Dubinsky, Donna

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Dubinsky, Donna

Handspring, Inc.


Donna Dubinsky is co–founder and chief executive officer of Handspring, which develops and markets one of the hottest computer innovations, the hand–held computer.

Personal Life

Dubinksy, 46, was born in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Her father was a scrap–metal broker, and her mother was a homemaker who enjoyed playing bridge. Dubinsky attended Yale University, graduating with a bachelor of arts in history. During her years at Yale, her entrepreneurial spirit came to light. Dubinsky and her roommate created a typing service that specialized in overnight turnarounds. The pair quickly realized that they had the power to charge significantly more for their specialized service. Upon receiving her degree, Dubinsky took a job with Philadelphia National Bank as an entry–level financial analyst, balancing spreadsheets by hand. However, before long she had been promoted to commercial lending officer, the youngest in the history of the bank. Dubinsky resigned her position after two years to pursue an MBA at Harvard.

While at Harvard, Dubinsky realized that she wanted to be involved in the creation of a product, rather than the service businesses that most of her classmates were attracted to. She told Electronic Business, "I had no interest in service businesses. I longed to create a product, something I could touch and say, 'I helped make this.'" Her dream came into focus in 1981 when she attended a demonstration of VisiCalc, the first software for spread-sheet applications, developed on an Apple II PC. Seeing her future, Dubinsky completed her MBA and set about getting a job with Apple Computers.

Dubinsky is married to husband Len Shustek; they have one daughter. Dubinsky's success has made her worth approximately $1 billion. Her constant attention to her goal of achieving success has dominated her life and her time. She told InformationWeek.com, "I don't even know how to turn on the TV. I've never seen [Who Wants to Be a] Millionaire. I never watched Survivor. I never even saw Jerry Seinfeld."

Career Details

Dubinsky was successful in securing a job at Apple, and for the remainder of the decade she worked within the distribution, logistics, and operations divisions of the company. In 1990 she moved to Santa Clara, California, to take on an assignment as sales and marketing manager at Claris Corp., Apple's application software division. Longing for more independence from the parent company, Dubinsky spent a year pushing Apple to spin off Claris, making it a stand–alone company. When Apple decided against Dubinsky's proposal, she quit to follow her dream of spending a year in Paris. During 1991 Dubinsky lived in France, studied the language and painting, and taught. Finding that her enthusiasm for painting was much greater than her actual ability, she returned to California in 1992.

Upon her return, Dubinsky met Jeff Hawkins, who showed her a hand–held electronic organizer he had developed. In the early 1990s, the Internet was beginning to take off. New innovations in computer and software technology were at the beginning of massive expansion, and Dubinsky was sold on the idea that the hand–held computer was the future of the computer industry. The two decided to go into business together—Hawkins would provide the innovative technology and Dubinsky would create the company to market the product. In 1992 Palm, Inc. was established, with Dubinsky as chief executive officer and Hawkins as chairman.

Over the next three years, Dubinsky struggled to raise money to fund their venture and bring Hawkins' PalmPilot to market. Because of ongoing financial restraints, in 1995 Dubinsky and Hawkins sold Palm to U.S. Robotics Corp., a modem manufacturer based in Schaumburg, Illinois. In March 1996 the first PalmPilot was introduced to the market, accompanied by rave reviews and tremendous sales. It became the fastest selling computer product in history and sold faster than the color television, the cellular phone, the personal computer, and the video cassette recorder. Despite the success of the hand–held PalmPilot, Dubinsky's relationship with U.S Robotics was difficult. She wanted U.S. Robotics to spin off Palm, because she believed it was good business, and she wanted to reestablish the independence she had lost in the sale of the company. However, U.S. Robotics had a hot product in the PalmPilot and was in no hurry to cut it loose. When U.S. Robotics was acquired by 3Com Corp. of Santa Clara, California, in 1997, Dubinsky had no better luck convincing its management team of the benefits of Palm's independence. Dubinsky's and Hawkins' frustration peaked in 1998, and the two abruptly quit.

The success of the PalmPilot helped Dubinsky realize that, while large corporations are helpful in providing resources for new projects, new and cutting–edge innovations often come from smaller independent companies. In an interview with Forbes, Dubinsky commented, "I don't think innovation will come from the big guys. The smart ones are those who recognize it."

Chronology: Donna Dubinsky

1956: Born in Benton Harbor, Michigan.

1990: Moved to Santa Clara, California, as sales and marketing manager at Claris Corp., a division of Apple.

1991: Quit Apple; moved to Paris for a year.

1992: Established Palm, Inc.

1995: Sold Palm to U.S. Robotics Corp.

1998: Quit Palm; founded Handspring.

2000: Handspring went public.

