Go For It!

Photography by Gene Pollux By Susan Burns January 31, 2010

Decades after developing PowerPoint and FileMaker and working with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Sarasota’s Rob Campbell, 58, resurfaced as the CEO of Sarasota-based Voalté, a voice, alarm and text-message system that will help hospitals communicate better with doctors and nurses on the floor. He and his business partner, Trey Lauderdale, 27, who came up with the concept, are busy rolling out the product nationwide. Campbell is also on the advisory board of the University of Florida’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

What was your first entrepreneurial venture?

I started my first business, a software company, in Denver, Colo., the second year out of college. I was 24. I had seen computers going from mainframes to desktops, and the marketplace was treating them as hobbies. I began talking to a guy I knew who was in the software business. I said, “I believe people are going to want to do real work with these tiny computers. If you put up the money, I’ll go figure out how to start a business.” This was 1974-’75.

Weren’t you worried that you had never done this before?

Ignorance is a wonderful attribute for an entrepreneur because you think you can do things you don’t know how to do. I didn’t know anything about the computer business or microcomputers. I quit my job, flew out to California and visited a bunch of hobby computer companies. I started asking, “Who’s making personal computers?” Apple’s name came up, so I found their number and called them.

Who did you talk to?

I got a meeting with a really weird guy named Steve Jobs and a guy named Jeff Raskins [a founder of the MacIntosh computer] and the chairman of Apple, Mike Markkula. We met at the Good Earth Restaurant in Cupertino. Steve was a fruitarian. He didn’t eat meat or vegetables. He was 22, two years younger than me. He said, “Rob, we’re going to change the world. We’re going to change the way people work, the way people educate their children, manage their households. We’re going to have a computer on every desk and table in every home and school in the country, and it’s going to be the most important thing that’s ever happened.” He didn’t have shoes on, his hair was below his shoulder, but he was on fire. So I went back to Denver and said, “We’re going to develop software for the Apple.”

Did you know anything about software?

No, of course not! But I’d read two or three books and hired smart people who knew about software. The fun thing is nobody had ever written software for the Apple computer so it wasn’t like you could find experienced Apple programmers because there was no such animal. This was in the day before venture capital, so I got a $12,000 cash advance on five credit cards. Then I ran out of money. But by that time we’d made considerable progress, and I called up Apple and said, “Oh, by the way, we’re running out of money. Can you help fund this?” And they paid us $25,000 a month to continue to develop this general accounting product that we called The Controller. It was introduced in ’78-’79. It was really the first accounting program for personal computers. There was no distribution channel. There was nothing. That’s what makes startups so fun. You get to make it all up.

Then what?

Steve hired me to go to Apple in 1979. We sold the whole company for not much money and I moved to California. I ended up responsible for Apple’s application software business, which when I went there, hardly existed. We built it into a $70-million business over the next three years.

Why did you leave Apple?

In 1983 I proposed that they take the software business and spin it out of Apple as a wholly owned subsidiary. For a lot of reasons Apple couldn’t do that at the time. So I started a company called Forethought; we wanted to be early in this new market for graphical-user interface application software. We ended up doing five products, two of which are still around today. One of them is PowerPoint and the other is FileMaker. If you had told me then that you could create a software product that could last 20 years, I would have said no way. It’s incredibly unusual. In 1988, Microsoft bought us, so I got to go work with Bill Gates.

How did Jobs and Gates influence you?

One of them is kind of a Thomas Edison, seeing the world in a new and different light, and the other one is a Henry Ford—make lots of them and paint them black and everybody will buy the same car. Both of these guys are amazing people, just scary smart. But Steve is much more of a dreamer, a Disney futurist type, and Bill was much more pragmatic, more interested in the pure technology of it. And look at the two companies. Microsoft has done very little innovation. They’ve taken stuff done by others and made it better and bigger and sold more of it, but they really haven’t changed the world.

And Apple?

Look at the iPod, the iPhone, the app store or iTunes. Steve’s rewritten the entire music industry in what, three, four years? Look what he did at Pixar. All the movies are animated. He pushed that technology.

How did you end up in Sarasota?

I was tired of living in Santa Cruz, and my daughter [now 18 and a freshman in college] came along and I didn’t want to raise her there. It was like a Las Vegas for geeks. A friend who worked for Sun Microsystems was in Orlando at a trade conference and drove over here. He called me up and said, “I know you’re thinking about moving to Florida. You ought to check out Sarasota.” That was in 1991-’92.

Are entrepreneurs born and not made?

