her partners
did, but that wasn't her style.
"I loved building systems and competing in the
marketplace," Winblad says, as dot-commers begin to fill the cafe
for their morning coffee. "I
loved beating people in your category.
"Besides, I was too young," she says.
Winblad had already begun dating Microsoft mogul
Bill Gates, a merger of two tech minds that lasted for five years. They
shared dreams and strategies and Winblad decided to move to California,
thinking she would take a year off.
Instead, began doing consulting work for clients like Microsoft,
IBM and Price Waterhouse.
It was a heady time.
The whole technology world was just beginning to
hit its stride. There was a
sense of excitement among the cadre of young business people who were
destined to shake up the world.
She wrote a book called "Object-Oriented
Software." Then John Hummer approached her about starting a venture
capital firm aimed at the high tech world.
"I said, 'I'm busy now, go away,'"
But the idea of moving from being a player in the
high-tech world to being a coach began to appeal to Winblad, who had
grown up listening to her dad's pre-game talks and seeing the joy in
competition. She also knew that there were no other venture capital
companies in 1989 that focused on high-tech startups.
"The only thing that concerned me was that
there was no turning back. You're
either a coach or a player in this business," she says.
Winblad knew she was in the same position she was
13 years earlier: at the edge of a new way of doing business.
So she jumped feet-first into this new venture.
The only difference was, this time she had more
than $1,000 in her bank account.
She and Hummer raised $35 million in the first 18
months of the company and began funding startups, using their business
acumen to help raise a brood of successful companies. Their work made
Hummer-Winblad synonymous with the rise of the new economy and the
reason those three men so coveted Winblad's business card.
Sitting on the boards of directors of companies
like the e-business helper Net Perceptions; the online music company
Liquid Audio; and the No. 1 online wedding site The Knot, Winblad is
besieged by high-tech entrepreneurs.
They send her flowers, chocolates and stuffed
animals. One enterprising young man walked into the office, asked to use
the restroom and left his business plan behind on the counter hoping one
of the partners would find it. (They did.)
But stuffed animals are not what Winblad looks for
in a company. Instead, she
looks for the very kinds of things that made her first software company
a success: passion, customer need and stamina.
"I want people to tell me about their
customers," Winblad says, checking her watch to make sure she stays
on track for her tightly scheduled day.
"I can look under the hood (of a business) and
tell you what's there, but I can't make customers buy things they don't
need or want," she says.
So budding entrepreneurs need to prove that people
need their services.
"They also have to have that ability to
attract excellence," Winblad says.
One of the truths about business, is that it can't
be done alone. A business
person has to have the ability not only to come up with a great product,
but to be able to lead a good team, Winblad says.
"They have to be extremely smart and
durable," Winblad says. "They
have to have the intellectual and physical stamina to build a
No matter what you read about dot-com millionaires,
success doesn't come overnight and without a lot of hard work and
passion for what they are doing.
Winblad knows the value of that.
At a point in her life where she could retire and
live a jet-setting, Martha Stewart kind of life, Winblad chooses to keep
Every day she walks into the old brick building in
San Francisco where her office is located and goes to work,
investigating business plans, doing research, answering her emails.
"I think I got lucky in picking an industry
when it was not even an industry," she says.
"I'm in the right place for the kind of skills I have."
It's not about the money, she says.
You can't measure success with Mercedes SUVs and
rambling California-style houses.
"People who are doing what they want to do are
being rewarded more than they could ever expect," Winblad says.
"Success is about being happy," she says.
And is Winblad happy?
Winblad takes a minute to think and then a smile
spreads across her face
"Yeah," she says. "I'm happy.
"Sometimes, I have to pinch myself."
Peg Townsend is a writer for Central California
Copyright 2001, Techdivas, all rights reserved.