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Ray Zinn of Micrel: “Make your customer’s success your success”

Make your customer’s success your success. Because Micrel was relatively small fish compared to some other giant chip companies, we focused on providing world class customer service and making our customers a success. This helped to grow our business because like our employees, our customers were loyal, they didn’t often leave for a penny less […]

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Make your customer’s success your success. Because Micrel was relatively small fish compared to some other giant chip companies, we focused on providing world class customer service and making our customers a success. This helped to grow our business because like our employees, our customers were loyal, they didn’t often leave for a penny less in cost for example. They stayed because we made our customer’s success and needs our number one priority. When the phone rang, customers knew any request would result in ‘all hands on deck’ at Micrel whereas no large company could ever claim the same. Our customers knew any request they made or problem they had would result in Micrel working day and night until the issue was resolved.


As a part of my series called “Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ray Zinn, an inventor, entrepreneur, investor, angel, bestselling author and the longest serving CEO of a publicly traded company in Silicon Valley. Zinn’s bestselling book, Tough Things First, was published with McGraw Hill and covers Zinn’s analysis of his nearly 40 years at the helm of Micrel, while focusing on the critical factors that entrepreneurs and seasoned executives alike need to know. Zinn served as Micrel’s Chief Executive Officer, Chairman of its Board of Directors and President since the Company’s inception in 1978 until the company was sold in 2015.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was actually ‘invited’ by a manager to pursue other interests after a pretty zealous and creative sales effort with a customer on my part. He told me that I didn’t fit into the typical corporate culture and really needed to work for myself. It was just the push I needed to strike out on my own and Micrel was born from that.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

I think losing my eyesight right in the middle of Micrel’s IPO was probably the most interesting thing that happened to me. I did go on to complete the IPO and then I had to convince a skeptical BOD that I could still run a multi-national company sightless.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I would have to say my wife. She believed in me and my vision for running my own company even when all the odds were stacked against me. When I first came home and told her that I was never going to work for someone else again, she was completely supportive and reassuring, she never wavered. My wife never missed a beat, she’s my rock.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Always do the Tough Things First. It will help you develop lifelong discipline and focus in both your personal and professional life. This singular habit enabled me to run a multi-national company for 37 years even after I lost my sight.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

Micrel thrived for 37 years and supplied semiconductors to companies around the globe. Our specialty was Low Drop Out Regulators, or LDOs. That and our devotion to our customers were the pain points we addressed. Customers chose Micrel because of how deeply we cared and how we took care of our customers when other mammoth chip companies were impersonal and often hard to deal with.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

When you first started the business, what drove you, what was your primary motivation?

Over the years, many who worked with Micrel said it was the people, the devotion we had as a company to taking care of our customers. Knowing that we were there for our customers and devoted to their needs helped to make Micrel a long-term success and a tight-knit team. In fact, Micrel enjoyed one of the lowest attrition rates in the industry and one of the highest boomerang rates. People simply did not leave because Micrel was such a great place to work. We practiced servant leadership where managers and staff were expected to solve problems and remove barriers to success for employees, not the other way around. This was and still in unusual in the industry and made us into a strong work family. Although the pandemic delayed us in 2020, former Micrel employees still hold regular reunions. We remain close.

What drives you now? Is it the same? Did it change? Can you explain what you mean?

Building a company that had longevity, that would endure as a legacy, was my motivation. That is more unique than one might think; Silicon Valley remains full of entrepreneurs who strive to build something quick and sell it off just as quickly. My motivation was exactly the opposite, I was driven to build a legacy that would stand the test of time. And I have always been driven as a person and that has never changed. As the oldest of 11 who grew up on a working ranch in Central California, hard work and focus have always been part of my nature.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I now run a non-profit called ZinnStarter that funds and mentors the next generation of entrepreneurs via university programs. We believe that this will help not only jumpstart new and innovative businesses but help spread technology across the country, particularly to regions that are economically depressed.

The topic of this series is ‘Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue’. Congratulations! Seven figures is really a huge milestone. In your experience what was the most difficult part of being able to hit your first million-dollars in sales revenue?

The most difficult aspect of being able to hit one’s first million dollars actually lies further back in the company’s creation. The most difficult part actually lies in obtaining the initial funding one needs to start up a new company in the first place. Most entrepreneurs therefore opt for the deep pockets that Venture Capital funding can offer but this comes with many strings and often daily interference from those who supplied the funds. And just when many companies begin to realize a future, VCs often become very driven to sell off the company that is just beginning perhaps to hit its stride.

Could you share the number one sales strategy that you found helpful to help you reach this milestone?

The two most important characteristics to retain or grow your customer base are service and quality.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you or your team made during a sales process? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The following story actually happened before Micrel: I had come to conceive of a product that is now a standard part of the silicon chip. My company didn’t know about this, and there were no specifications, no engineering plans, no cost estimates . . . nothing. I actually was never expecting any company much less Texas Instruments to want the stepper. I just wanted TI, a company I was tasked with making a customer, to believe that we were thinking long-term and thus that buying our existing equipment and building a relationship with us was a good idea.

