When was Marki Microwave formed and what was the vision that inspired it?
Marki Microwave formed in 1991, after my dad left Western Microwave. Previously, my dad had worked at Watkins Johnson, Avantek and Western. At all three companies, he developed and ran the mixer division. When he started Marki, his goal was to become the premier mixer company in the world and put my sister and me through college. It was as simple as that. With my mom's help — she often doesn't get the credit or acknowledgement she rightfully deserves — they formed a “mom and pop” mixer company. The early days are classic Silicon Valley: I actually remember my dad soldering mixers in the garage before they rented their first suite. I was 11 years old at the time.
When did you join the company and what roles have you held during your tenure?
I graduated with a PhD in photonics from UCSD in 2007 and immediately joined Marki. I had been working on engineering problems with my dad throughout grad school and decided during that time that he had a lot more to teach me. I was passionate about the idea that my work should immediately impact people and customers. I hated blue sky research in grad school, because the impact was too ethereal and imaginary. I loved the idea of designing something and then someone buying it because it solved an immediate problem they had.
I started as the director of research, which essentially meant I had no real responsibilities but to design anything I wanted and absorb everything I could about the company. During those first three years, I developed a large portion of our passive line, including couplers, power dividers and baluns. After that, my title changed to director of operations. I started learning about business development and marketing.
My dad, amazingly, was extremely successful without having to do that kind of thing. His reputation and skill as a mixer expert allowed him to ignore all the traditional forms of marketing and customer outreach one normally attributes to growing a business. We had no reps and spent almost no money on marketing.
To sell the new products, I took a different approach, because I was fighting the mixer-only reputation. We began adding great sales reps in various territories and tried to add value to the new product offerings by doing things like fast-turn custom designs, simulation tools and superior datasheet information.
Over the past four years or so, I have continued to take on more responsiblities. My parents encouraged/allowed me to take more control over the daily operations, including the manufacturing and QA side.
Simultaneously, my dad and I decided about five years ago to intentionally obsolete our own mixer technology. I developed all of the new mixers we are now featuring to customers. These are the MMIC and Microlithic® product lines. They are doing extremely well. Amazingly, all I really did was copy my dad's designs but put them into 2.5D topologies.
How will you, as new CEO, and your father, as president, divide your responsibilities to manage the company?
I run all day-to-day operations. All the department heads report to me. My dad's role is to serve as my advisor, when I have critical problems, and to run special projects. My dad has always been a mentor to all the Marki engineers, so he spends a lot of time teaching the younger people. The division of labor is that he gets to do what he enjoys, and I have to do all the details — good deal for him! Since my dad has been my mentor for my entire engineering life, there is a high degree of trust.
You tell the story of your father asking you and the engineering team to develop new products, focusing on performance. How did you decide which products to develop and how they would be differentiated?
Marki is incredibly good at this decision making process. In many ways, this is our core competency. Marki was built on the idea that you should avoid going head-to-head with any competitor — but, instead, redefine the rules and add value in ways they cannot.
For example: all our MMIC mixers have nonlinear simulation models available, free of charge. No one in the world offers this, and it is increasingly necessary for system architects. It is a classic disruptive approach, combined with the idea that small, nimble companies cannot be assailed by big boys, because they cannot compete in niche markets.
Whenever we have an idea, we ask a few questions:
- Can we be the best in the world at this? (the value proposition question)
- Can we build and support these products, and make profit, without altering our business model? (the practicality question)
- Did someone else already try this or why didn't someone else try this? (this is the too obvious question)
No doubt, #1 is most important. I never want to take on a product idea that isn't best-in-class. It is a huge waste of time. Maybe more importantly, I cannot get excited about selling and marketing commodities. We prefer selling what we call “unicorns,” products that are unique in the market and require a special blend of skills and talents to produce. In order to develop unicorns, you have to understand almost everything about a product category, from manufacturing to reliability to pricing to market potential.
I spend an embarrasing amount of personal time reinforcing my knowledge in our core product areas for this reason.