Dubinsky and Hawkins moved to Palo Alto, California, and started up a new company called Handspring. "We have no customers, no stakes," she told Forbes. "We can break the model of everything we've done in the past if we want to." Armed with $18 million in venture capital and a license to use the Palm operating software, the startup company immediately set to work developing its first product. Called Visor, the new device would compete head–on with the PalmPilot. The Visor was released in September 1999, and sales skyrocketed quickly, earning Handspring a 14 percent share of the hand–held market. In fact, the day that Handspring announced its new product, 3Com floated Palm off as a separate company. The key feature of the Visor is its expansion slot, which can transform the Visor into an MP3 player, a digital camera, or a mobile phone. Dubinsky told ZDNet News, "After we left Palm, we sat down and asked ourselves, 'What are we gonna do at Handspring that we didn't do well at Palm?' Jeff immediately came up with the idea of hardware expansion. We made a list of all the things we would want a Visor to do, and that's where the ideas for the modules came from."

Handspring went public in June 2000; by that August, its initial share price had nearly doubled, and it continued to eat into Palm's dominant share of the market. In 2000 Handspring increased to nearly 20 percent of the market share, whereas Palm fell from 72 percent in 1999 to 64 percent in 2000. However, just as Handspring was charging into the marketplace, economic recession put the brakes on sales and earnings. In the fiscal year 2001, ending in June 2001, sales totaled $371 million, up an incredible 264 percent from the previous year, but net income was a loss of $126 million.

Despite tough economic conditions, Dubinsky has remained upbeat about Handspring's past and future performance and points to new developments and innovation as the key to Handspring's ongoing success. In October 2001, Handspring introduced the Treo, a family of compact communicators that combine a mobile phone, wireless email, messaging, and Web browsing into a small, lightweight hand–held device. The key to the future of the hand–held industry may be hinged to its ability to attract the corporate and business communities rather than individual consumers. However, businesses are not likely to add new innovations to their communications arsenals until economic conditions improve.

Social and Economic Impact

Dubinsky stands out as not only one of the top executives in the digital and Internet business but as one of the top women executives in business. She has not found that being a woman has been an obstacle in achieving her success, maintaining that in the computer industry, gender is not a deciding factor of whether someone will succeed. She believes that in the field of high technology, a glass ceiling does not exist. Dubinsky explained in an interview with NBC's Tom Brokaw: "We're seeing a lot of small companies with women CEOs today, particularly because of the Internet, where. . . business models are very open and fluid and there's such a cry for talent."

Still, Dubinsky recognizes that there are fewer women than men in the technical fields, as women are more likely to be in non–technical areas such as marketing and finance. Dubinsky supports women in technical areas, noting that the initial exposure often begins in middle school or high school when girls become exposed to science and math. Dubinsky feels this is a critical time to promote an interest in such technical studies to girls, areas of study often considered "uncool" by their peers. She hopes that by working hard, running a successful business with integrity, and gaining respect within her field, she will serve as a role model for young women who may follow in her footsteps. She also feels that the opportunities for women, in particular, are exciting. As she explained to Tom Brokaw, "I believe here if a woman is good and she's willing to work as hard as a man does and has the right training and preparation that she can succeed." And as for living in Silicon Valley, Dubinsky told Amanda Hall of the Sunday Telegraph, "It's a vibrant, special place, it really is like being in Italy during the Renaissance."

Sources of Information

Contact at: Handspring, Inc.
189 Bernardo Ave.
Mountain View, CA 94043
Business Phone: (650)230–5000
URL: http://www.handspring.com


Entertainment Weekly, July 1999. Available at http://www.entertainmentweeklyonline.com.

Forbes, July 1999.

"Handspring Beats Loss Estimates." ZDNet News, 17 October 2001. Available at http://www.zdnet.com.

"Handspring, Inc." Hoover's Online, 2001. Available at http://www.hoovers.com.

"Handspring, The Company: Executive Team." Handspring, Inc., 2001. Available at http://www.handspring.com.

"Handspring, The Company: Background." Handspring, Inc., 2001. Available at http://www.handspring.com.

"Handspring Unites Phone, Messaging and PDA in New Treo Communicator." Handspring, Inc., 15 October 2001. Available at http://www.handspring.com.

Heavens, Andrew. "Handspring Cuts Sales Forecasts in Half." Financial Times, 7 June 2001. Available at http://www.ft.com.

Kador, John. "A Hands–On Business." Electronic Business, 1 September 2001.

NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, 24 August 1999. Available at http://www.msnbc.com.

Nelson, Matthew G. "CEO Donna Dubinsky Champions Hand-spring Development." InformationWeek, 1 January 2001. Available at http://www.informationweek.com.

Sunday Telegraph, 13 August 2000.

Weingarten, Mark. "Best of the Best: People of the Year." ZDNet News, 2001. Available at http://www.zdnet.com.