Gemperlein: Is it important to make mistakes - in business and in
Lam: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of
the interesting things in the Asian culture, as we were brought up,
parents tend to be a little bit too strict in not allowing kids to make
mistakes. I find that learning is a lifelong experience. You don't stop
when you finish high school; you don't stop when you finish college; you
don't even stop when you finish a Ph.D. You just learn a different
environment for different things.
When you are learning, if you stop and
think about how a little child learns to walk, he stumbles many times,
hitting himself, hurting himself, before he really learns how to walk.
And you can apply the same metaphor to life.
And if we don't allow ourselves to make
mistakes at all, we wouldn't be able to venture out and learn new things
and do new things. So one of the wonderful things that happened in
Silicon Valley is that, in business, people accept those who had made
mistakes in their lives.
Ledbetter: Did you ever have an idol? Someone you looked up to?
Lam: Probably in the environment that I
grew up, my parents. My father was still my idol. They had eight kids,
which is not atypical. . . . He passed away a long time ago, when I was
still in college. And so I didn't really have the pleasure of working
with him in my adult life.
My second idol . . . sort of a
replacement, I guess, looking back . . . was my professor at MIT And he
became a very close friend. He was my thesis adviser, both at the
master's level and the doctoral level. And he gave me a lot of advice
through my career and was one of the members on the board of directors
at my first company, Lam Research. He has since been a great help in
Gemperlein: Could you describe in very basic terms Lam Research and
the founding of it and what exactly the company does?
Lam: Lam Research makes semiconductor
equipment, equipment used by companies such as Intel, National, and AMD
and Toshiba and Hitachi, to make chips. Semiconductor chips. And, at the
time when, around late 1979, when I was getting ready to launch the
company, I had observed that the technology which is known as plasma
etching, had been around for nearly 10 years. But mostly used by
researchers; they do some experiments, they write some papers and get
published, and they would be happy ever after. But they never thought
they'd use it in real life, in a production environment to make these chips that
you can ship and plug into computers to use. Because the technology was
But in 1979, around that time, things
started to happen, and I began to see a tremendous potential of using
this technology in production. And so that was the purpose of Lam
Research. There were already at least six or seven companies in that
field. But most of them were focused on research and development. And
there's a big jump from R&D to production. And that's where I saw
the market opportunities, why I started Lam. It is the capital equipment
maker, specifically focused on semiconductor manufacturing, using the
new technology known as plasma etching.
But starting a company is easy, and
making it go is a different thing. I remember that after I put together
a business plan, a friend of mine introduced me to people who may have
some investment money, R&D partnership. Since I didn't need a lot of
money at that time, I thought, I was very happy to work with them and
explain to them what I'm trying to do and all that. This is early 1980.
Then the interest rates began to take
off, as you recall. Those were the first of the three-year recession,
'80, '81 and '82. One of the longest recessions in the U.S. history
since the second World War.
And, all of a sudden, despite a
tremendous interest we had been talking about, they didn't return my
phone calls. And it was clear that the deal was off. That was the first
time I tasted rejection. And I said what am I going to do now?
I finally realized I had to rewrite the
plan and go out to raise money from the venture capital sources, which
is more typical. And that's what I did.
My mother was the first investor. She
doesn't even read English. I gave her my business plan; she said, 'What
is this?' So that gave me a little bit of encouragement. And a couple of
my brothers had some savings, and they all chipped in a little bit . . .
(it was) moral support. The big chunk of money came from professional
investors who are venture capitalists. . . .
And, you know, if I were to open a flower
shop, I probably wouldn't need the venture capitalists. I probably would
have found the family support would be good enough to launch a small
business. But high-tech business takes an awful lot of money. Very few
families, unless they are very rich, will be able to take care of the