This article, which first appeared in Marketplace Magazine on Feb. 21, 2006, is reproduced here with kind permission.
Q & A
St. Norbert grad a Sonic success
by Margaret LeBrun
Dave Habiger majored in business. But what the head of one of the country’s fastest growing companies in America remembers most about his undergraduate days at St. Norbert College was tinkering in the media department. That’s how his professors remember him, too.
“We have a lot of technical toys for production, and when he saw them he got interested and would come in on his own time, just to learn how to use them,” recalls
Tom Smith, director of media services at St. Norbert. “It’s real nice to see that he was successful.”
Habiger was recently named president and chief executive officer of Sonic Solutions, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based maker of digital software for photographs, audio and video use. FORTUNE recognized Sonic as the 14th fastest growing company in America in 2005, when the company experienced a growth rate of 59 percent.
Habiger earned his B.B.A. from St. Norbert and his M.B.A. from the University of Chicago. He joined Sonic in 1993 when the company employed a dozen tech-heads and sales people, and last May was promoted to president and chief operating officer. Now he oversees Sonic’s three business units: the Roxio Division, which develops and markets desktop and consumer PC applications; the Advanced Technology Group, which develops and licenses Sonic’s core technologies to the PC and CE markets; and the Professional Products Division which provides digital media production systems for professionals. We caught up with Habiger on his cell phone when he was visiting family in Hinsdale, Ill.
Q: What do you remember from your days at St. Norbert?
A: I interned at Channel 5 with Larry McCarron. I was a production assistant—everything from “Go get me some coffee, Dave” to “Rewind those tapes and edit out the commercials.”
Q: How did you get into the digital media software business?
A: I started doing films. That led to editing on some of the very first computer-based editing systems. There were a couple startup companies, but they were difficult to use, a little buggy. I had a knack for making them work. What I really liked was the technology, the notion of manipulating this content in a nonlinear form, in a way you could see essentially this world of post-production. You could see how this (digital technology) was going to change everything.
Q: Professionals use your products, but how popular is the use of digital media software among consumers?
A: I’d take a gander it’s 5 percent, or 10 percent of the population—but that’s triple what it was two or three years ago. And two to three years from now, an even larger population will use these tools. That’s where Sonic plays a role. We expect to provide easy, simple tools consumers can use to manipulate their content. Nowadays, 50, 60 percent of the population is manipulating a digital photo on a PC. In five years you will see a whole new industry.
Q: Did you start out creating videos, or have you always been more of a finance guru?
A: As we’ve grown, I’ve been involved in sales, the marketing thing. In my new role I’ve got a little bit more of a public face.
Q: You’re young for a CEO. What helped you get to the top?
A: I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some very talented people; I’ve been surrounded by an engineering team of truly brilliant people. You learn from them, and we’ve been fortunate enough to build a successful company. All of us have played a role in that. Those kinds of things ultimately drive your success. Any success I’ve had has been based on choosing the right group of people to work with and the right company to get involved with.
Any business endeavor or personal endeavor takes hard work, too. A lot of people work extremely hard and really care about what they’re doing, developing tools that are very important for society. We’re building tools and products that allow people to enjoy content and move and manage media.
If there’s a single thing that’s led to our organization’s success, it’s probably our innovation, ability to adapt or respond to an extremely fast-changing technology landscape. We try to hire people in who live and breathe that. They solve problems.
Q: Has anyone in particular influenced you?
A: My dad is an engineer who grew up on a farm and could fix anything in the world. He is very smart with his business savvy, but he also knows how to solve a problem with constraints. As a kid watching my dad, he could fix anything with a hairpin, duct tape and some soldering iron. When there’s no store nearby and limited resources, you tend to find a solution. You tend to carry that notion with you, that when you don’t think there’s a solution to an engineering problem or a business problem, there usually is.
Q: You provide software to some big film companies. Do you rub elbows with stars?
A: There were about a dozen employees when I started with Sonic. All the founders were with Lucas Films, who worked on the very first nonlinear editing, in the early stages of digital audio video recording. We inherited a very smart, talented group of people who are extremely creative. But rub elbows with the stars? No, we tend to be the ones putting all the pieces together behind the scenes. I think I like it better there, actually. Engineers and developers are a lot more fun to deal with than the stars.
Q: So, do friends and family still bug you with simple computer questions?
A: Oh yeah. But those are good. I encourage friends, family, neighbors, anybody I can talk to—the server pouring coffee at breakfast—to tell me what they are using and what do they like. The problem in our world is we’ve looked at it (our product) for so long, it’s hard to look at it with a fresh perspective. The only way to find out what the consumer wants is you’ve got to talk to people about it. I talk to the neighbor kid on his bike and ask him how he makes CDs. Five years ago it was hard to find someone who knew what I was talking about. Now I can ask somebody at a store, or my dentist, and they’ll go off about it for five minutes.
Q: You’re a Gen-Xer. Do you identify with the stereotypes of your generation, the slackers—or the workaholic baby boomers?
A: I’m somewhere in the middle. I’ve always had problems with the notion that if I don’t put my nose to the grindstone and don’t have time for anything else, that’s bad, or that if you’re not going to work as hard, you’re sacrificing money because you want to go skiing on the weekend. Both scenarios imply you don’t like your work. If I wasn’t getting paid to do what I do, I would be doing something extremely close to what I’m doing now.