Always a coach

Doug Hennes '77

As the daughter of a high school basketball coach, Ann Winblad and her five siblings wore t-shirts bearing the words, "Little Coach."

So it’s easy to understand why Winblad smiled knowingly when Fortune Small Business magazine named her one of its 15 heroes and an inaugural member of its Hall of Fame. The headline on her story? "Coach."

As proud as she is of that recognition, a guy who used to roam the sidelines is even prouder.

"Really!" her dad, Wilbur Winblad, said when told about Fortune’s "Coach" reference. "That doesn’t surprise me. Ann always was a step ahead of everybody else as a kid. She always was the one in the neighborhood to get everybody together. She could be quiet, but she knew what she was doing all the time."

Just how is Ann Winblad a coach?

Fortune Small Business can tell you. Its November 2000 issue saluted Hummer Winblad Venture Partners for financing 80 software startups since Winblad and John Hummer started the San Francisco-based firm in 1989. The magazine said Winblad "has been confounding skeptics all of her life" and today makes her mark as she leads "green entrepreneurs by the hand, nurturing their business acumen and increasing their chances for success instead of handing over the money and running."

John Hummer can tell you. The former NBA player met Winblad in 1987 and they raised enough money — $35 million — to launch the nation’s first venture capital firm focused exclusively on software. Today, the firm has $900 million under management. "Ann is a fabulous mentor to CEOs — especially first-time CEOs," Hummer said. "She’s done this before, starting and running a business, and she knows how the investment business works. She also knows how to instill in CEOs that the best way to get ahead is through revenue growth."

And Steven Snyder can tell you. The president and chief executive officer of Eden Prairie-based Net Perceptions Inc. knew Winblad from their 1980s work at Microsoft — she as a consultant and he as a manager. She liked his plan for Net Perceptions, which creates merchandising and marketing programs for retailers, provided $1.5 million in start-up funding and serves on his board today. "Ann is the best coach a CEO could have," Snyder said. "She has experience — a typical Ann Winbladism is, ‘I’ve seen this movie before.’ She has incredible contacts and connections. And she is a cheerleader — she knows when to say, ‘Times are tough but you’ll get through it.’ "

Winblad was born in Red Wing and grew up in Rushford and Farmington, where her dad taught history, coached basketball and was a guidance counselor. He picked up his master’s degree in guidance counseling from St. Thomas in 1968 and encouraged his oldest daughter to look at the College of St. Catherine down the street.

Valedictorian of her high school class, Winblad enrolled at St. Kate’s under an experimental program in which she had to fulfill no general requirements but was free to develop her own course schedule. She majored in mathematics and business and took many of her classes at St. Thomas.

She studied Fortran programming as a January Term sophomore and did so well that she taught the course the next year when the regular professor became ill. She jokes that she survived the typical array of part-time jobs — hardware store bookkeeper, telephone company service representative and cocktail waitress — before graduating in 1973 and joining the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis as a systems programmer. She earned a master’s degree in education, with an emphasis on international economics, from St. Thomas in 1975.

Winblad and three co-workers left the Federal Reserve after a year and founded Open Systems Inc., which wrote accounting software for microcomputers. Times were lean in those early days. She moonlighted to generate enough money to live on, developing an accounting system for a vocational school, and the group even relied on food stamps to make ends meet.

"We were so poor!" she said. "We started the company on a $500 loan from my brother, and we ran the company out of my apartment for awhile. It was a true sweat equity operation."

One contract led to another, and over seven years Open Systems grew into the 27th-largest software company in the United States, with 120 employees and a sterling reputation. "We kept getting unsolicited offers to buy us," she said, "and we kept saying, ‘No, no, no.’ Then one day we decided to say, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ "

"Yes" translated into a $15 million sale in 1983 to Dallas-based UCCEL Corp. Winblad moved to California the following year to work as a consultant and write a book on object-oriented software, and met Hummer in 1987. It took two years to raise enough funds to launch Hummer Winblad, with 3M as the first limited partner. Others soon joined the fold, including IBM and St. Paul Companies.

Their first startup was for $750,000 to T/Maker, which developed graphic arts software for computers and grew to $20 million in revenue before Deluxe Corp. purchased it. No. 2 was Wind River Systems, a $1 million startup that went public in 1991 and today boasts a market capitalization of $4 billion. In the subsequent decade, 78 more companies received funding from Hummer Winblad and only five of them "blew up," in her words. Twenty companies went public and another 20 were acquired before going public.

The industry and the media are unsparing in their praise of the firm and Winblad. The Fortune Small Business Hall of Fame is just one of many honors in recent years; others came from Business Week (one of the elite 25 power brokers in Silicon Valley), Time Digital (one of technology’s 50 Cyber Elite), Vanity Fair (one of the top 50 leaders of the New Establishment) and Upside Magazine (one of the 100 most influential people in the digital age).

Such recognition is good for business, and it seems every budding software entrepreneur knocks on the Hummer Winblad door. "We got 527 plans our first year, mostly from people we know, and read them all," Winblad said. "We got 10,000 plans (in 2000) and funded 22."

Hummer Winblad is small at only 20 employees, including six partners who meet once a week to throw proposals into what Winblad calls a "mosh pit." They ask fundamental questions. Is the market opportunity large enough? Can we talk to potential customers? Will there be competition? The partners take careful risks characterized by willingness "to move to the edge," as Winblad describes it, "in order to get high returns."

"There is no science to the process, but there is discipline," she said. "When you do a bad deal, it’s because you are undisciplined. You don’t necessarily exercise poor judgment, but you are undisciplined in reaching your decision."

Hummer Winblad partners do more than review proposals and fund startups, however; they also are active board members. Winblad is on eight boards, including Net Perceptions, and considers herself an active director. "You have to be," she said. "You can’t be lazy. You have to be there for them. You have to be the head coach."

There’s that word again. And she knows, as does any good coach, that she can’t do the work alone.

"It can never be about one person," she said. "All of the partners have made Hummer Winblad successful. The software industry is very collegial, and we depend on lifting ourselves together. A team does the work, and a coach can help the team."

And Winblad most definitely is a coach. No longer just a "Little Coach" running around Rushford and Farmington, as her dad fondly remembers her.

Today, she’s The Coach.

Ann Winblad and St. Thomas• Earned a master's degree in education, with an emphasis in international economics, in 1975.• Elected to the board of trustees in 1998, and serves on the Academic Affairs and Physical Facilities Planning committees.• Received the John F. Cade Award for outstanding entrepreneuership from the Graduate School of Business in 1997.• Sees keeping a college education affordable as one of St. Thomas' primary challenges and believes in the importance of alumni contributing to scholarsip funds. "I worked a lot of jobs as an undergraduate student (when annual tuition was under $2,000), and I know the value of scholarships and grants. Without them, many students wouldn't be here today."