Tech Entrepreneur Sehat Sutardja

Sehat Sutardja has parlayed a boyhood love of tinkering with his family’s appliances into a global fabless chip company that employs over 5,000 and has a $12 billion market capitalization. In the process of building Marvell Technology Group Sutardja has become a shining example of what can be done by a brilliant inventor who harnesses his family’s energies while keeping capital expenditures to an absolute minimum.

Sehat Sutardja was born around 1961 in Jakarta, Indonesia to wealthy ethnic Chinese parents who owned a Mercedes-Benz parts business. By age 12 Sehat taught himself analog signal processing by taking apart his family’s Phillips six-transistor radio and rebuilding it one component at a time. He boldly declared his intention to pursue a career in electronics much to his parent’s disappointment. In the 1970s this ambition amounted to becoming a TV repairman.

His brother Pantas appeared cut from the same cloth. He nearly electrocuted himself while taking apart the family air conditioner. The budding techies separated when Pantas was sent to a Chinese boarding school in Singapore, but stayed in touch by phone. Sehat frequently asked Pantas to translate Hong Kong electronics magazines into Indonesian.

After graduating high school Sutardja moved to the US. He received a B.S. in electrical engineering from Iowa State University and joined Pantas at UC Berkeley for his masters. Sehat and Pantas studied hard to be the best in their classes. While at Berkeley Sehat Sutardja met and married Weili Dai, an undergraduate programming major from Shanghai.

In 1988 Sehat Sutardja earned a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley. Even then Sutardja liked to cast himself as “the best analog engineer in the world.” After graduation, Sehat and Pantas parted ways to work, respectively, in analog signal processing and digital processing at different companies. It took them a few years to see that combining their expertise in analog and digital in a single company would let them revolutionize the chip industry.

In 1995 Sehat, Pantas and Dai partnered to found Marvell Technology Group with investment from friends and family. They focused on designing chips to make disk drives smaller, cooler and faster than those on the market. For the first few years the three partners went without salary while laboring nights and weekends. But even when their product was ready, Dai, the sales department, struggled to convince customers to buy it.

“We were too small, way too risky,” recalls Sutardja. “It was just luck getting our customers, but we were able to build the products that our competitors couldn’t.”

Through a cold call Dai eventually reaching Kenneth Burns, a scientist at Seagate’s Minnesota office. Burns was struggling with a Texas Instruments chip that ran data at 200 megabits per second. Dai told Burns that Marvell could do better. She sent out her “two best engineers” to meet with him. Sehat and Pantas returned from Minnesota with a development deal.

It took a year for the Marvell duo to design a chip that moved data 20% faster than TI’s. The brothers were so confident in their design they sent it out to Seagate before it had been fully tested. It was approved, and Seagate dropped TI. Within a few years Marvell was supplying chips for 90% of big-brand disk drives.

Marvell moved on to networking and designing chips that would transmit data through ethernet ports at a billion bits per second — five times the speed of the then current standard. But even with their revolutionary products they ran up against bias from large, conservative corporations. Morgan Stanley reportedly decided against underwriting Marvell’s IPO because of concerns over how the family-run company would handle corporate governance.

Marvell’s corporate culture isn’t without its rough edges. In 2001 it was negotiating to buy patents from Jasmine Networks. After leaving a voicemail with a Jasmine contact, Marvell executives forgot to hang up the phone. Marvell patent attorney Eric Janofsky was recorded wondering aloud if Sutardja would go to jail if they stole Jasmine’s technology. Jasmine Networks sued Marvell, but the case was dismissed in December of 2009.

In 2006 Silicon Valley Intellectual Property Law Association (SVIPLA) selected Sutardja as Inventor of the Year. “Dr. Sutardja has incredible foresight into what technologies will power the future devices that will touch people’s lives—both on the consumer and enterprise side,” said Brian Coleman, president of the SVIPLA. “His ability to consistently create new technologies, while running a company that generates annual revenues in excess of two billion dollars, is simple astounding.”

Sehat Sutardja has personally filed over 150 patents. His example inspires employees to file hundreds of patent applications every year.

Sutardja’s biggest advice to aspiring tech leaders: “Learn as much as possible in software, biology, advanced physics, all fields. It’s not sufficient to know a single field of knowledge. A lot of people stop learning when they want to become a businessperson. That’s the biggest mistake they can make.”

After Marvell’s bold acquisition of Intel’s notoriously unsuccessful mobile chip business in 2006, Sutardja was asked by one of his new workers about Marvell’s culture and philosophy. “We’re a little like Hewlett-Packard,” he replied. “Engineers walk into each other’s cubicles to share ideas. But we’re also like… the tough old Intel under Andrew Grove, where engineers ruled and only the paranoid survived.” He added, “Chips are supposed to be not just engineering marvels but moneymakers, too… Some of you forgot about that. Do you remember that?”

Sutardja, Pantas and Dai are well-known for micromanaging. As a couple Sutardja and Dai never took vacations. Their only shared hobby was making the rounds to their employees. Former employees have complained at great length about the constant scrutiny they suffered from the founders.

As Marvell has grown, the Sutardjas and Dai have gradually loosened their grip. Sutardja and Pantas no longer need to make the final approval on every design stage and Dai no longer has to get involved in every sale.

Sehat Sutardja and Dai live in Santa Clarita where they have two sons. Sutardja, 49 and Dai, 48, still feel they are nowhere near a leisurely retirement. “You can’t say, ‘It’s time to play golf.’ Life is full of tradeoffs,” says Sutardja. Dai adds, “We like to say, ‘This is just the beginning.’”