Thirty years before "140 characters" meant anything at South by Southwest Interactive, 15 years before the dot-com boom and bust and eight years before Michael Dell moved into that dorm room, there was James Truchard's garage.
There, Truchard and fellow University of Texas researchers Jeff Kodosky and William Nowlin gave rise to National Instruments, which formally celebrates its 40th anniversary with a shindig Saturday at The Thinkery children's museum.
Not many Austin tech firms have celebrated 40th birthdays, so Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who's been taking some heat from the high-tech community over the Uber-Lyft standoff, has declared Saturday to be NI Day in the company's honor.
“Austin has innovation in its DNA, and National Instruments is a big reason why," the mayor said in a statement. "A global technology industry leader with deep Austin roots, a long history of giving to the community and empowering students in STEM education, NI is a true role model in Austin."
In a city obsessed with comparing how things are now with how they used to be, National Instruments is decidedly old-school. Its 1976 founding came on the heels of Austin's high-tech wave of 1960s pioneers such as Tracor, IBM and Texas Instruments and preceded the 1980s next wave led by Dell Computer.
Still headquartered in Austin, National Instruments today boasts 7,400 employees and offices in 50 countries designing testing and instrumentation equipment that helps other tech companies do their work.
The National Instruments creation story has been told many times. Here's how 512tech's Lori Hawkins described it in a 1997 story not long after the company finally made the move to go public:
National Instruments is a veteran among home-grown Austin high-tech companies.
It was founded in 1976 by three University of Texas researchers, Truchard, Jeff Kodosky and William Nowlin, after they decided that PCs could be used for high- end testing.
They worked from Truchard's garage, borrowing $10,000 from the bank to buy a computer, and later an additional $7,500. Earnings were put back into the company, which enabled them to avoid taking on additional debt or venture capital.
``We didn't even think about trying to raise venture capital because we didn't meet the requirements, '' Truchard says. ``We had no background in business, no management people on board and no track record. Besides, if we had gotten money, we wouldn't have known what to do with it.''
Their goal was to build powerful, adaptable software that would still be easy to use for scientists and engineers. The company's flagship product, LabView, uses computer graphics to mimic the knobs and dials of an engineering instrument, such as an oscilloscope. By operating a computer mouse, the user can manipulate the controls.
``If we didn't have LabView, we'd be spending time creating our own software to test and verify our equipment, '' says Mark DeVinney, technical team leader at Alcatel Network Systems in Richardson. ``LabView is easy for noncomputer people to use and maintain. It makes us more efficient, and that saves us money.''
Revenues have grown every year, and the company reported its only year-end loss in 1989 when it began opening international offices in Europe. After a rocky start, it has expanded quickly abroad. Today it has offices across Western Europe as well as in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Australia, Israel, Brazil and India.
International sales have grown from less than 20 percent 10 years ago to about half of revenues today.
Because it had enough cash to pay for expansion, National Instruments, which had closely guarded revenues figures and other financial information, was in no rush to become a public company.
But by 1995, it had so many shareholders, most of them employees, that continuing to grant stock options to new employees would have made it a de facto public company. (Securities regulations limit the number of shareholders private companies can have.)
The company went public in March 1995 at $14.25 a share, raising $39.7 million.
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