Passion for innovation paves the way to business success

Entrepreneurs are a breed apart.

“I don’t think people decide to be entrepreneurs,” says Bob Fabbio ’85 (M.S., computer science). “It’s in your DNA. You either have the courage and drive or you don’t.”

If that’s the case, then Fabbio has a good supply of entrepreneur chromosomes.

In 1989, Fabbio founded Tivoli Systems, which, after a successful IPO, was acquired by IBM in 1996 for $745 million. He later founded DAZEL Corp., which was sold to Hewlett-Packard for more than $180 million. Fabbio also co-founded Ventix Systems, which merged with Motive Communications in 2000, then went public.

His passion for developing businesses led him into five years as a venture capitalist. He established the Austin office of TL Ventures in 1998.

In recognition of his success in building world-class businesses, Fabbio was awarded the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 1997 and has subsequently served as a judge for the E&Y awards. He was on Digital South magazine’s 1999 list of “Most Influential People In the South’s New Economy” and Forbes magazine’s 2002 Midas List of the “Top 100 Technology Venture Investors (Technology’s Top 100 Dealmakers).”

Among his admirers is Jorge Diaz-Herrera, dean of RIT’s B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences.

“Bob continues to challenge conventional methods and applications by understanding his customers’ needs and the limitations imposed by their use of current technologies,” says Diaz-Herrera.

Starting at RIT

The roots of Fabbio’s success were nurtured at RIT, where he earned a graduate degree while working for Eastman Kodak Company. The database technology he developed as part of his master’s work became the basis of his first entrepreneurial idea, eventually put to use at Massachusetts-based Applix Inc. – “My first foray into a startup.” He was the 14th employee and stayed with the company for almost three years, until Prime Computers lured him away. Fabbio ultimately left Massachusetts and moved to Austin to work for IBM in 1987.

In the past two decades, Fabbio has accumulated vast insights into the entrepreneurial process. At this point in his life, he enjoys sharing what he’s learned. He has been invited to join the RIT Board of Trustees. Late last year, he spent a day at RIT giving talks about what it takes to launch and grow a successful business.

Fabbio’s lesson one: A terrific innovation is not enough.

“What you need to know,” he says, “is who will pay money for it?”

In order to succeed, the innovation – be it a better mousetrap or a better computer mouse – must create business opportunities and make money. That may seem obvious, but, says Fabbio, “Often, creative people focus solely on their invention and ignore the business aspects. That’s one of the biggest reasons why businesses fail.”

Success depends on the convergence of many elements – including vision, leadership, planning, execution, and – oh, yes – luck. But of all the key factors, Fabbio believes the human element is the most important.

“People are the key ingredient in any young enterprise,” he says. “The hardest part is finding the right people, people who fit and thrive in an entrepreneurial culture you care about.”

What does he look for?

Passion, confidence, courage, relentless pursuit of excellence, integrity, strong work ethic and a willingness to explore possibilities are some of the qualities he considers essential in a good employee.

A would-be entrepreneur also needs to do some serious soul-searching and honestly assess his or her personal resources.

“Launching a business takes everything you have, every day,” Fabbio continues. “It’s like training for the Olympics.”

On balance

The “reformed workaholic” did not take a vacation for 14 years, but he has learned the importance of balance. These days, he says he makes a point of taking vacations, taking weekends, stepping back and clearing his head – and he admits that for him, this is easier said than done.

“It can be difficult for people with technical backgrounds to expand and grow to have the skills needed to lead people,” he says. “People with technical backgrounds often have less developed social skills, and that would be me earlier on in my career. The whole area of human psychology – I spent a lot of time on that. It started with learning about me.”

These days, he pursues a variety of interests off the job: water sports, ballroom dancing, live music, exercise, reading, movies, fine dining, wine, architecture.

So far, none of those activities has enticed him to give up the business world.

Is there another startup in Fabbio’s future? He doesn’t rule it out.

“I’ve tried to retire twice. I used to say that I wanted to be financially able to retire by the time I was 45. I reached that goal at 38,” he says, “so I haven’t needed to work in quite a while.

“But I can’t imagine what I would rather do. It’s fun. It’s still fun. I love what I do. And I love giving back to those that have the courage and drive to pursue their dreams.”

The University Magazine, Spring 2006