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From Shakespeare to Software

Ask Gerri Sinclair how a guy named Bill affected her life, and she might reply: Which Bill? Sinclair, co-founder and CEO of software developer NCompass Labs, recently sold her Vancouver-based business to Microsoft for $36 million in cash. In return, the Redmond powerhouse gets to stamp its brand on NCompass software, which allows business customers to create, edit, and publish material onto Web sites. NCompass already has a following: Verizon, Hitachi, and Texaco are just a few of the companies that use its software to manage and archive content on their sites.

Bill Gates can't claim to be the first Bill in Sinclair's life, however. Back in the early 1980s, Sinclair was teaching the work of another Bill -- last name, Shakespeare -- at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. She wasn't the type of Elizabethan scholar who spent her off-hours reading sonnets and soliloquies. Instead, she wrote a regular column about developments in science and technology for the Canadian magazine Saturday Night.

"I've always been a high bandwidth person, even though we didn't use that terminology in those days," says Sinclair, now 54. "My father is an auto-wrecker, so I grew up taking things apart and putting them back together."

SENSING A OPENING. Eventually, Sinclair's interest in technology led her to cross disciplines at Simon Fraser, and she joined its education department, where she taught courses on how to use computers as learning tools. She persuaded the school to establish a multimedia research lab to develop ways to make learning interactive -- and roped in corporations such as IBM to donate equipment and money. Sensing a business opportunity for their tech knowhow, Sinclair and a handful of researchers left the lab in 1996 to start NCompass.

In the midst of the Internet browser wars between Microsoft and Netscape, Sinclair's small outfit built a "plug-in" so that Microsoft's Web-development tools and Office applications could run on Netscape's browser. Sinclair concedes that the plug-in wasn't a huge revenue generator for NCompass. But it got the company "front and center in terms of the emerging ecosystem of the Internet," she says. Indeed, the technology helped snag the company's first client: Microsoft. It also helped secure venture-capital funding for NCompass and the development of its current line of content-management software.

As in all ecosystems, guppies like NCompass get swallowed up by larger players. Most of NCompass's 160 employees are joining Microsoft. Sinclair plans to help with the transition but hasn't decided what she'll do after that. Recently, BusinessWeek Online reporter Jennifer Gill spoke with Sinclair about her career switch. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: How did a Shakespeare professor wind up running a software company?

A: My son decided that he wanted to buy a game machine [in the early 1980s]. My husband, who's a poet, had been inspired by word processing as a way to customize and self-publish his work. It was the Jewish mother in me who joined in [and said] that the family should get a computer. I could do word processing, my son could play games, my husband could write his poems, and we would all learn programming.

"I went back to night school for an adult education program in computer science"

We invested in a Commodore Vic 20. It cost $300, and it came with 3K of memory, which we soon upgraded with an extra 5K for $150. My son and I sat down to learn basic programming. We typed in [the code] for a game that was printed in a Commodore magazine [but] the first time I typed "run," nothing happened. So we looked at all of the commas and semicolons [in the code], ditched a few, typed "run," and still nothing happened. Then I looked at the patterns and noticed that a couple of them were out of whack. I played around with the instructions, without knowing what I was doing, typed "run," and it worked. The screen transformed into a very low-resolution snake that went around and ate Xs.

I thought: Wow, this is software! I realized it was going to have an incredible effect on everything we do -- how we learn, entertain ourselves, and do business. At that point, I decided to change careers. My second son had just been born, and I had taken time off from teaching. I went back to night school for an adult education program in computer science.

Q: Once you left academic life, did you seek out funding for NCompass?

A: We took a seed round of slightly over $1 million in March of '96. Our VCs obviously [wanted] a business plan [but] the plug-in for Netscape wasn't something that you would want to stake the future of a company on. So I told them: "There is no business plan." They said: "But you have to give us [one]." I said: "Unfortunately, I would be making it up. It would be all smoke and mirrors. If you're investing, you're investing in a group of smart people who really understand the Internet and the direction it's going."

Q: Did that scare away the VCs?

