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The Risk of 'Sitting Still'

Asher Waldfogel, CLA alumnus and entrepreneur
December 12, 2014

Asher Waldfogel

Asher Waldfogel
Asher Waldfogel
The company:
Silcon Valley Start-ups

The mission:
Computer interactive
designs for the emerging
“collaborative economy”

Silicon Valley might not be the place you’d expect a philosopher from Minnesota to put down roots. Then again, not all philosophy majors want to launch their own technology companies. Enter Asher Waldfogel, a native Minnesotan who entered the U at age 15 and graduated with a BA in philosophy in 1979 (and later earned an MA in philosophy from MIT).

With a resume that includes a couple of software engineering positions and three start-up firms, Waldfogel said that he was always interested in technology subjects. In college however, he enrolled in all the engineering classes, but didn’t really enjoy the career orientation.

“Just getting a degree to get out and get a job seemed like a waste of four years so I thought, ‘What’s the opposite of that?’ I took a couple of classes from [the late philosophy professor] John Dolan who was in love with his subject. He taught it beautifully and enthusiastically, and brought passion to how he taught. I always thought it was important to get exposed to topics (like philosophy and history) to have something to think about and reflect on later in life.”

That reflection paid off. Waldfogel—who was so inspired by his mentor Dolan that he endowed a professorship in his name—combined his passions for the humanities and his interest in technology to eventually run several high-tech companies. The ideal place to do that in the mid-1990s was San Francisco Bay, the heady hub of high-tech innovation, start-up venture capital, and creative entrepreneurs.

“What’s risk? For me risk is sitting
around. I don’t see action as risk.
Even if you guess wrong, you learn
things.”

Waldfogel moved to Silicon Valley after a series of computer jobs in which he specialized in networking and communications, an “accident,” he says, at a time when these areas were the “backwater” of an industry focused on operations like artificial intelligence and computer graphics. When he moved there, he brought with him not only this technical background but equally important, his philosophical instinct to see the bigger picture.

“Certainly I didn’t have a crystal ball that said that the Internet was the next big thing,” he says. “I just thought that connecting computer networks together was going to be important. How were we going to do that? It turned out that I had developed the skills that were relevant to where the big business trend was at that particular instant.”

Obviously Waldfogel wasn’t the only one thinking about how to connect computer systems. But fewer people were thinking about how to ease the traffic jam created as more consumers wanted access to the information and services made possible by these connections. Waldfogel and his like-minded colleagues were the first to identify the problem and, in 1996, they launched Redback Networks to offer a solution: a subscriber management system that could accommodate these large numbers of people and provide high-speed Internet access around the clock.

“No one was thinking about that,” he says, “We relieved the pressure.”

Within two years, the company had grown to 50 employees and Waldfogel had a new idea emerging. He went on to create Tollbridge Technologies, which filled a niche for creating gateway and access equipment to deliver voice communications. This new company quickly grew to 250 employees and soon became the leading supplier in the market.

Then, after a five-year run at Tollbridge Technologies, Waldfogel launched Peakstream, aimed at the high-performance computing market, especially in oil and gas, defense, and finance industries. Peakstream was sold to Google within two years. A key to success he says is understanding trends and timing especially in Silicon Valley, where everything happens quickly and nothing is permanent.

All of these have been risky ventures that required a combination of the right time and right place, but also right person—in this case, someone born with an entrepreneur’s passion for innovation and risk and someone who had the ability to see the “big picture”.

Waldfogel sees the liberal arts as fertile ground indeed for developing this mindset. “When else can you go to college and get a general education,” he says. “Don’t be shortsighted; take calculus, take physics, take biology and philosophy and history. Be one of the people imagining new ways to occupy the planet. Does anyone think that four years of mere job training is going to give better insight into how to occupy the planet? I don’t think so.”

After all, Waldfogel asks, “What’s risk? For me risk is sitting around. I don’t see action as risk. Even if you guess wrong, you learn things. That’s not risk. The real risk is waiting--like waiting for Godot. But Godot never comes.

What he says:

“Some people think you can teach “jobs classes” in college, that you can get a job and then learn things as you go along. The danger is that after you get the job, you don’t pay attention to the fact that the world has shifted. You see people get stuck in their own spot.”

“It looks like we’re moving from an engineering/innovation-led world to a design/innovation-led world, that the hot field of the future is not so much computer science as interaction design. Those are the companies that have the kinds of ideas you want to pursue.”

“The breakthroughs are coming from the fact that people want to share their ideas. Everything going on now is in terms of a collaborative/consumption economy. These are not technical innovations.”