TECHNOLOGY'S MOST COLORFUL INVESTOR Thanks to tireless promotion and successful investments in Lotus and Compaq, Ben Rosen has risen to the top rank of venture capitalists. He's now bringing a risky software start-up into a market bored with computers.
By Stratford P. Sherman RESEARCH ASSOCIATE Margaret A. Elliott

(FORTUNE Magazine) – BENJAMIN M. ROSEN, at 52 the boyish eminence grise of personal computing and the field's most prominent venture capitalist, thinks he can do it again. As chairman and general partner of the Sevin Rosen group of venture funds, he has been godfather to two of the industry's most sizzling start-ups: Lotus Development, producer of the top-selling 1-2-3 spreadsheet program, and Compaq Computer, the third-largest personal computer manufacturer after IBM and Apple. While the market has turned hostile to technology issues, the profits of Lotus and Compaq, the only companies in the Sevin Rosen portfolio to have gone public, have grown. Sevin Rosen's $4.6-million investment in Lotus and Compaq, although down from a peak value of $191 million in January 1984, was recently worth $111 million. A late bloomer who has had five careers -- ''I didn't know what I wanted to do,'' he explains -- Rosen is respected for his pioneer role in personal computing. ''He has a godlike aura around here,'' says Marvin L. Goldschmitt, a longtime Lotus vice president. During the 1970s, while Rosen was an electronics analyst for Morgan Stanley, a New York investment banking firm, he was the visionary whose much publicized enthusiasm for Apple Computer Co. is credited with helping spark the acceptance of personal computers in the business market. Now Rosen is betting his considerable credibility -- and an estimated $2 million-plus of venture capital -- on a new company called Ansa Software Corp. Ansa's only product is a database management program for IBM personal computers and compatible machines. It is rumored to be superior to Ashton- Tate's dBase III, which dominates the market, but until Ansa's public introduction late this month the precise nature of the product, even its name, is a secret. Rosen believes that Ansa is a winner, and he plans to sell the company the way he knows best -- on the strength of his reputation. A relentless publicist, he is working full time on preparations for a dog-and-pony show to introduce Ansa. Rosen is unusually well connected in the insular society of personal computer executives, buyers, and devotees, and calculating enough to know the value of the personal relationships he has established over the years. He keeps a computerized list of 2,700 contacts, and on Ansa's behalf he has been culling it for software dealers, business and technology reporters, corporate buyers of software, and others in a position to help the company. In return for binding agreements to keep the information secret until late this month, Rosen has given key people an advance peek at -- and pitch for -- Ansa's new product. He used the same technique with great success to hype Lotus. ''All technology businesses are sold on word of mouth,'' says Regis McKenna, Silicon Valley's preeminent P.R. man. ''Ben has the ability to start generating word of mouth at an early stage.'' In 1971, in another incarnation, he began organizing annual meetings and seminars for the semiconductor industry, called Rosen Research Forums. Later he did the same for the personal computer industry. Ever the showman, Rosen leavened those serious convocations with bad puns, self-deprecating jokes, silly songs, and an impressive ability to balance large objects on his face. A Rosen-orchestrated campaign may not help Ansa as much as it did Lotus. ''Creating a lot of noise for your product reduces the risk some, but it still takes an incredible product to crack the market,'' says William Gates III, chief executive of Microsoft, the largest personal computer software company after Lotus. With a database program you can pluck from a mass of stored data the precise information you want (Rosen uses a database program, probably Ansa's, to compile his telephone list). The potential market even for a superior product -- assuming that Ansa has one -- is uncertain. After five years in the database software business, Ashton-Tate, which has 35% of the market, brings in only $70 million annually in revenues from such products. Moreover, the market for new software has never been less receptive. Launching a company in such a climate takes chutzpah, a quality Rosen has in abundance. ''It's extremely tough to enter the distribution channel now,'' says David A. Norman, chairman of Businessland, a 62-store computer chain, which hasn't decided whether to stock Ansa's program. Software distributors and retailers, in the midst of a shakeout, are reluctant to give shelf space to new programs because they are costly to sell yet account for a small fraction of revenues. Few dealers stock more than a couple of programs in any category. CORPORATE PURCHASING agents, who rank among the least venturesome buyers around, account for an increasing proportion of software sales. Most computer owners who think they need a database program already have one. Inducing them to