Cofounder, CEO & Board Chair, Numenta, Inc.
Former CEO, Palm Computing, Inc., & Handspring, Inc.
When Donna Dubinsky joined Palm Computing in 1992, the eight-person start-up was one of several companies developing a personal digital assistant. Under her leadership, Palm introduced the first successful PDA, creating a multi-billion dollar market it then dominated with a more than 70 percent market share. In all her endeavors, Dubinsky has compiled an extraordinary record by introducing practical applications of cutting-edge technology into our daily lives.
Growing up in a small town in Michigan, Donna Dubinsky had her first taste of business as a high-school student working at Twin City Embroidery. There she experienced all aspects of a small business, from sales to quality control to delivering merchandise. "Every businessperson should have sales experience," she says. "That's where the rubber meets the road. It is also what most people do all the time—be it selling ideas or products."
After graduating from Yale and working two years at the Philadelphia National Bank, Dubinsky came to HBS, where a presentation of the first electronic spreadsheet helped shape her career path. "I knew immediately that this was the future," she recalls. "Having done spreadsheets by hand, I was convinced that every banker would want this technology. It ran on an Apple II, and I decided to try to get a job at Apple that day. Ever since then I have focused on getting computers to more people, making them usable for a broad range of applications, and trying to embed them more deeply in everyone's life."
Dubinsky found Apple's casual atmosphere—where smart people thrived—a good fit and accepted a position as a support specialist. "Apple had real energy. I loved the notion that we were changing the world. To me that was a worthy vision. Apple set me on a path of doing big things that have high impact."
After a series of promotions, she became a member of the founding executive team of Apple software spin-off Claris, where, as VP international, she grew international revenue to 50 percent of the business.
In 1992 she met Jeff Hawkins, an entrepreneur looking for a CEO to lead the new venturehe had created to develop software for the emerging handheld device market. In Hawkins, Dubinsky found a product and technical genius, and in Dubinsky, Hawkins found a savvy businesswoman who had a knack for building companies around great ideas. The two hit it off immediately and forged a partnership that has remained strong through three start-ups.
Dubinsky and Hawkins built Palm Computing and made the PDA the most rapidly adopted consumer electronics product at that time. "The PalmPilot grew out of failure," observes Dubinsky of their first big success. "Our first handheld product was a struggle. It was designed by a consortium, and that approach yielded a bad product. We realized if we wanted to build a great product, we would have to control the whole user experience ourselves. That product became the best-selling PalmPilot."
While Hawkins and Dubinsky were developing the prototype PalmPilot, consumers—and investors—were giving up on handheld devices. Just as the pair were running out of options, U.S. Robotics saw their potential and offered to buy Palm and help them deliver their first model. While some aspects of the deal were not ideal, she says, "I would do the same thing again today. Selling the company to U.S. Robotics enabled us to bring the PalmPilot to market."
In 1997, 3Com purchased U.S. Robotics, and a year later Dubinsky and Hawkins decided to get back into the world of start-ups. They launched Handspring, a handheld device maker, and licensed the Palm operating system from 3Com. Within a year they shipped the Visor, a lower-cost PDA that quickly took 30 percent of the handheld market. At the same time, they started developing handheld products with communications technology, which ultimately resulted in the Treo smartphone, a handheld device that serves as a phone, a PDA, and an e-mail and Internet access device.
Handspring quickly became the fastest-growing company in American history at the time. It went public in 2000, but after the dot-com bust, the company found itself in trouble as supply and demand got out of sync. Dubinsky then had to make what she now regards as one of the most important decisions of her career. "Because of our margin decline in the aftermath of the bubble bursting, we couldn't invest in both the Visor and the Treo. Despite the fact that we had a big business in the handheld market and almost no demand for the smartphone, we decided to invest everything in the Treo. It wasn't a decision most people would have made. It saved our company."
By then Palm had spun off from 3Com and gone public. Aware they needed a smartphone product, Palm approached Dubinsky and Hawkins about a merger. "The companies had grown in different directions. Palm had produced several great iterations of handhelds, and we had focused on building a great smartphone, so we were quite complementary," says Dubinsky, who negotiated the merger in 2003 and remains on Palm's board today.
In 2005, Hawkins and Dubinsky teamed up again to found Numenta, an enterprise developing a new type of computer memory system modeled after the human neocortex. Working part-time, Dubinsky intends to stay with Numenta through the R&D phase and lay the groundwork for commercial licensing. "The applications we are developing are intelligent in the same way your brain is intelligent," she explains, showing off a demo that illustrates the early stages of the platform's capabilities. "We've made great progress, but it could be years before we have a product," she says, noting that the Mac, PalmPilot, and Treo were not developed overnight and clearly excited about what the future holds for her latest venture.