SCOTTS VALLEY -- Paula Phelan was working as a software programmer in Boston in the late 1970s and early 1980s, struggling with the cold weather and trying to decide whether to dump her engineering career to pursue her passion for art when she decided to move to San Francisco.
After a few years working for companies such as Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Phelan found her way to Scotts Valley where she founded a public relations company 20 years ago that uses Phelan's engineering background to help market, promote and guide global tech companies.
"I was good with customers and getting customers to clarify what they needed, from an engineering perspective," Phelan said from her offices that overlook a lake patrolled by a giant catfish. "I ended up being the in-between person who was able to talk to both sides of the fence. You could send me into a really technical big deal meeting and I could speak intelligently and engineers couldn't fake me out and blow smoke at me."
Phelan sat down recently with this newspaper to talk about guiding companies through 16 IPOs and more than 80 acquisitions as her own company of 20 employees survived Silicon Valley's ups and downs over the past 20 years. Her clients have included Cisco Systems (CSCO), Symantec, Oracle (ORCL), IBM and Microsoft. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why would a name-brand tech company, with its own PR and marketing staffs, need to hire an outside company like Nadel Phelan?
A: I focused on in-house projects for many, many years (as an engineer) and your focus is on making that product as good as humanly possible. You know the application and how people will use it. But you don't necessarily see how it's going to fit into the ecosystem that's in existence right now. I travel a lot, about 150,000 miles a year on average, because if you sit here in the States, you don't realize how big the problems are.
Five years ago I was in China when everybody wanted to sell into China. Cisco was our client and they had an advanced program to do networking. I met with college students and asked about the software they use and their online use. None of them had computers. They had to wait 10 hours minimum just to get access and usually it could be as much as 10 days. And all of their access was via cellphones when smartphones were few and far between. Suddenly I realized all of these things we were trying to sell into China were premature. Unless you have feet on the street, that's the kind of things you can miss.
I just got back from Europe where a lot of people used to think that Europe was way ahead of everyone else with their 3G network. But in the U.K. you can't even hold onto a phone call because they drop all day long and their bandwidth is completely screwed up. Now it's permeating all across the continent.
Q: Why can't a sophisticated tech company discover for itself the kind of systemic problems you find on the ground?
A: Everybody thinks these big companies have all of the marketing dollars in the world. That's a misnomer. They're usually broker than everybody else because they have too many initiatives going on. So they love the extra support.
Q: How was your own company able to survive the boom-and-bust eras of Silicon Valley when so many others went under?
A: (Before the dot.com bust of 2000-01) it was like what the Roaring '20s must have been like. I literally had people sending me flowers trying to entice me to take them on as clients. Most (PR) agencies, even small agencies, have been acquired over the years and they now have to show growth and increase the bottom line. But we're not beholden to anybody. We've stayed the same -- real, real constant -- throughout all of this. That's what it takes.
Q: What kind of projects and products do your clients focus on?
A: We do infrastructure. We do all the stuff that's not usually very sexy. It's the things that run the network, that run the phone systems, that are on the back end of banking systems. That's our sweet spot, not an iPhone per se. This is the gnarly stuff. You actually have to know why this code is different or what the security implications are for this technology. You've got to care about all of the bits and bytes and you've to go know all of the three-letter and four-letter acronyms that go along with this stuff.
Q: Are you personally a tech/gadget freak?
A: I am not. I adopt technology as it makes sense. Did I have one of the first cellphones? Yes. I had the Nokia brick. Then I had the old Motorola car phones that were bolted in and everybody thought were so cool. Today I use mobile apps as they make sense to me.
Q: Why did you decide to base your company in Scotts Valley?
A: I was in Silicon Valley briefly and it just didn't suit me. I like being near the water and San Francisco's really cold. I looked around for value and it was Santa Cruz County, where you get more value for your money and a better quality of life. There are no negatives. The benefits are clean air and being closer to the ocean. I'm exactly one hour, door-to-door from SFO, my hub. That is my bus stop.
Q: Your offices have a colorful decor, including a gong in the reception area. Why?
A: I bought that in Big Sur. We use it to celebrate when we have a really big win by hitting it. (The staff member who gets to hit the gong) also gets a bottle of Dom Perignon Champagne.
Contact Dan Nakaso at (408) 271-3648. Follow him at Twitter.com/dannakaso.
Position: President and CEO Nadel Phelan
Previous jobs: Managed marketing departments at Veritas Software, Hewlett-Packard and several startup organizations in Silicon Valley
Education: Bachelor of arts, University of Massachusetts; master's in psychology, John F. Kennedy University; Ph.D. in psychology, Sierra University
Residence: Scotts Valley
Five facts about Paula Phelan
1. Has increased the amount of sleep she gets every night to six hours.
2. Wrote two historical fiction books, based on the years 1919 and 1939. Working on two more, based on 1869 and San Francisco in 1969.
3. Writes every day from 5 to 8 a.m. then makes colorful abstract pen-and-ink drawings at night that occasionally resemble animals. "It's a centering thing. It's a calming thing. You have to clear the mind in order to focus."
4. Loves gardening and bird watching.
5. Has a baby grand piano in her living room but doesn't know how to play it -- yet.