switch to Ansa's product may be difficult. Edward Esber, chief executive of rival Ashton-Tate, warns that Ansa's program must also mesh with existing software for accounting and other specialized applications if it is to appeal to experienced customers. Rosen seems to enjoy his work as much as his status. Despite the cushion of a personal fortune estimated at $20 million, much of it invested in no-tech municipal bonds, he frequently spends 12-hour days in his New York office and travels three or four days a week to companies in Texas and California. Besides being chairman of Ansa and Compaq, he is an active director of three of the 31 companies in his venture portfolios. Rosen can easily exhaust any companion who can't get by on 5 1/2 hours' sleep, and he has an annoying ability to keep his elegant Polo suits unwrinkled during long plane flights. On weekends he catches up on sleep at the Westchester County, New York, house he shares with his wife, Alexandra, and their two sons. For all the outward charm and apparent openness, Rosen is a private man. ''You're always forced to wonder who Ben Rosen is,'' says an associate who has known him for seven years. The youngest of three children, Rosen grew up in New Orleans, where his father, a dentist, and his Latvian-born mother had moved from Canada. The marriage ended when Ben was 7, and his mother, Anna, supported and educated her children on a secretary's pay. Anna contrived to send Benji, as he was known, to Isidore Newman, a prominent private school in New Orleans. A good student and lead trombonist in the high school band, Rosen is remembered by one of his classmates as ''quiet'' and a ''loner.'' He started his first business at 13 with a mail-order photofinishing service. ''We undercut everyone and got flooded with orders,'' recalls Rosen. ''I have conveniently expunged the memory of what we did with the rolls of film.'' As a young man Rosen seemed to be following the path of his older brother, Harold, now 59, an engineer who helped develop communications-satellite technology at Hughes Aircraft. Ben earned a B.S. in electrical engineering at the California Institute of Technology and an M.S. in the same subject at Stanford. After graduation he initially worked under his brother, then at Raytheon Corp., on missile radar systems. Career No. 1 ended four years later when Rosen, evaluating his work, decided he was only a ''so-so engineer.'' Determined to make the best of his premature midlife crisis, Rosen bought a one-way boat ticket to France. With a few thousand dollars of savings, he traveled on a Vespa motor scooter along the Mediterranean, stopping at beach after beach. He asked his brother to send him a Frisbee, which was still a novelty in Europe, and introduced fellow sun worshipers to the toy. ''That may be the first instance of technological pioneering on his part,'' says Harold. When the money ran out after six months, Rosen recalls, ''I still didn't know what I wanted to do, but I had a hell of a tan.'' On his return to the U.S., Rosen switched from engineering to business. He raced through Columbia University's MBA program in a year and a half, then spent four years consulting and analyzing stocks for a technology-oriented mutual fund. That job led logically to career No. 3. Between 1965 and 1979, Rosen worked as an electronics security analyst. Ranked best in his field six years in a row by Institutional Investor magazine, he became a favorite source for journalists writing about technology. Rosen benefited mightily from being immersed in the semiconductor industry just as the microchips that run personal computers were being developed. Bored by the dry, cautious prose he had to write as an analyst, Rosen embarked on his fourth career while still in the midst of his third. He began a wide-ranging, occasionally perceptive, and often funny electronics newsletter that gained a loyal following. (In one letter he introduced a measure of ''BS per second,'' which he called the ''rhozen.'') But Rosen was making only $165,000 a year while his employer, Morgan Stanley, was raking in roughly $1 million in revenues from the newsletters and conferences Rosen put together in his spare time. ''They were very profitable,'' says Rosen, who quit in 1979 and talked Morgan Stanley into letting him take the businesses with him. Free of Morgan Stanley's strict conflict-of-interest rules, Rosen could now invest in the companies he followed and wrote about. (The rules had cost him an early chance to invest in Apple that would have earned him his first million.) He made up for lost time. His most successful bet was an early $20,000 investment in VisiCorp, which subsequently marketed the first successful spreadsheet program, VisiCalc, a predecessor to Lotus's 1-2-3. He sold those shares for $800,000 eight months after Sevin Rosen invested in Lotus. Although he was always careful to disclose his personal financial interests in any companies discussed in the newsletter, Rosen began to get unwelcome questions from Gates of Microsoft and others about his potential conflicts of interest. The problem became more acute in 1980 when Rosen teamed up with L. J. Sevin, who had co-founded the Mostek