How I Built This Cisco Systems & Urban Decay: Sandy Lerner

Full podcast here.

  • What did you love about programming? The money and the independence it offered was hugely attractive to me. Not being tied to hours or a desk. I’ve always been kind of an anarchist. The idea that you could come and go. As long as you got the work done no one cared about your day. 

  • Where Sandy found her tribe: At Stanford, I was around a lot of smart people. I wasn’t a freak anymore.....One person had written the first spell checker and typed in the entire dictionary himself. One person got a triple major and a master's degree in 4 years. We were all computer addicts. We built our own internet. We built our own printer interfaces. We built our own computer terminals. It was one of those times in life where what you gave you got back. 

  • Why did you have to start Cisco?: We couldn’t sell the network we built. We took money from ARPA. We developed it but didn’t invent it. It was all public domain. Len [her co-founder and husband] said: Let’s go build this stuff with our own money. The company would build terminals and routers. Cisco was the 36th name we tried. 

  • Sandy was surprised by Cisco’s success: It’s a huge misunderstanding to think we had huge dollars signs in our eyes. Or that we knew this company was going to go public and make a bazillion dollars. 

  • How were you funding the company: Credit cards. We mortgaged our home. 

  • Early sales growth: In 1987 with no sales force we were booking $250,000 a month. 

  • No one wanted to invest: We tried to get 70 or 80 investors to invest. They didn’t think you could make any money on a public protocol. They thought anyone could do it. Except if anyone could do it, why didn’t they? 

  • The reality of building Cisco: It was very hand to mouth in a way I think people who want to be entrepreneurs these days really don’t understand. Was it exciting? No. It was like being in a war with no food and no sleep. 

  • They raise money from venture capitalists and bring in a professional CEO:The first thing the CEO tells Sandy is I hear you are everything that is wrong with Cisco.

  • Sandy gets fired: The CEO came into my office and said I think it’s time for you to retire. But I’m half vested. He practically said shut up and I was fired. 

  • How was your emotional state after getting fired? I was a wreck. My entire adult working life was tied up into the company. They took away my whole working identity. 

  • What was the idea for Urban Decay? I thought there was a market for people like me. Those interested in nonpink makeup. I was really offended that the makeup industry was putting all women in this pink box. Our first ad was Does pink make you puke? Sandy was adamant about never going to outside investors again. She funded Urban Decay herself. 

  • Why did you sell Urban Decay to LVMH? For the simple reason, there is no intellectual property. You can’t patent color. 

  • My one-word epitaph: BOLD