Enfish Technology co-founder and Chief Executive Louise J. Wannier is an accidental entrepreneur. As an astronomy student at Caltech in the 1970s, she seemed headed toward a scientific career. But a summer spent probing the isotope variation of the element samarium ended that.
She obtained an MBA from UCLA and went on to Ernst & Young, where she worked as a consultant for six years. She co-founded her first company in Sweden, where she moved in 1986 when her scientist husband obtained a two-year university post there. Skillware resulted from contacts she made with Swedish academics and entrepreneurs interested in educational software.
Wannier returned to California in 1988. A family connection led her to Gemstar Development Corp., developer of VCR Plus. Her father, a Caltech professor, had arranged a meeting between Wannier and a former student of his, Gemstar co-founder Henry Yuen.
As Gemstar’s vice president for business development, Wannier tapped contacts from UCLA and E&Y; to reach key newspaper executives. When Gemstar went public in 1995, Wannier’s stake was worth about $30 million.
Wannier left Gemstar in 1994 after successfully launching VCR Plus in Europe, a two-year undertaking that kept the mother of four children--now ages 12 to 18--away from home three weeks a month. She had risen to become CEO of Gemstar-Europe.
Wannier formed Pasadena-based Enfish with contacts she had made at a gathering of entrepreneurs at Caltech. The 7-year-old company--whose name is derived from enter, find, and share--markets software that tracks and sorts e-mail, text files and other data. Though its product has received good reviews from technical publications, Enfish, with 45 employees and revenue of less than $10 million, is not yet profitable. The company has raised capital of $20 million, including $16 million from Intel Corp., Los Angeles-based Black Diamond Ventures and other outside investors, along with undisclosed contributions from Wannier.
Wannier, 44, talked with Times staff writer Denise Gellene last week. Here is an edited transcript.
Times: One thing that stands out about your career is the importance of contacts.
Wannier: I would say a lot of starting a business is exploration. You meet somebody who leads you to somebody who leads you to somebody, and then you find your match.
I had some starting points. [In Sweden,] I happened into a circumstance where I met some people and they wanted to get something going in educational technology. I thought that sounded really interesting.
[With Gemstar,] I’d known Henry since I was 13. My dad was his advisor. When I came back to the States, my father reintroduced me to Henry. The three of us had lunch and he handed me his nondisclosure agreement.
It is different from networking, where people go to big parties and try to network. I’m not that kind of person. I’m not comfortable in those gatherings. I have to have a context for the network and not just network for itself. But I can have several contexts at a time, and many people do.
Times: Is it hard for a female entrepreneur to raise capital?
Wannier: I have a number of young female friends who are having a hugely difficult time getting funding, but so are men right now.
What I observe is that a lot of funding decisions happen through networking. In order to get heard by the top venture groups, you’ve got to have a connection that breaks through. I think that women don’t typically have the peer network.
We are all talking about relationship marketing now. We have more information hitting us everyday, and it is the relationship that cuts through. If you don’t have a strong relationship or network of relationships, how are you going to get through?
It is only in the last couple years that I’ve become much better networked. I’ve been helped by a number of women extending their networks to me. Susan Paley at [Los Angeles-based] Shelter Ventures, for example, recently introduced me to business development and financing contacts who we are in discussions with.
I’ve started to put together a small network of technology entrepreneurs and people involved in building companies in Los Angeles. It is about half male, half female. I’m purposely trying to create balance.
I’m involved with other women in starting a Los Angeles chapter of Grace Net, a network of women involved in technology companies based in the Bay Area.
Times: In the case of Enfish, gender is not the only issue.
Wannier: The market was ready for VCR Plus. Sixty-five percent of households had VCRs. No one had the Internet in 1993 [when Enfish was founded]. It has taken the market a while to see [the Internet] emerging. But it is emerging. [Investors] are contacting us and sitting down and doing due diligence.
Times: Where are the opportunities for women in technology?
Wannier: I don’t think that most people in high tech pay much attention to gender. It is an area where ability really stands for something. Unfortunately, whatever the industry, the administrative side is the easiest side of the business. When you don’t have an advanced degree, an administrative or manufacturing or office function is the way in. You work your way up.
We don’t have a huge number of women on the staff here. About one-third are women. There are three of us on the executive team. Our business development staff is 50% female. On the technical staff, we have six women out of about 30 employees.
Times: Why so few female programmers?
Wannier: Not that many women go into programming as a career. I don’t think our number is disproportionately small.
Times: What advice do you have for entrepreneurs?
Wannier: When we talk to entrepreneurs, we tell them you have to have a complete solution. It is not good enough to have part of the product, you have to have all the peripheral environmental stuff around it to make it a complete solution.
[VCR Plus is a device that made it easier for consumers to record television programs using a numerical code assigned to the show. Newspapers that paid to print the VCR Plus codes liked it because it increased the value of their TV listings to readers.]
The other thing about VCR Plus is we got a lot of no’s from newspapers before yeses. Know when to take no for an answer if it really should be a no. But if it should be a yes--if you know in your heart it shouldn’t be a no--find another way. Find another person to talk to. Find a way to get to the right people. We knocked our heads against the wall for a long time to get Gemstar going. It took a year, but it was very intense.
Times: How do you balance your career with parenting four children?
Wannier: I think you can have kids. You can have two spheres in your life. It is really hard to be one-dimensional. If you work and work and work and nothing else, I don’t think there is a richness.
There are things I’ve given up. I don’t have hobbies and don’t have time for other things. My life is my work and my family and there isn’t much time for much else.
There is more of a merging between life and work. I mean to me it is just life. Sometimes you have a phone call in the morning because you’re dealing with someone internationally. Sometimes you’re taking off at 10 in the morning to go to your kid’s school and sign some papers in the attendance office. There is just this merging and there is not eight hours of work and eight hours of home and eight hours of sleep. You just see it all as one.
There are times when I don’t see my kids as much as I really want to, and that is part of the constant battle and constant struggle.
You need a support structure around you. The man I was married to for a long time is remarried, and we have a really good, total parenting relationship. I have to say my kids are lucky to have three parents.
Times: What books have influenced you?
Wannier: There are a host of books that have had an influence. I’ve read “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies” (by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, HarperCollins, 1994) a couple of times. It is about companies that have been really successful over the last 100 years.
It says if you want to build a “clock-building” company--which is a company that is built by the people within the company rather than a single leader, and has longevity that stems beyond the original entrepreneur--you have to develop a core purpose and values that [determine] what fits the company’s focus and what doesn’t.
Times: What are Enfish’s core values?
Wannier: We are still developing that. The thing I’ve always wanted to do is make a difference. I want to make sure that the products and services that we’re building make a difference in people’s lives.
Our focus is on making technology that simplifies people’s computing lives.