semiconductor company and sold it to United Technologies for $345 million. After an abortive attempt to start a new semiconductor company, they decided to go into venture capital on the advice of Thomas Unterberg, chairman of the New York securities firm of L.F. Rothschild Unterberg Towbin. With Unterberg's help, Sevin and Rosen raised $25 million for two funds, primarily from institutional investors, and began placing the money in start-ups like Lotus. BEFORE LONG, Rosen found himself in the awkward position of publishing reports on Lotus in his newsletter while serving on the Lotus board. After considerable delay -- about a year -- he sold the newsletter and conference business for several hundred thousand dollars to Esther Dyson, who had been writing the newsletter for him, and devoted himself full time to venture capital, career No. 5. Charges of conflicts of interest continued to dog Rosen, however. Sources close to Lotus say that IBM executives let it be known they were uncomfortable doing business with Lotus as long as Rosen -- chairman of Compaq, an IBM competitor -- remained on its board. Rosen resigned from the Lotus board, apparently fuming. The original Sevin Rosen funds have posted an annual return on investment, compounded, of 75% since 1981, mostly from Lotus and Compaq. Rosen and his partner each get 10% of the funds' appreciation. The funds can expire after seven years, at which point the capital will be distributed among the investors. With additional partners, Sevin and Rosen raised $60 million in 1983 for a new seven-year fund called Sevin Rosen Bayless Borovoy, the entity that invested the $2 million-plus in Ansa. It is much too early to judge that fund's success, since none of the 17 companies in its venture portfolio have gone public. It is also too early to evaluate Rosen's latest career. He has touted his share of flops, including the ill-fated Apple III computer, whose introduction in 1980 he described as ''the start of a revolution'' in the use of personal computers for business. Of the 31 investments Rosen and his partners have made since 1981, four have already become write-offs, for a total loss of $3.7 million. Several more -- including Quarterdeck and Menlo, both personal computer software companies -- look decidedly unpromising. Says Jacqueline Morby, a Rosen booster who is a partner in a rival venture capital firm, TA Associates: ''In this business you can't know for ten or 15 years how successful a company will be. Consistency is what counts in venture capital.'' Rosen describes his business as the art of ''applied serendipity,'' explaining that ''if you build the web wide enough you will eventually trap a good idea.'' Certainly his 2,700 contacts help, as does his lucid perspective on the electronics scene. But as technology markets mature, venture capitalists are finding it harder to locate high-potential investments. According to the San Jose Mercury News, a daily newspaper that tracks these matters, venture capitalists invested in 45% fewer technology start-ups during the first quarter of 1985 than in the same period last year. Vice President Goldschmitt of Lotus attributes the slump to resistance to new products. ''The marketplace is not ready to accept new solutions because there are adequate solutions already,'' he says. ONE WAY Rosen hopes to improve the odds is to avoid completely new solutions. He believes pioneers end up with arrows in their backs. Instead Rosen is looking for companies in markets where strong demand has already been established. A clearly superior product in such a market can push demand through the roof. Lotus's 1-2-3 not only doubled the size of the spreadsheet market that VisiCalc had established, it also helped goose sales of IBM personal computers and their clones, on which the program runs. Compaq expanded the personal computer market by producing the first portable compatible with the IBM PC. Compaq's portable is outselling IBM's portable 10 to 1. Ansa is attempting the same sort of coup in Ashton-Tate's database software market. Some Rosen observers worry that the fast-moving venture capitalist may be spreading himself too thin. Rosen, who admits that he can't sustain his hectic pace for many more years, doubts he will remain a venture capitalist beyond 1990, when the terms of his latest fund expire. As always, he doesn't know what he wants to do next. But looking back over his careers, he discerns a movement toward more creative work and suggests he might try to write a book. Rosen may in fact have some potential for a more sedentary life. Most weekends he is the sole entrant in what he calls a ''triathlon'' of his own devising. It consists of an hour of bicycling, an hour and a half of swimming, and two hours of his specialty, sunbathing. BOX: INVESTOR'S SNAPSHOT COMPAQ COMPUTER SALES (LATEST FOUR QUARTERS) $416.1 MILLION CHANGE FROM YEAR EARLIER UP 92% NET PROFIT $19.0 MILLION CHANGE UP 43% RETURN ON COMMON STOCKHOLDERS' EQUITY 16% FIVE-YEAR AVERAGE N.A.* RECENT SHARE PRICE $11.25 PRICE/EARNINGS MULTIPLE 16 TOTAL RETURN TO INVESTORS (12 MONTHS TO 8/30) 85% PRINCIPAL MARKET NASDAQ *Initial public offering 12/9/83. Explanatory notes: page 156