I never personally met Chuck Geschke, co-founder of Adobe. Yet I drew many leadership lessons from him. The recent passing of Chuck, on April 16, 2021, took me back in time to reflect on the inspiration I drew from Adobe founders.
Adobe started in December 1982 quintessentially in co-founder John Warnock’s “Garage”. Both the co-founders were highly educated, bearded men in their 40’s who had been colleagues for 10 years at Xerox Research. They wore neckties! They created disruptive products, while known for their calm demeanour. They defied the typical stereotypes of startup founders. This gave me the notion, a founder doesn’t have to fit a mould.
As a young engineer, I was inspired by their products. In the early 1990s, I was thrilled to use Photoshop, Illustrator, and Macromedia, products even a non-designer like me could easily learn. Their product culture was deeply rooted in creating a better, richer experience for everyone. It is said the founders, Chuck and John, wrote 20,000 man-hours of code to build their first masterpiece, Postscript, which allowed computers to talk to printers with elegant typography. They fueled the desktop publishing revolution. Sustaining a true product culture has to be a core DNA of the firm embedded by the founders.
Later, as an entrepreneur, I read everything I could about these founders. Chuck, frequently advised employees to “go home to dinner with your family”. A strong family man, he brought the same values to work, creating a strong family-centric culture at the firm. You can imagine why this appealed to me as a young mother walking the tight rope of family responsibility and being a startup CEO. I have always encouraged my teams to live full lives. We can only do our best at work when we are able to fulfill our different responsibilities and obligations.
More recently, my daughter’s first job happened to be at Adobe. She loved the culture of the place and bubbled with details of how wonderful her colleagues and bosses were and how empowered she felt to work there. She was experiencing the legacy of what Chuck had envisioned decades earlier. This brought home to me the importance of company culture and the sustained experiences of its people. It is hard to build great cultures without moral leadership.
They were revered in a close circle of techies (Steve Jobs once made a determined attempt to buy Adobe). Graphic artists and designers swore by their products. Yet, to the wider public, Chuck and John were largely anonymous. People knew their products, but not the men behind the products. In an era of larger-than-life, celebrity founders, they are an anomaly. Self-effacing, Geschke attributed much of his success to good timing and luck. Both he and John always maintained they were not in it for the money. Let your products speak, success will follow!
Not every co-founder relationship lasts so long. In the case of Adobe founders, it did because they respected and complemented each other perfectly. They remained friends. And they cared for others.
In 1992, as Charles Geschke got out of his car in front of Adobe’s office in San Jose, two men kidnapped him at gunpoint. Eventually, the FBI stormed into the kidnappers’ hideout and staged a rescue. Anyone like me who worked in Silicon Valley then tracked the live events and cannot forget that moment. This unfathomable incident also defined his leadership. Years later, Chuck spoke about this experience and his belief in God that sustained him. He continued to dedicate himself to philanthropy and giving back. He wore his success lightly.
Adobe moved its headquarters to downtown San Jose in 1996. It was a stone’s throw from my first start-up, which I had started also the same year. So, the building and its history are very familiar to me. Downtown San Jose was not an obvious choice for an HQ. But Chuck and John chose it, in part, to support the revival of San Jose as an important place in the Valley and support the founding of the city’s Tech Museum of Innovation, which was right next door. This, in my view, spoke more about Adobe’s commitment to the community than any number of mission statements would. Success is also about how you uplift communities around you and enrich them.
As I was moving back to India, my college mate Shantanu Narayen became the CEO of Adobe in 2007. I am proud to see how he continues to build great products and lead the company to greater heights in the tradition set by the founders.
I read Shantanu’s email to Adobe’s employees after Chuck’s death. Expressing a deep sense of loss, he wrote: “Chuck wanted to create a company where he would want to work.”
I have shared Shantanu’s tribute to Chuck. It has its own lessons to offer.
It is with profound sadness that I share that our beloved co-founder Dr. Chuck Geschke, has passed away at the age of 81, leaving an indelible mark on our company and the world.
This is a huge loss for the entire Adobe community and the technology industry, for whom he has been a guide and hero for decades.
As co-founders of Adobe, Chuck and John Warnock developed groundbreaking software that has revolutionized how people create and communicate. Their first product was Adobe PostScript, an innovative technology that provided a radical new way to print text and images on paper and sparked the desktop publishing revolution. Chuck instilled a relentless drive for innovation in the company, resulting in some of the most transformative software inventions, including the ubiquitous PDF, Acrobat, Illustrator, Premiere Pro and Photoshop.
In recognition of his technical achievements, Chuck was awarded the prestigious National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the Computer Entrepreneur Award from the IEEE Computer Society, and the American Electronics Association Medal of Honor. After 18 years sharing the helm of Adobe, Chuck retired in 2000 and continued to serve on the Board of Directors until last year, when he transitioned to become emeritus board member.
As much as his inventions changed the world, it is his focus on people, purpose and culture that has profoundly impacted each of us at Adobe. As he always said, Chuck wanted to create a company where he would want to work. He believed that good ideas come from everywhere in the company and that it’s not only what we do but how we do it that matters most. He dedicated much of his time and talent to various philanthropies and community organizations throughout his lifetime.
I spoke to John earlier today and he had this to share about their five-decade partnership: “In 1982, Chuck and I agreed that we should leave Xerox and start our own company. That was the beginning of Adobe. I could never have imagined having a better, more likable, or more capable business partner. Not having Chuck in our lives will leave a huge hole and those who knew him will all agree.”
I admired his brilliance, kindness and values that defined his character and am grateful that I had the privilege to know and work with him. His absence will certainly leave a huge hole in my heart.
As I grieve the loss of my long-time role model, mentor and friend, I am comforted knowing that Adobe’s best days are ahead — exactly as Chuck would want them to be.