In the end, TI was so interested that I felt compelled to generate a purchase order for this nonexistent product, convinced the highball price would put them off. I was wrong because TI accepted the PO which meant that my company in turn felt compelled to accept the order and started designing the machine. This required diverting resources from our e-beam project with IBM. And once IBM was told of the project the VP of Research there wrote a scathing letter of reproach saying that the wafer stepper was the dumbest idea ever voiced in the entire chip-making industry (keep in mind that it is now the de facto method for etching chips). This was a huge problem since IBM was then our biggest and most important customer so they had a lot of clout. The result was that my exasperated boss told me that I really should not work for anyone else and I was given that tried-and-true invitation to “pursue other endeavors.” It would be six years later that Tom Peters would write in his book In Search of Excellence, “If you’re not getting fired, you’re just not trying hard enough.” I certainly had tried hard enough, and I did get fired so to speak. We both agreed it was time for me to leave but this all led to Micrel and my vision for my own company where we would routinely push the boundaries to help our customers succeed.

Does your company have a sales team? If yes, do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

Micrel had a very driven sales team and they were unique in that the entire company was devoted to helping them succeed. In that way, the entire company was part of the sales team, everyone was there to help sales succeed.

Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue”. Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Make cash king. You can’t grow a company without cash in the bank because eventually another dot bomb or even a pandemic comes along and you will need that cash to weather hard times and keep going. Because I had secured a bank loan in order to fund the start of Micrel, I was obliged by that same bank to be profitable from the very first quarter. No startup does that but my bank loan said otherwise so I was focused on profitability from day one.
  2. Make your customer’s success your success. Because Micrel was relatively small fish compared to some other giant chip companies, we focused on providing world class customer service and making our customers a success. This helped to grow our business because like our employees, our customers were loyal, they didn’t often leave for a penny less in cost for example. They stayed because we made our customer’s success and needs our number one priority. When the phone rang, customers knew any request would result in ‘all hands on deck’ at Micrel whereas no large company could ever claim the same. Our customers knew any request they made or problem they had would result in Micrel working day and night until the issue was resolved.
  3. Don’t be in such a terrible hurry to grow your business. I know this sounds counter to achieving seven figures but it really is not. Slow and steady really does win the race while others in a hurry will crash and burn when tough times come and remember, those tough times always come eventually. Because Micrel was built, from day one, on the premise of being profitable, we were more focused on staying in the black than on aggressive growth. In fact, Micrel was profitable 36 out of 37 years, a record unmatched in high tech.
  4. Pivot and stay flexible. During Micrel’s growth, we found out in short order that the consumer industry had great margins. At first. Then the quick turn and burn mentality of those customers, constantly trying to keep up with their next turn in products, the cost down mentality of consumer products in general…those quick product turns were eating deep into our own profit margins and actually prohibited us from growing long term. We therefore pivoted and focused the majority of our sales and marketing efforts on the industrial market where the growth was slower but far more assured and predictable. This stability in turn, enabled us to grow more organically while achieving our financial goals.
  5. Continue to run lean even in flush times. The lure of growing quickly, taking on high risk or novel R&D projects and ramping up staff is very hard to resist when the orders are pouring in and the coffers are full but this too shall pass. The pain and financial impact of having to cut back, lay off employees and reshuffle priorities all come crashing down on management when those orders dry up. Stay lean, focus on growing organically and when the tough times hit, you won’t be as hard hit. This enabled Micrel to survive during no less than eight major economic downturns.

What would you advise to another business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

Again, if you are running lean, you won’t have to deal with this on the same level as companies who spent and grew wildly during flush times. Maintain slow and steady growth, keep your expenses down, cash in the bank and once business and the economy rebounds you can start to ramp up judiciously and carefully.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

Ensure that your customers and markets match your culture and busines goals. At Micrel, we wanted to grow more slowly and organically so focusing on focusing on like industries made for a good match as we did when we pivoted and refocused our sales and marketing efforts on the industrial markets.

Based on your experience, can you share a few strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

As I mentioned, customer service is extremely important and is one of the number one reasons customers buy your product. If you have a negative customer rating, fix it immediately by reaching out to the customer and asking them what you can do to change their view — even is it cost you money. With people looking at customer reviews, they usually look at ratings above 4 stars.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

As I have previously mentioned having a customer centric focus on service and quality, will reduce customer churn.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Be kind and honest. I know that sounds simplistic, but in this modern era, these basic human values are more important and in shorter supply.

Practice kindness to everyone, including those with who you disagree. Reducing anger increases amity, and that leads to more cooperation.

Trust is a big factor in any relationship. If you are kind to someone, you would never mislead them — and if you did, your kindness would be seen as phony. Honesty is respect and is essential to us all getting along.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Elon Musk because he has really turned Tesla around in the minds of customers and investors.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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