I had the pleasure of sitting face to face with the Co-founder and CEO of NVIDIA- Mr. Jen Hsun Huang.
Things have not always been rosy and Jen-Hsun is the first to admit that not every single idea that comes out of NVIDIA is successful which is why “Tolerance to failure” is something very important at NVIDIA.
“NVIDIA was the first company in the world to have been founded with a singular purpose of creating consumer 3D graphics. About a year later 3DFX started and became an instant success because they made some really good decisions. Their architecture required low cost memory- they use a lot of memory whereas our architecture was very tolerant to high cost memory. When NVIDIA first started one Megabyte of DRAM was $50 and (3DFX) needed 4MB- that’s $200 in cost simply for memory. We could operate on just 1MB so the cost difference between our solutions was already $150 which was a big advantage for us. Then all of a sudden, memory prices collapsed and $50 became $5 and our $150 price advantage became $15. Their architecture was more elegant- it was easier to program and more compatible with OpenGL. They took off and we were flat on our back. We went from being almost successful to almost dead overnight. It became clear that we had the wrong architecture for the future where memory was going to be cheap.
We needed to figure out what to change. If we were just like them (3DFX) and already behind them then how were we gonna win in the market place. And thats when I really learned that there is a difference between strategy and technology. Two companies could use the exact same technology but have radically different strategies. For example, Yahoo and Google both provide search services at their core but the two companies obviously have very different strategies. In NVIDIA’s case these strategies are things like how do you build a product, how do you pace it, how do you work with developers, what are the things you want to be really good at and lesser-good at etc.
By the time we had our real first chip called Riva 128, they (3DFX) were already at Voodoo 3. We had to find our footing and buy enough time to come up with Riva TNT and then ultimately GeForce 256 which allowed us to really tear away. Sometimes being first is good, however being last isn’t bad either. Google was the last search engine (in the race) and being last has its strategic advantages. We tried many things and some of them worked and some of them didn’t but they all contributed towards building NVIDIA. Its our sequence of failures and break-throughs that allowed us to be what we are today. Tolerance for failure puts our employees in a position where they are willing to try new ideas.
For example, when we put GeForce 256 together, the big question was that if you put geometry on the chip and Direct X doesn’t do geometry processing- how are you going to offload the geometry? We thought that it was the right idea moving forward and if we don’t take this step, we wont be able to take the next step. So we talked to Microsoft and to OEMs- (and they said that) CPUs are fine for doing this. Of course Intel hated it. We said to ourselves that just about everybody hates the idea. We should do it. We knew we could fail but we knew this was the way forward. We reached out to all the developers around the world and they all worked with us on it and the day it came out, geometry processing was twenty times faster.
Another idea was was to put two graphics cards in one system and we could write the software to do load balancing. 3DFX had invented SLI and although our technology was completely different we still called it SLI because it was a great name. We asked our customers and Microsoft about their thoughts- Microsoft said that it was incompatible with the O/S which would make things unstable and they didn’t want us doing that. Intel said that it was a violation of PCI express. OEMs said that it would require too much power and they’d have to design new chassis and PSUs. We had all theses issues but we went ahead and did it.”