Entrepreneur recommends a flexible approach

Former CEO of Palm Inc. Donna Dubinsky ’77 drew on her own failures and successes to encourage students to take risks in their professional careers.

Dubinsky, who spoke at a Branford College Master’s Tea and to the residential college seminar “Philanthropy in Action,” discussed her work in leading Palm’s development of the Palm Pilot and her struggles to retain the support of investors while still maintaining ethical business practices. Although Palm is no longer operating, Dubinsky said the company’s failure helped her to understand the importance of having a flexible business strategy as she embarked on new ventures.

“It’s all been an incredible series of ups and downs and ups and downs, and it’s taken just huge persistency and tenacity to actually take those learnings and turn them into something,” she said.

Dubinsky described Palm’s first product, called the Zoomer, which was one of the first electronic handheld devices, as a “complete failure” in part because it was clunky and expensive. From the failure of the Zoomer, Dubinsky said she and her team learned what customers valued in the product and how much they were willing to pay.

“I failed so often I don’t know where to start,” she said. “Our early years at Palm were very, very difficult.”

This initial experiment led to the idea to create the Palm Pilot in 1997. Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) ultimately became a multi-billion dollar industry and set the stage for later devices like the Blackberry and the iPhone.

In launching the Palm Pilot, Dubinsky sold Palm Co. to U.S. Robotics because she could not gain a sufficient number of investors, though she retained a significant role its release. She defended her decision to sell the company by arguing that she and her team were “finishing what they started.”

“It was a means to the end and not the end,” she said.

Dubinsky said the Palm Pilot eventually failed due to “bad business decisions” rather than poor product quality. Ownership of the Palm Pilot product changed hands several times, and Dubinsky said this inconsistency was the primary reason for the product’s eventual failure in the market. Consumers value stable brands, such as Apple, she said.

Dubinsky went on to co-found Numenta, which will soon release a new software product that processes data and streams out information “much like the human brain.” She said this product may have “huge” implications for applications related to healthcare, the environment and sports statistics.

Carl Chen ’13, who attended the talk, said he found Dubinsky’s work “innovative and inspiring.”

“One thing we can all take from her talk is that in order to be successful, we cannot dwell on our failures but must learn from them,” he said.

Dubinsky and her business partner Jeff Hawkins were nominated by Fortune Magazine to the “Innovators Hall of Fame.” The pair also made it onto TIME Magazine’s “Digital 50” in 1999 for their work.

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