Minding the Digital Business

“It’s fun to be with smart people and develop technology that gets to the marketplace,” says Robert Russo (B.S. ’69), chief executive officer of chip-maker Intrinsity, developer of the Hummingbird processor.

A Better, Faster Chip

Robert Russo (B.S. ’69) helped develop a new generation of chips while serving as chief executive officer of Intrinsity, a small technology company in Austin, Texas He arrived at the company five years ago, when it was fighting to survive in the competitive microprocessor market.

It was the second time in Russo’s career that he was hired by a struggling technology company that he helped revive and then sold. His first successful turnaround was Nishan Systems, a firm that helped companies improve their data networks.

“It’s fun to be with smart people and develop technology that gets to the marketplace,” says Russo. “You’ve got to go in, figure out what is inhibiting success, and fix it quickly.”

At Intrinsity, Russo assembled a topnotch team of engineers and targeted the rapidly expanding mobile phone market. As designers pushed the envelope to transform the phone into a mobile computing device, they needed powerful chips that ran at very low power to maximize battery life.

Intrinsity partnered with electronics giant Samsung and developed the Hummingbird, a low-power, high-speed chip for Samsung’s Galaxy tablet, providing the processing speed needed to download movies, use GPS technology, perform banking transactions, and stream live feeds from Major League Baseball.

The Hummingbird, a one-gigahertz processor, is a significant improvement over competing processors, which run at about 650 megahertz.

“Without the fast processor, none of this exists,” says Russo. “We tore them up, redid them, and optimized how they ran. We improved them at bottlenecks and used different technology mixes. It took some extremely talented engineers.”

While Apple has yet to divulge the source of the A4 chip that powers its popular iPad, it has been widely reported that the Hummingbird is responsible for extending the iPad’s battery life.

“We were chasing the mobile space,” says Russo. “We helped change the way the world does telephony.”

The chase paid off in the spring of 2010, when Apple bought Intrinsity for $121 million.

Keeping Up Online

Scott Talley depends on the reliability of a highly developed computer system to handle orders at PFSweb’s fulfillment center. The warehouse management system handles inventory and directs workers in their daily tasks through handheld devices. The system also tells the operator what size box to ship the item in, prints the packing slip, and calculates shipping costs.

Talley underscores how quickly things can happen in the online retail world; once a retailer marks a product down 20 percent online, orders start rolling in almost immediately. It’s far from the day when a mail-order company put a product on sale. First the catalog was printed, then it was sent out by mail—a process that could take weeks.

“In today’s marketplace, you need a system geared toward flexibility and speed,” says Talley. “Things can happen so fast.”

Talley has been with PFSweb since it was founded in 1996 by Daisytek International, a Texas-based wholesale distributor of computer and office automation supplies. The unit was originally created to perform order processing and telemarketing, but as online commerce grew and Daisytek’s core business lost market share, it spun off PFSweb in 1999 to focus on the nascent e-commerce market.

“E-commerce was growing like crazy, and it was like a real-estate land rush,” recalls Talley. “However, companies that didn’t have solid business plans went bust around 2000 or 2001.”

PFSweb was able to make it through the dot.com bust and develop a comprehensive set of services—from interactive marketing services, search engine optimization, and business analytics to call centers in Texas and the Philippines to the delivery of goods from his hightech warehouse.

The next frontier for PFSweb is working with major consumer product companies, such as Proctor & Gamble, which has prospered over the past decade with the proliferation of big-box retail outlets. Now it is looking to the Web to boost sales. One of PFSweb’s clients, Lucky Brand Jeans, has a Facebook page and is driving sales through posts on the social media site.

“In the past, they didn’t want to upset the brick-and-mortar retailer, but in the last couple of years, that’s changed,” says Talley. “All the lines are getting blurrier. And customers are increasingly dealing directly with manufacturers.”

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