A: Some backed off, but there were a number who were still interested. And we didn't take that much money -- we raised it with the expectation that, within 10 months, we would be back with a business plan. Those first 10 months were focused on intensive market research, [figuring out] what the business models were that would be viable on the Internet, and what our technology was suited to develop. Back then, it seemed that there was obvious potential for Internet applications in real estate, finance, video games, all of which were directed toward the consumer.

But as we looked, it was very difficult to find a business model that made sense in the consumer market. We didn't feel that our technology was well-suited to advertising, nor did we know very much about the advertising industry. That's when we looked at the business marketplace, and there were very well-defined revenue models, particularly in the client-server market.

Based on my background as a writer, I realized that there was going to be a huge problem as more businesses turned to the Web to publish information to customers, partners, and employees. People would need tools to manage the growing volume of content -- content that needed to be personalized for different users, content that required a workflow, content that had rights associated with it so certain people could change [things like] logos and others couldn't.

We built a business plan around a content-management solution, focused on the Microsoft platform, where our expertise was. We took that business plan and raised $5 million in '97, and we were oversubscribed. We cut it off at about $8.5 million.

"There's no way you should be the CEO...because No. 1, you're a woman"

Q: Do you think that it's more difficult for women to attract financing?

A: Yes. There are so few women who actually have taken a company from concept all the way through to an initial public offering. When a company is starting up and VCs are looking for a CEO, there are very few to choose from among women.

It's a self-perpetuating situation -- there are too few women, but novices can't get in. I was fortunate because my VCs took a chance on someone who was untested. One potential investor in the seed round said: "There's no way that you should be the CEO of the company, because No. 1, you're a woman, and No. 2, you have no business experience."

Q: What did you say?

A: It only made me more determined to take this thing and run with it. At that point, he was trying to persuade me to be the CTO [chief technology officer], as opposed to the CEO.... If I had known what I was really signing up for, I would have had to think twice. I'm not sure I would have had the courage to go for it. Intellectually, I knew that [being CEO] would take everything I had. But I didn't know how much it was going to take, in terms of the never-letting-up pressure on so many fronts.

It takes over your life, and I've always been a person who has been able to juggle many things. I was lucky that my family was supportive. I was constantly on the road, working in hotel rooms. I have a huge accumulation of vacation days I haven't taken over the last five years.

Q: Were you planning to take NCompass public?

A: The dream for our board was to go public. We were doing extremely well. We were exceeding our revenue targets, building out the business, moving from direct sales into a channel-based model, and moving into international. All of our business targets were being met in spades, and so we were projecting that we would be ready to go public by the fall of last year. Of course, the bubble burst. We reevaluated our plans and were considering raising more financing. Then this opportunity [to be acquired by Microsoft] came. To have the largest software company in the world take this technology is a great validation of our efforts.

Q: Do you think a glass ceiling exists for women?

A: It's obvious to me that it exists, but I don't think it's because men want it to exist. [The glass ceiling is] there because there are so few [women] to choose from [for senior roles]. One thing that really annoyed me is, when I recruited my senior management team, I asked my recruiters to send me women candidates. I didn't get any. Now all of my senior managers are men. They're wonderful guys, and they were the best candidates in each case. But I sure would have loved to have stronger women candidates to choose from.

"A serial entrepreneur? It's like a serial monogamist"

Q: What's the remedy for that?

A: It's really important to encourage women to work toward management positions. The Internet itself has been a great leveler. When there were 4,000 CEO positions open, it was much easier to jump rank, and for women to take on very senior positions.

Q: What would you tell a woman to do if she has her eye on the CEO's office?

A: The same things that guys do. Have determination. Have total focus. Seek out consensus among your reports and with your peers. If there's a stalemate, then, of course, the buck stops with you. You have to be prepared to make tough decisions and take responsibility. [If] you have the support of the people who report to you, and you have the support of your peers, you are going to be recognized as an effective leader. That's really what it's all about -- if you're perceived to be an effective leader, then you'll get a chance to prove it.

Q: Do you consider yourself a serial entrepreneur?

A: A serial entrepreneur? It's like a serial monogamist. I'm going to help with the company's transition [to Microsoft]. Ever since I was in elementary school, I've known what I was going to do next, [but] right now, there's nothing that's driving me as far as my career goals are concerned. That could be because I'm tired. I have a huge pent-up need to turn off the circuits, and find out who I am when I'm not a CEO..

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