You can teach everyone how to visualize ideas and create value around those ideas. You can teach them the techniques of entrepreneuring: how to write business plans, how to evaluate opportunities, how to develop financing strategies, how to develop hiring plans and comp plans and staffing. I would have given anything to have been able to learn that without having to run into 100 walls. But at the end of the day, an entrepreneur has to be willing to go for it. There are people, no matter how much they know, who will never take the leap, never quit their job and say I’m going to do this because I believe in it down to my socks. You can’t teach that.

Every day you’re going to get something new thrown at you. In a small company like Voalté, most of the work gets done because you get it done. There’s not a lot of support staff to hand it off to. You have to be willing to deal with constant uncertainty and get up every day and say, “I know only a third of what I need to know, but I’m going to go out there today and make all those decisions based on incomplete knowledge and by God, make it work.”

What happens to the center for Entrepreneurship grads who don’t want to jump off the cliff?

A lot of people should and will go to work for large corporations. It’s their mentality, their risk quotient. But if we can get them to think a little bit like an entrepreneur, represent their department, put together a business proposal better, be more innovative in their approach, that would greatly enhance their value to their company and enhance the value of the company overall.

Teaching entrepreneurship is a passion for you.

I believe it ought to be taught in every high school. If you look at competition today in the U.S., what have we got going for us? We can’t grow engineers faster than China, India or Romania. Are we creating better engineers? Well, no. Can we manufacture better? No. What about services? Aren’t we outsourcing a lot of our services now? The only area we can excel at is entrepreneurship, because it’s part of our cultural fabric. Entrepreneurism is the key to our long-term competitive success and what’s going to get us out of this economic mess.

Can this region become more entrepreneurial?

Sarasota is dependent on sand and sun and the fact that executives come here from other regions to take care of their aging parents and say, “Hey, we’d better open an operation down here.” The only real world-class [economic] asset we have is Ringling College. Larry Thompson is doing amazing stuff there with computer animation, and their grads are being gobbled up by Disney, by Pixar. You could create an entire ecosystem around game development, computer animation, and try to keep some of these grads here in town. That would be the kernel of our economic development.

You need to get the players to the table, Ringling, the Economic Development Corporation, maybe somebody representing real estate, and you create a center of excellence, an incubator. You try to find the best and the brightest and say, “Come to Sarasota. We’ll put you up in this building rent free. We’ll help you recruit the best and the brightest.”

Does our region lack the political will to create this kind of environment?

Apple decided in the early ’80s they were going to build a manufacturing plant outside of California. One of the places they looked was Austin, Texas. All of a sudden, Austin mobilized. They said, “Free land, we’ll build the facility, we’ll train the workforce. You give us a 10-year commitment. Whatever it takes, we need you in Austin.” So Apple came back and said, “We love Austin. One problem, we can’t get there from San Jose. You’ve got to fly to L.A. and switch planes.” So Austin goes to Pacific or American Air and says, “We need you to run a plane twice a day once in the morning and once in the afternoon, San Jose to Austin. We’ll waive the airport fees and we’ll guarantee you 85 percent full planes.” The city did that! Apple went there and was followed by Texas Instruments and several other companies, and now Austin is booming.

They created an environment for entrepreneurship.

We don’t have that environment in Sarasota. I was out in California with a bunch of venture capitalists and I’m pitching my idea to them, and they said, “Rob, we’re not going to Sarasota. I don’t care how good the deal is. I’m not getting on a plane and changing planes twice.” Venture capitalists say we love your company, we’ll make an investment, but come to us. We’ve been recruited by Chicago, Pittsburgh. Or I want to recruit a world-class person and they love us but they say, “OK, Rob, what happens if it doesn’t work out? I’m stuck in Sarasota with no other opportunities.”

What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?

Do it. Everybody I know has good ideas. What’s the worst that can happen? You start over. Especially when you’re young. Then find and hire the best people. Sell them the dream.

What is Voalté?

Voalté Inc. (pronounced volt) is a Sarasota-based company that has developed an iPhone application called Voalté One that combines voice, alarm and text (hence the moniker Vo-al-te)

so that nurses and other staff in hospitals who work directly with patients can communicate

more efficiently.

The concept is the brainchild of Trey Lauderdale, whose previous career as a sales manager for Emergin, a healthcare IT vendor, made him aware of nurses’ communication problems.

So far Voalté has received $1.5-million-plus from angel investors and rolled out its pilot program at Sarasota Memorial Hospital last summer.

The new technology was a hit with nurses, and Voalté One has since been purchased by Sarasota Memorial and two California hospitals.

Last year the company grew from four to 13 employees and has plans to hire at least another dozen this year “as long as we can find the talent,” says Voalté’s CEO Rob Campbell. With 7,500 hospitals in the U.S. and Canada and other smart phones waiting for their own Voalté One apps, Lauderdale and Campbell predict revenues will reach $10 million by the year end.

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