Bill Gates, the Adobe IPO, and more

I always enjoy learning about the history of Adobe, and this video celebrating the company’s 25th anniversary revealed some bits I hadn’t known.  Among them: investor Bill Hambrecht talks about how, during the Adobe IPO process, Bill Gates called looking to buy some stock.  "I thought, ‘Okay, now I know we’ve got a good one,’" he says.  And yes, they let Bill buy some.

In looking at the culture shaped by company founders John Warnock & Chuck Geschke, long-time Macromedia (and now Adobe) veteran John Dowdell had this to say recently on his blog:

Adobe’s social culture is very strongly influenced by the values of its early years — Warnock, Geschke, Xerox PARC, PostScript, the wildly democratizing effect of desktop publishing, the years of work towards portable documents. These events set Adobe’s corporate culture, and shape it to this day. I had heard of this cultural environment when I worked at Macromedia, but really saw it, very strongly, after the acquisition. There’s an idealism, an academic approach towards technological democratization, that you can still see inside Adobe today.

I’ve heard one other bit about the early years (though now I can’t find the source*) that seems worth passing along.  I read that when employees would arrive at their desks, they’d find disassembled shelving units, a screwdriver, and some screws.  The message: unlike at PARC or other big companies, here you do it yourself if you want it to get done.  There’s no room for slacking, and you see quickly the results of your efforts.  I’d like to see us bring back that tradition.

* If I’m misremembering those details, I’d welcome any clarification from folks who were there.

0 thoughts on “Bill Gates, the Adobe IPO, and more

  1. There are two things that immediately come to mind when I think back about my days at Adobe.
    The first is how approachable upper management (aka the “eTeam”) was. You could strike up a conversation with the CEO, the President, just about anyone at almost any time. They were always very personable and open. It was all very human and comfortable.
    The second is how the entire management system seemed to push you forward. You were always being asked by your manager what you aspired to do and were encouraged to move up in the company. I feel that I gained far more in experience in my years at Adobe than I would have experienced elsewhere.

  2. Unfortunately, the things that made Adobe great are falling by the wayside with the exception of the excellent engineering on Photoshop/Illustrator/InDesign. (I have yet to use the video side of adobe, or Photoshop Elements, so I leave those out.) Buying the “right” version of CS suite now requires the same amount of grid skill that figuring out which version of Office you need requires.
    [What would you suggest doing differently? There are, I believe, thirteen total products in the CS4 generation, offered in six Suite configurations. We hear from some people that there are too many choices, while others say there are too few. Is there a better way to go? I’m certainly open to hearing it. –J.]
    It’s slightly easier to figure out CS, in that there are only six SKUs as opposed to Office 2007’s 8, so that’s good. There are now two versions of Photoshop, with the main difference being the 3-D featureset.
    [There’s more to it than that. I’ve tried to explain some of the rationale for Extended here. –J.]
    Why? I mean, other than “we can charge more”? How does making figuring out which version of CS you need as complex as possible help users and customers?
    We won’t even get into the debacle that is Acrobat on anything but Windows, except to say that the obvious hostility of that team towards any platform that doesn’t do things exactly the way the Acrobat team wants is palpable. (In my one convo with an acrobat team member, my wife was *so* impressed that she asked me “Why would you use software someone that arrogant and immature has anything to do with?”
    I love Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator, and from what I can tell, the Flash and Video teams are cut from the same cloth. But dealing with the rest of the company is enough to make you start using ABA (Anything But Adobe).

  3. If CS4 has 13 products, why not “pick six for $999.99”, or something like that. It is fun to mess around with After Effects in my Master Suite, but I’d rather have had an easier way to get InDesign AND Fireworks, as well as PS, AI, FL and DW.
    I need the name of the guy who came up with the names “Design Collection”. “Web Collection” and Production Collection”. Kinda like “Red” and “Blue” States I guess.
    Side question: will the product sometimes called Adobe Photoshop Lightroom be a part of the suite, or still sold separately?

