The Unica Story: Yuchun Lee’s Journey from MIT Blackjack Team to IBM Acquisition

Because of his past, Yuchun Lee is legally barred from certain establishments. Luckily, IBM is not one of them.

Lee is the co-founder and CEO of Unica (NASDAQ: UNCA), the Waltham, MA-based marketing and analytics software firm bought by IBM for $480 million in cash earlier this month. Much has been made of Lee’s past experience as a key member of the MIT blackjack team in the 1990s. Not as much has been made of Lee’s vision, strategy, and decision-making in leading Unica from its founding in 1992 to its IPO in 2005—setting the stage for one of the bigger tech acquisitions in New England this year.

The company has survived four recessions and three wars over its 18 years. So, this is the story of how Unica went from being a small startup led by three MIT alums to a leading public company focused on selling marketing and analytics software—and a key purchase for IBM in a rapidly evolving business area. Along the way, of course, there were plenty of bumps in the road and important lessons learned.

“The hardest thing is having the emotional fortitude to have conviction in what you think is the right path,” Lee says. “It’s kind of like blackjack. You may get a string of bad hands, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have an edge on the market.”

Unica’s software helps companies across different industries—financial services, insurance, retail, telecommunications, travel, hospitality—do things like personalize their marketing campaigns, manage interactions with customers, and analyze the behavior of website visitors to optimize sales. IBM, for its part, has shown increasing interest in helping companies do marketing, sales, and commerce more efficiently. In the past few months, Big Blue has acquired AT&T’s Sterling Commerce (helping companies interact more efficiently with customers, partners, and suppliers) and Coremetrics (Web analytics). Unica appears to fit with this acquisition pattern.

Yuchun Lee (photo: Jon Chomitz for Unica)

Companies usually reflect the personality and drive of their founders, and Unica is no exception. Lee (see photo, left) is a born entrepreneur who came to the U.S. from Taiwan when he was 13. By then he was already “fascinated by the concept of commerce,” he says—in particular, “how to accumulate business and make more money.” He started a software company while in high school in Houston, TX, and says he got in his proverbial “10,000 hours” of experience with computers and programming during those formative years.

In the mid-1980s, Lee came to Boston to do his undergraduate and master’s degrees at MIT in electrical engineering and computer science. After graduating in 1989, he went to work for Digital Equipment Corporation, the venerable Route 128 computer company. (Lee laments that these days, billion-dollar fund managers on Wall Street, who look like they’re “just out of high school,” don’t even know what DEC was. “It’s quite sad,” he says.)

Lee left DEC and started Unica in 1992, together with two other MIT grads, David Cheung and Ruby Kennedy. In the beginning, Unica was not focused on marketing. Instead, the firm … Next Page »

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