SM: How did the circumstances of your upbringing transfer into your professional life?
SP: That forged in our minds the sacrifices our parents were making for us. The least we could do for them was study. I wanted very badly to make them proud. My brother is now a lawyer and my sister has a PhD in clinical psychology and is a professor. I am the rebel because I was supposed to go to medical school.
SM: Where did you go to school?
SP: I went to Berkeley and I actually published an article on human rights and doctors in JAMA when I was 20. It dealt with the detailing of torture and doctors involvement. That resulted in the Instanbul Protocol which banned physicians from being involved with any kind of torture. In Turkey the state government was using doctors to torture Kurds. I could have gone to medical school but I fell in love with entrepreneurship and technology.
SM: Where you studying business or computer science at Berkeley?
SP: I was studying molecular cellular biology. Immigrant families want their sons to be doctors, engineers or lawyers.
SM: What did you do when you came out of Berkeley?
SP: My senior year I had a great job getting paid more than my father was making. He was very upset when I decided to leave the job and start my first company. He was expecting me to go into medicine and become a doctor. I had to do what I felt my calling was.
SM: Where did this vision come from?
SP: When I was a kid I really wanted an Apple computer. They were very expensive then. My father worked overtime for months and saved up $2600 in cash to buy the Apple 2C. That was my first computer and it was a huge thing.
After that I went to a science and math magnet school called Montgomery Blair. There was also a communications magnet and I took classes in both. Everything was there and I was exposed to a lot of ideas. Even my major at Berkeley was interdisciplinary.
The idea for my first company, WebOS, came in 1993 when I sat down in front of Mosaic at a computer lab at Berkeley. I realized right away that it was going to change the world. At the time I was doing malaria research and was using the library search system. I realized I could search the whole web for information and I found a Japanese researcher who was doing research on the same peptide that I was working on.
It was his research that had nothing to do with malaria which led me to realize that this particular peptide would kill red blood cells with malaria. It was that moment of realizing that this was much more powerful. I felt if I could do things on the technology side that could help thousands of other researchers find cures for diseases and connect the dots in ways that were much better than me spending the next 10 years of my life training to become a doctor where I would only do things one piece at a time.
Me and my friends came together around this idea that the web itself is the platform. Applications would all migrate there. We were right, it was just a timing issue. We built applications which looked and felt like Windows applications just for the browsers. Out of that came HyperOffice, and I am still a shareholder there. They have 250,000 small business subscribers and are cash flow positive.
SM: How long was that startup?
SP: It lasted three and a half years.
SM: What role did you play?
SP: I was the CEO.
SM: Did you fund that with your own money?
SP: Initially it started in our garage for one year. When I quite my job I had no money so I worked as a security guard at night for $8.00. My mom bought me an LG mini laptop which would let you dial into the Internet. I would sit there on my midnight to 8AM shift writing the business plan on this LG. During the day I was working with my co-founder.