Qualcomm Founder Irwin Jacobs Urges Entrepreneurs to “Keep Running Fast”

Irwin Jacobs is the chairman and founder of Qualcomm, the San Diego-based giant in digital wireless communications. With sales of more than $10 billion a year, Qualcomm now has a market valuation of roughly $66 billion—more than McDonald’s.

Yet Jacobs, who will celebrate his 75th birthday later this month, seemed remarkably unpretentious for a wireless industry tycoon when he appeared at a recent UC San Diego event. He was the main attraction at the Oct. 1 kickoff for UCSD’s 3rd Annual Entrepreneur Challenge. The yearlong challenge is run by UCSD students, and combines a series of campus-wide entrepreneurial competitions, educational workshops and social events.

Jacobs, who moved to San Diego from MIT almost 50 years ago, still comes across like a professor of electrical engineering, which is how he began his career, and makes self-deprecating comments about his New England accent.

“I still say pahrk the cahr in the gahrage,” Jacobs said to the amusement of more than 300 UCSD students and others.

The San Diego billionaire also arrived by himself and mingled with students before and after the evening event. Another sign of Jacobs’ sensibility was his willingness to tell his life story, which he no doubt has recounted many times before.

What came through his talk, though, was his inherent curiosity and ability to learn deeply about new subjects. He told one anecdote about learning everything he could about the military specifications that were holding up a government contract, to the point where he identified conflicting standards among various specs cited by government program managers.

His advice to entrepreneurs in the audience included:

—In creating a technology business, “you have a technology side, a financial side and a sales and marketing side, and you really have to make sure that you have all three of those in alignment before you go forward.”

—“As you become more successful, you have to keep running fast. If you develop a good product, you can’t just sit on it — other people will run right by you.”

—“One of the key items of course is to have a lot of persistence. Whatever your (cost) estimates are, you’re going to be off at least by a factor of two.”

Jacobs compared managing an executive team to managing his engineering graduate students, saying, “you kind of have to explain to senior executives what it is you want them to do and then let them go off and do their own thing.”

At the same time, Jacobs says it becomes necessary as a startup expands to develop processes for accounting, project management, purchasing, and other business tasks. But even that seemed comparable to university life for Jacobs.

“It reminded me of working on committees at a university” he said. “The main difference is that you can make a decision when you’re in business.”

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

Trending on Xconomy