A builder and creator, Greg Olsen has started two companies and acquired eight others.
Greg Olsen will tell you he’s just an average guy, that he prefers “Greg” to “Gregory.” And he’ll do all this in a room in which a portrait of him as a Russian cosmonaut hangs. He’ll recount his time as a troubled high school student who was in and out of the Bergen County court system. Or the time he charmed his way into a closed trigonometry summer class at Fairleigh Dickinson University after having failed the subject at Ridgefield Park High School.
There are the typical struggles to communicate with his father. Then there’s the safe, secure job he landed at Sarnoff Corp. in West Windsor after receiving his doctorate in material science at the University of Virginia. Just like your average guy, he grew increasingly frustrated with his job and the way the company was being run. So he started his own company, Epitixx. When that company sold for $12 million in 1990, he started another company, Sensors Unlimited. When he sold that company in 2000 for $600 million, he parlayed his earnings and became a venture capitalist.
And he still managed to set enough aside to be the third civilian to travel to the International Space Station. That’s right. Olsen is just your average guy. Except he’s not. “I was convicted of juvenile delinquency in Bergen County Court, barely got out of high school,” he said. “If you look at the yearbook, I was just another guy.” More than anything, these early experiences taught the venture capitalist that plans get complex and there is no straight path to success. It’s up to the individual if an event is a setback or failure, Olsen said. “I still view myself as kind of an average guy and, if I can do it, I think everybody else can,” he said. “What separates me from everybody else is the internal drive. Maybe one singular characteristic I have is not giving up, in spite of the fact that I should have.”
But he also doesn’t discount the role chance can play: In 1962, just two years before the United States became directly involved in the Vietnam War, Olsen almost joined the Army. “I was only 17 when I graduated high school, so I went and got the papers from the Army recruiter, came back to my father and said I needed his signature,” he said. “Normally he’d say, ‘Why do you want to do something stupid like that?’ – we’d get into an argument, I would’ve forged his signature and gone into the Army. “For some reason unbeknownst to me, he said ‘Why don’t you try college for six months and I’ll sign the paper.’ He was never reasonable like that.” So, he applied to FDU’s engineering program, to which he was originally denied due to his failing grades in high school trigonometry. He managed to talk the professor of a summer-session trigonometry class into letting him enroll late.
Ultimately, he got an A in the class and was accepted to the program. “A lot of the things in my life have been like that. It’s just serendipitous: You come to a fork and you take it. No big plan, no strategy,” he said. “I was never the best in anything. I got a degree in physics, but, believe me, I struggled in every class.” After fighting for his degrees, Olsen landed what was a cushy job at Sarnoff Corp. “Having a Ph.D. and getting a job at the Sarnoff labs was nirvana. I thought I’d work there until I was 65,” he said. He lasted 11 years.
During his time at there, Olsen had worked on developing fiber optic devices and observed as Sarnoff, then known as RCA, tried to commercialize the technology. As he watched them struggle, he saw an opportunity. “These guys were tripping over their feet and I thought I could do it better, faster, cheaper myself,” he said. Knowing he couldn’t do that in the bounds of RCA, Olsen left and started his own company in 1984. At his going away party, his former colleagues expressed a fair amount of concern about his decision, but Olsen was confident in his drive and knew he would make his new situation work. “I didn’t lose one wink of sleep over it,” he said. “They were factually correct, but I knew I’d tend bar or drive a taxi. Fortunately, it wasn’t necessary, but I’m sure I would’ve done it if I had to.”
Without a formal business education, the first experiences amounted to a great deal of trial and error. “The first venture capitalist I went to said, ‘Let me see your business plan,’ and I said, ‘What’s that?’ I didn’t know what one was,” Olsen said. “I probably made just about every mistake you can make.” This is where Olsen credits his drive. Without it, these setbacks could have stopped him in his tracks and amounted to a failure reminiscent of his high school days. “I differentiate between failures and mistakes: Failure, to me, is the end; it’s over. It’s like, in trigonometry, when I got that F in red ink at the end of the year,” he said. “But you can make countless mistakes along the way and still pass the class.”
But few things have changed over time: With age comes wisdom, which means – for Olsen – he’s wise enough to know he doesn’t always have the right answer. “People think I’ve been doing this 30 years and I probably make fewer mistakes, but the answer is I probably make more mistakes now because I don’t dwell on things as much,” he said. “You realize after a while that most decisions in business are not clear-cut; it’s not like an equation.”
Of the 10 companies in which he has invested, Olsen would define two as failures in the literal sense. And with each failed company, he will admit to looking at the product and not the leadership. “With the two failures, I fell in love with the technology and I didn’t focus on the people,” he said. “Looking back now, it’s plain as day.” And while trying moments can really prove the leadership of a company, Olsen doesn’t celebrate failure. “Often, when you read this Silicon Valley stuff, it says it’s good when you fail and I don’t think investors like failing,” he said. “It’s not, ‘Oh, you lost me $3 million! Good learning experience!’ I’m thinking, ‘I’m angry, you lost my money.’ Now, it was my risk and I took it, but I’m not happy about it. “I certainly wasn’t with the two investments that failed me.”
With the right people in place, Olsen can operate exactly the way he likes to: hands off. “I find the more you stand back, the more likely someone is to come to you for advice,” he said. “I’ll visit the office every once in a while, but that’s more social than anything.” Given the circumstances of his life, “hands off” for Olsen has even taken on cosmic meaning: During his 10-day trip to the international space station in 2005, he gave his partner, Marshall Cohen, power of attorney to conduct the sale of one of their businesses. “Those things have timing and when a business deal is about to get done, do it,” he said. “The longer you wait, the more likely something is to happen.”