Advice from Silicon Valley's longest serving CEO: 'Do the hard things first'

Ray Zinn, founder of chip company Micrel, started his career when Silicon Valley was just starting.


A massive metal cast of a sailfish seems to soar out of the desk of Ray Zinn, Silicon Valley's longest serving CEO, founder of Micrel, a leading chip company that produces essential components for smartphones, consumer electronics and enterprise networks. 

At 76, he's been running Micrel since its creation in 1978. In 2014 Micrel celebrates 20 years as a public company and a highly profitable one for its long-term shareholders.

Ray Zinn's business success in today's tough chip markets merits attention; what is much more impressive is his ability to lead his company through many tough chip markets during Micrel's 36 years.

He's consistently succeeded in emerging through eight major downturns in global chip markets. Many chip companies weren't able to make it through one downturn and very few, such as Intel, have survived through all the major downturns. It's an impressive achievement.

Zinn credits his success to disciplined work habits and an uncanny business intuition that enables him to make the right decisions at the right time. 

His long history of consistent success has led to many invitations to speak at conferences and meetings of professional associations. Earlier this year he addressed a large group of surgeons. 

It is not surprising that surgeons, or anyone, finds Zinn interesting. He's self-made from a poor, large family in Southern California, raised a Mormon and raised tenacious. His company culture is supportive and generous and highly ethical, a reflection of his own values.

Zinn's family culture didn't encourage individuals to speak about themselves so it takes a while to coax out some of his stories. He's uncomfortable talking about himself yet he recognizes that there's value in the stories for others, and maybe some well-earned satisfaction in their telling.

Zinn's stories are fabulous creations, they are simultaneously personal and universal. They are stories of stubborn perseverance and inspired creativity, such his upbringing on a cattle ranch in a large family of eleven kids; his early days at Fairchild and the "Traitorous Eight;" how he raised financing when there were no VC firms and banks didn't lend to tech companies; how he went blind in one eye then years later on the eve of Micrel's IPO he went blind in the other eye — and was pressured to cancel the flotation; how as a young salesman he sold a huge order for a chip manufacturing product that didn't exist... There are many more.

He also has many maxims that he uses to help define his company's culture and his approach to life. His favorite is: "Do the hard things first." 

"Why did your mother tell you to get your homework done first before you went out to play?" he asks. I nod because he's right, and so were our mothers. 

I sat with Ray Zinn for more than four hours until we both noticed that it had been more than four hours and we had better stop, for now.

I'll be back and there will be more about Ray Zinn, his extraordinary life and personal philosophies, coming up. 

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