Some Respect for Mike Lazaridis of BlackBerry

TheStreet.com

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Tuesday I attended a Bloomberg summit in Toronto with many different commentators on the Canadian economy.

In the final session of the day, Research In Motion founder Mike Lazaridis spoke one-on-one with Hugo Miller of Bloomberg News.

Lazaridis is now completely disconnected from RIM, which now operates as BlackBerry, other than being a shareholder. He quit the board a few weeks ago.

I've been very critical of Lazaridis and former co-CEO Jim Balsillie over the last few years. I was short the stock from about $70 down to $22 a few years ago.

I criticized the company for allowing its 50%-plus market share in smartphones to dwindle away because it failed to respond quickly to the threat posed by the introduction Apple's iPhone in 2007.

I think obviously Lazaridis and Balsillie played a role in this error. Balsillie led the sales organization, and Lazaridis was in charge of the technical side of the house. Of the two, Lazaridis was more respected internally by employees, however.

Whenever you have a stock stumble as badly as BlackBerry has in the past few years, there is a pile-on effect of criticism from outside critics. Obviously, Lazaridis has to accept a lot of that.


However, the recent criticism masks his incredible accomplishments over his career. I really enjoyed listening to him speak about his career in general, and it helped to put his accomplishments in context.

Lazaridis started Research In Motion in the early 1980s while he was finishing his undergraduate education. He did so in Waterloo, Ontario -- about as far from the tech world as you can imagine.

Did he get savvy blue-chip venture capitalists to back him? No. Together with a buddy, he started the company with a loan of $15,000 from his parents, which was matched from the Ontario provincial government.


In fact, venture capitalists wouldn't even talk to him about his company for 10 years. (It was at that time that Lazaridis met Balsillie, who took a mortgage out on his house to invest in RIM and join the company in management.)

Lazaridis started focusing on the ideas of mobile data and mobile messaging in 1987. Back then, almost no one had mobile phones. There were just starting to be a few car phones. Yet, Lazaridis knew that mobile was going to mobile. How?

He had worked at Control Data in university. He'd used mainframes (which, he pointed out Tuesday, were less powerful than one of today's Xbox game consoles). He'd seen the advent of desktops. He knew that computing had to go mobile next utilizing server architecture.

At the time he started working on mobile computing, the only other folks working in the space were in Sweden.

Over the next 10 years, RIM worked closely with telecom carriers to design and then build out the entire architecture that would allow for the secure and efficient transmission of mobile data.


As a result, this 12-plus years worth of work allowed RIM to be an "overnight" success in 1999 with its first BlackBerry devices.

RIM had a great run from then through 2010.

Hugo Miller asked Lazaridis what his biggest regret was about his time at RIM. He immediately responded that he should have bought QNX earlier.

QNX is the company that become the foundation for the new BB10 operating system that powers BlackBerry's new phones and tablets. It also gives BlackBerry the ability to move into other areas of mobile computing.

RIM pulled the trigger in April 2010 and is just getting to market now three years later. Just imagine how the mobile landscape would be different if Lazaridis had done the acquisition right after the iPhone's introduction in January 2007 with new phones to market in 2010 when RIM's market share was still at its peak.

Later in the session, I was able to ask Lazaridis why he'd chosen to locate his office in a building that was a 15 minute drive away from Jim Balsillie's office in tiny Waterloo?

He said he thought that question had been overplayed as being a reason why the company missed the rapid shift in the mobile computing market. He defended his choice by saying RIM had just invested a huge amount of money in a new CRM system from SAP to allow everyone in the company -- including him and Balsillie -- to stay in touch with each other no matter where they were. He also said that it made sense for him to be with engineers while Balsillie was with sales folks.

But he returned to his earlier point that RIM should have bought QNX earlier. Basically, he was suggesting that all of the noise about the separate offices wouldn't matter if the company had made the QNX acquisition earlier.

I agree with that.

If he'd made one decision differently, history, Research In Motion's stock price and Lazaridis' reputation would all be different.

But, even still, Lazaridis deserves enormous respect for what he did and what he's still doing. I love entrepreneurs who take a risk and build something.

There's no one cheering them on when they decide to try something new. Society pats people on the back for making safe choices. For 10 years, the wise VCs wouldn't even deign to meet this guy. He might as well have been building his company in Antarctica. Yet, he changed the world.

After about 30 years at RIM, Lazaridis has decided to exit and focus all his time on quantum computing. You would have to say there's no one in the world who's making a bigger bet on quantum computing personally than Mike Lazaridis.

He lights up talking about it. He truly believes the effect of quantum computing over the next couple of decades will be bigger than even the silicon revolution. He hopes Canada will play a central place in that revolution as it sat out the silicon revolution entirely.

I have huge respect for Mike Lazaridis' impact on the world through RIM and the remaining chapters to be written in his career through the exciting new bet he's making in quantum computing.

Any entrepreneur should study his life to inspire their own choices.

At the time of publication, Jackson was long BBRY and AAPL.

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