  4. I’m with Bynkii on the Acrobat team’s hostility towards non-Windows platforms (i.e. Macs). They claim that businesses use Windows, so they create a version for that, rather than building the same program for all supported platforms – like Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, etc.
    Hogwash! (That’s Missourian for “nonsense!”) There are plenty of businesses that use Macs. How does bifurcating Acrobat features make any sense? It does not. And please tell them to stop patronizing us with their simplistic explanation for why we Mac users are treated like second-class citizens.
    So, to your question. How about flat pricing? That would help us a lot. So, I’m in education. Give me education prices for the apps I need. Say I need Photoshop Extended, InDesign, Illustrator and Acrobat. If I don’t need any Web apps, no need for Flash or Dreamweaver. But I want Photoshop Extended! The current suite matrix says I’m out of luck.
    Let me download each one, and each one adds its own cost to the final price. I can understand how this would not work well with disc media. Unless each app came on its own DVD. Or all apps are in the DVDs, but you need an unlock code to get to it. (No worries, pirates already have all that, no need to penalize honest customers.) Not one price for Photoshop in one suite, and another price for it in a different suite.
    Don’t make me buy more apps than I need! I understand the idea of giving people who buy multiple apps a price break. So, each app gets its own discount price based on how many other apps I buy. Fine. But save me some money if I don’t want DreamWeaver. (Which I do, btw.)
    Give us: “Build your own Suite!™”
    You can use that, free. 😉

  5. [What would you suggest doing differently? There are, I believe, thirteen total products in the CS4 generation, offered in six Suite configurations. We hear from some people that there are too many choices, while others say there are too few. Is there a better way to go? I’m certainly open to hearing it. –J.]

    I think the other comments here are dead on. With that many products, why not have a “pick 3, pick 6, pick 9, pick 12”? (I’m assuming that one of those 13 is the difference between photoshop versions) Yes, it would make things harder on Adobe, but that’s kind of who should be getting the harder work here: The people selling, not the people buying.

    [There’s more to it than that. I’ve tried to explain some of the rationale for Extended here. –J.]

    Okay, there’s more to it than 3D. Again, you make buying photoshop alone twice as complicated, because now, people have to predict the future: “Will I need 3D? I don’t know”, and you cut out possibility for those who don’t know, and decide to save a buck. Or $150 – $250. This partioning of Photoshop, combined with the overly rigid “you buy the suite we tell you to buy, not the one you need” setup doesn’t make for a happy time handing over the money. Usually, you want *that* part to be the *easy* part. Instead, like Microsoft, Adobe is now making figuring out how much money to hand over far harder than it needs to be. “Will I need to do any web design with my CS Production Premium? I hope not, because that’s a separate purchase. Will I need to have PDF generation for my Web Standard needs? I hope not, because to get that, i have to buy Photoshop extended and Illustrator”
    That setup looks like choice, but in the end, it’s like a McDonalds meal. you can choose too many fries, WAY too many fries, or DEAR GOD, IT’S A POTATO TRUCK! You don’t really have much of a choice there at all, just a lot of options on what you’re being told you can buy. Options and Choices are rather different.

  6. I completely agree with Mordy’s observation about how approachable the upper echelons of Adobe were.
    Even more impressive was the fact that you could tell them something and months later they would ask you about the very issue you had briefly discussed with them in conversation. This was typical of Derek Gray [ex-VP Adobe Systems Europe].
    There was a cultural shift, though [IMHO] when the development focus changed from the Apple Macintosh Graphics/Print audience to Windows & the Enterprise market. Co-incidentally, around the time Chuck & John were stepping down – a perceptible shift from a technology company driven by Engineers to a profits philosophy driven by bean counters and shareholder accountability.
    Sadly, I agree with some other points mentioned [Eric] with respect to parity across platforms in specific applications. Acrobat definitely suffers in that regard. In addition, Acrobat’s typically ahead of the Creative Suite development/release cycle and kinda gets shoe-horned (not seamless integration) into the various suites. I’ve come to detest the licensing solution [FLEXnet] recently, as corruption of the licence cache file [usually after a patch/upgrade] means you have to completely un/re-install Acrobat (8 Pro) + the installer requests a shared resource file [Adobe Extend Script Toolkit 2.0.1] which doesn’t reside on the install DVD! Bottom line is, that the legitimate User is constantly compromised [and, doesn’t it always happen when you have a deadline to meet?!]
    Lastly, with reference to Photoshop CS3 Extended [Design Premium Suite] and a dropped feature – why oh why can you *no longer* round-trip an animated GIF? [GIF, after all, is the lowest common denominator of image accessibility in web speak] It seems ludicrous that Photoshop can produce/output an animated GIF in/from the new time-line panel but cannot render the frames when importing/opening the GIF file again at a later date (comes in flattened). Fortunately, I still have ImageReady from CS2 – the Adobe Technote suggests you should purchase Fireworks(!)…which isn’t part of the Design Premium Suite.
    If, as Eric suggests, Users could select the bundle ingredients application-wise, could it be even more granular in that you could select exactly what filters/plug-ins you require? Thus, reducing ‘payload’ for functionality you don’t need. If you eventually require it…purchase & download the filter/plug-in [akin to DW extensions].

