Those of us who worked at Linear Technology Corporation have heard Bob Swanson tell the story about how LTC was founded. So we are often surprised to read stories that mention other people as founders. Some are technically true but not part of the story we know.
How LTC Started
It’s Swanson’s story, but I’ll quote from his oral history transcript by David A. Laws (Computer History Museum). At 42, Bob Swanson was the youngest VP at National Semiconductor and was frustrated by the matrix management structure that could veto decisions on how he ran his business. As he tells it, “…one day, I had a deal that just broke the camel’s back. I said to Bob [Dobkin], we shared cubicles together, and he asked me why I was frustrated, and I told him. And he said we ought to start our own company. That’s the day it happened, yeah.”
Bob Swanson and Bob Dobkin stayed with the company, as employees #1 and #2, until the very end. But they weren’t the only founders.
Swanson continues, “So we talked about it, and we realized we needed more than two of us, so we exposed the idea to Brian Hollins. He was [Bob’s] counterpart running a factory; he was a really good fab guy, test guy, whatever. He was in. And then I guess he [Dobkin] talked to Widlar, and Widlar decided for himself he should be in.”
Here’s where it gets muddy. Bob Widlar was in from the very beginning but he was mostly in Mexico in those years and he never participated in any of the planning.
Then, “…well we need someone in sales and marketing, so we asked a guy named Brent Welling …and he said yes.”
It was those four who are consistently considered the founders: Swanson, Dobkin, Hollins, and Welling.
The planning took three or four months. Planning consisted of these guys going to Swanson’s house to drink beer and shoot pool. The plan was pretty simple according to Swanson: “Bob [Dobkin] was going to design circuits, Brian was going to make them, Brent was going to sell them, and my job was to get the money.”
“Anyway, the long and the short of is that after playing pool and drinking beer for about three months, Brent Welling one night said, ‘Hey, Bob, are we going to actually start a company, or are we just going to drink beer and shoot pool?’ And like I usually do when I’m impetuous, I jump off the bridge and hope there’s warm water below.” “Anyway, so that’s basically how it began.”
As I understand it, from a legal perspective, Bob Widlar was considered a founder which entitled him to founder’s stock. Someone can correct me if I’m wrong. He was hired before the company was founded. Bob Widlar, while not one of the pool-shooting founders, is a founder nonetheless. He’s just absent from Swanson’s story. In my opinion, Widlar’s credit as a founder is less deserved (but technically correct) than his impact on the late-1960s turn-around of National Semiconductor (he joined prior to Charlie Sporck). That’s a different story for a different day.
Swanson was really careful not to hire people from National Semiconductor to avoid getting sued. He got sued anyway, but that’s yet another story. Widlar was independent at the time — meaning he was only consulting with National, not a full-time employee. Saying Widlar was “independent” is a bit of an understatement!
Another person hired before the company was founded was George Erdi. He, therefore, is also considered a founder and received founder’s stock.
According to Swanson, “Now George Erdi is a great story. I was at a National sales meeting, and some of the sales guys were complaining about we need to put out more new products and so forth, and I was saying come on, we’ve got the two best designers, who are Widlar and Dobkin, what are you talking about? And they said, well, there’s a guy over at PMI who some people would disagree maybe you’ve got the best designers. ‘What’s that guy’s name?’ It’s George Erdi. I didn’t think anything of it.”
“A year later, when we started Linear, before we raised the money, just when it was announced in of these advance pieces, I got a call from George Erdi. Had I not heard the story from the salesmen, I would have probably blown him off. I didn’t know who he was. You guys all knew who he was, but I didn’t. But I could tell that four or five really good, well-known designers in analog was the difference between a company with success and a company that might not make it. So we worked hard to get him on board.”
I’ve also seen references to Jim Williams as a founder. This is not true. He joined about a year later. To paraphrase something Bob Dobkin said, Jim was applications and we didn’t have any products yet so we didn’t need applications.
What they did have was a team of the world’s best analog circuit designers. Once the products started to come out, Jim Williams started to write application notes. He became as famous as those circuit designers — some would argue more famous.
As Swanson summarized it, “I would say for the first ten years, Linear’s persona wasn’t the house that Bob Swanson built — it was the company that Jim Williams worked for, the company that Dobkin worked for.”
Linear Technology Corporation was founded in 1981 and was a great company. That’s the important thing. I’m just happy for the opportunity to share some of the old stories.