Looking to 2020, where do you see the best technology and market opportunities?
The M&A activity in the semiconductor industry ripped a giant hole in the market, and Marki is taking advantage of that. We have increased our R&D spend on IC technology by an order of magnitude. We are developing for all end markets. The common thread is that these products will be best-in-class, will satisfy some unmet need and will be completely compatible with our existing business.
We see the M&A as having ruined tremendous amounts of value for the RF/microwave/millimeter wave industry. We are actively filling that void and becoming a legitimate player in a large variety of MMIC areas. At present, we are focusing on non-silicon based ICs. By 2020, that may change.
Marki Microwave's products are designed and manufactured in the U.S. What's your strategy for competing, since engineering talent is global and low cost manufacturing is widely available (e.g., eastern Europe, China, India)?
We build products in the U.S. because that is how we maintain quality, performance and consistency. Also, we can iterate faster than our peers because we have all resources within the same site, including design, manufacturing, QA and testing.
We were always opposed to transitioning manufacturing off shore because it actually would hurt our competitiveness. Also, advances in manufacturing, software and robotics make it much more practical to compete with low cost, off-shore manufacturing.
When it comes to attracting talent, your best strategy is to dominate your niche and constantly innovate. We have found that attracting talent is much easier when you actually have an exciting company to “sell” to prospective new hires. Having a “full stack” engineering experience is very appealing to talented engineers, where they can gain experiences in design, product development, testing, manufacturing and business development.
What's the Marki Microwave vision for your second 25 years?
My dad's vision was to become the premier mixer company in the RF industry. I think he achieved that milestone.
Going forward, I would hope to expand that reputation to our other product areas, especially in the semiconductor area. Beyond that, though, I think that we are working towards creating a more “holistic” technology company where our customers can get a world-class customer experience.
As the cold-war-era RF experts retire, we feel it is our role as a generational “bridging company” to continue to pass on our analog knowledge to the community, while also building a support infrastructure that satisfies the modern engineer. This means we must invest in software services like simulation tools and blogs and doggedly support customers on the test and measurement side.
If we are successful, Marki Microwave will be viewed as a premium destination for the best RF hardware in the world, but also a premium destination for RF information and customer support. It wouldn't hurt to also provide an Amazon-like shopping experience, and we are working on that, too.
As you look at the RF/microwave industry, do you see that we're attracting and growing the technical talent we'll need for the next generation of development? If not, do you have any ideas for addressing that challenge?
I think it is clear that RF/microwave will always be a niche field in electrical engineering. With so many students learning DSP and coding these days, the idea of analog high frequency is not considered very sexy. I don't necessarily see that as a huge problem as long as my generation of business leaders take the time to nurture talent and attract them to this esoteric area.
Analog will never be central to the engineering education. That is OK. However, companies will need to accept the reality that they will have to develop RF skills internally and that the universities won't or cannot help. Industry leaders have no choice but to make close ties with RF professors; that is what we have done.
The bigger problem, in my opinion, relates to the idea that the sexy NASDAQ companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon will deplete a huge portion of the talent pool, leaving few options for the smaller, niche players. All RF companies throughout the value chain will feel this, including the defense primes like Lockheed, Northrup, General Dynamics, etc. We need to be smart about this: what 22-year-old graduating from Stanford or Berkeley is going to pass up Google for a defense company or Marki Microwave? That is a tough sell unless you can provide something to the prospect that they cannot get anywhere else.
When you're not working, what do you do to relax?
My wife and I work a lot, so usually we try to take day trips to the various amazing spots around northern California. Beyond that, I have played guitar in bands since I was 14.
My guitar background was the impetus for our “IMS Guitars” we have showcased at our booth over the past few years. As I tell people, “booth babes” are too intimidating to the typical engineering sensibility, but guitars are like flowers to the engineering bee — they cannot pass up stopping and saying “hi.” I'm amazed how many RF engineers are guitar players, it must be how we are wired.
Any other points you'd like to convey?
Like my dad, I could go on for hours. That is probably sufficient.