  7. I certainly support the “Build your own Suite!” model. I’m still annoyed I had to buy a Suite — Design Premium — which gave me Flash, which I’ll never use, but not Fireworks, which would have been useful. Isn’t it more logical that a Suite with PS, ID and DW should have FW and not FL?

  8. Here’s a reference, John.
    Page 27 of Inside the Publishing Revolution – The Adobe Story by Pamela Pfiffner
    The hands-on nature of the startup was communicated to everyone the company brought onboard. For years, Warnock and Geschke hand-delivered a bottle of champagne or cognac and a dozen roses to a new hire’s house. The employee arrived at work to find hammer, ruler, and screwdriver on a desk, which were to be used for hanging up shelves, pictures, and so on.
    “From the start we wanted them to have the mentality that everyone sweeps the floor around here,” says Geschke, adding that while the hand tools may be gone, the ethic persists today.
    [Awesome–thanks, Chad! What a great dichotomy in messages. –J.]

  9. I would really appreciate the approach cited in Pfiffner’s book… unfortunately, where I work that would stir up legal issues ranging from skill-of-craft training to ergonomics evaluations to job duplication by contracted services.

  10. In regards to company culture:
    Often there is a great deal of romanticism when remembering the “good old days” of the early years. There is certainly something about a start-up that just cannot be matched by a monolithic company. There are a number of companies I think would have been interesting to have been part of for the first 5 – 10 years of their existence (such as Apple or Sierra On-line).
    Over time, that initial fervor will be diffused, especially as the old guard leaves and a newer generation arrives. But lucky are the companies who truly have a devoted following and fan base — not just by their customers, but by their employees. I can easily imagine someone wanting to go work for a company like Blizzard or Apple, but I’ve never heard anyone state that their life’s goal was to go work at an insurance company.
    In regards to Adobe’s culture:
    I don’t work at Adobe, so this is only my perception from the outside. Since the company was started by scientists, it was infused with that engineering spirit. However, after the torch was handed off to Chizen, the company seems to have become more focused on sales, rather than the engineering-side of things — and considering that Chizen’s background, this seems in line with the current leadership. This is not to say that sales aren’t important, but when the Almighty Dollar becomes the #1 priority, you better pack up and go home since you’ve lost sight of the original reason for your company (either that, or establish a career in banking, which truly is all about money).
    This is not solely a criticism about Adobe, but ANY company who loses sight of their original goals and reason for existence. If I am your customer and your are trying to sell me the latest and greatest, you better give me a reason that I not only need to upgrade, but I want to upgrade. Outside of Intel-compatibility, Photoshop CS3 doesn’t offer me enough reason to upgrade. Windows Vista is another fine example — plenty of people are sticking with Windows XP for now and they don’t see enough positives to Vista yet to justify the upgrade.
    And before this post gets thrown off too far along another tangent….

  11. You would think that, at a University or even in a high school, Acrobat would be second in use only to MS Word. My job is to teach very basic, free Adobe software training classes to faculty and staff at a large University in Ohio. After two years I can understand why Tim Huff’s Blog is called “I Did Not Know Acrobat Could Do That”. My people just don’t know what they are missing. Frankly, I’m only a few steps ahead of them because I can’t get my bosses to send me for comprehensive training. Ted Padova’s book and the CIB series help but it sure doesn’t help that the fantastic Total Training CS3 series includes training for Acrobat that is WINDOWS ONLY!
    I do miss the days when it felt like Apple and Adobe were in this together. As a former music teacher, Adobe made my first laser printer a must have and the best reason to eschew color printers. If the kids couldn’t read the music I gave them, it didn’t matter if it was in color or not!
    At any rate, I wanted you to know that I now spend the first 15 minutes of each class giving a “look what Acrobat can do” mini-lecture. You should see how wide the eyes get.

  12. Qucik Question:
    CS4 product overview.
    I Finally have CS2, and loving it.
    I would like to get trained in Web Design, as an illustrator with savvy design skills it’s becoming apparent I need to ad this to my skills.
    MY Adobe (geek) does not advise that I take courses in Dreamweaver, part of his reason being that Adobe will go BACK to GoLive in the CS4 suite, and everyone will soon be leaving the “beastly” Dreamweaver behind.
    Can you please advise?
    pepper t.

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