It was 1979. Sandra Learner, a young Computational Mathematics graduate from Stanford met Leonard Bosack, in the Stanford computer lab. In a place where nerd culture was in its extreme, Leonard seemed quite different. His clothes were clean, he bathed, and used silverware, she thought. Another girl would have had higher expectations, but that was Stanford, and it was enough for Sandra. She was enchanted.
It was budding love, and something that needed nurturing, and time being spent together. However, Leonard, who managed the computer science department’s computers, and Sandra, who managed the computer system for the Graduate School of Business, worked at opposite ends of Stanford University campus. A campus that was 8000 acres big. They could send e-mails back and forth using the campus Local Area Network (LAN), but their two computers, which ran on different operating systems, could not communicate directly. Using an updated version of an IMP (Interface Message Processor), Leonard, Sandra, and two Stanford staff members ran network cables between the buildings and connected them. They improved the connectivity of the original device so that it worked better with unrelated networks, computer systems, and protocols. Pretty soon, word got out, and other universities began asking for these new, improved devices, which were called Multiprotocol Routers.
The couple realized the commercial potential of the new development and approached Stanford with a proposal to sell the routers commercially. Because Stanford is a nonprofit organization, it could not enter into a commercial venture, and therefore it declined and forbade the group from selling the technology. However, the couple decided to go ahead with the commercialization. Meanwhile the love culminated into the couple marrying in 1980.
A tight budget is always good training ground for an entrepreneur, and the husband-and-wife team put that training to good use when they decided to quit their jobs at the university and commercialize their computer networking invention under the name -
in 1984, a name inspired from the city of San Francisco. Their logo, was based on the Golden Gate Bridge of the city.
They financed their venture by mortgaging their house and persuading friends and relatives to work for deferred pay and sold their first router in 1986.
At first they sold mostly to fellow engineers via Arpanet, an electronic grapevine used by many universities. But they soon realized that not just universities wanted their routers. Even the Proctor & Gamble in San Francisco wanted to talk with the Proctor & Gamble in Des Moines. Within the first year, the company was in danger of going broke. In addition, they had to beat back a demand from Stanford University for $11 million in “license” fees for the right to sell an invention Bosack developed while still on the
Stanford payroll. Stanford eventually settled for about $150,000 plus free routers and support service.
With heavy hearts, the couple approached Donald Valentine, the venture capitalist who funded Apple Computers, for help. They had to surrender the controlling stock in the new-born company. With this, a lot of things changed. Cisco’s initial managers had been a collection of Sandra’s and Leonard’s friends-a 70-year-old retired physicist, for instance, was a plant manager. The new chief executive, John Morgridge replaced them with more experienced hands. Morgridge also built up a direct sales force to woo the corporate accounts. Within a few years, till 1990, the sales had jumped to $300 million. However, Sandra did not get along with Morgridge, and he fired her in 1990, at which point, Leonard, also quit. The two immediately sold their founder shares in Cisco for an estimated $170 million. Like a lot of start-ups, Cisco had its share of growing pains. However, unlike many of them, it was built on an idea strong enough to survive the early turmoil.
P.S.: This story, is a Silicon Valley legend. It is of course based on facts, but the development of any device is not just one person’s handy work. Different parts of the system were built and contributed by different people. This version is highly opposed by Stanford, who alleged that Bosnack copied their design. There is however no indication regarding why they dropped their charges and agreed for a settlement instead. Meanwhile, the legend lives on in the corridors of Cisco and Silicon Valley. Unfortunaley, Leonard and Sandra are now separated.