With Oracle likely to sell more than $18 billion in software this year, it's hard to believe the world's second-largest software company in its infancy in 1977 had $2,000 pooled by its four founders. And its first "CFO" was the accounting student who delivered pizzas to the startup.
With Oracle turning 30 this year, CEO Larry Ellison kicked off this week's Oracle OpenWorld conference Sunday night by recounting the company's early steps -- and often-comical missteps -- through its three-decade history. "We had no adult supervision whatsoever," Ellison said, speaking before this year's 42,000 registered attendees.
Ellison dedicated the evening to Robert Miner, one of the company's co-founders, who died in 1994 of mesothelioma.
The evening, dubbed "Sunday Night Live 30" in a takeoff of the long-running NBC comedy show, included sketches by several Saturday Night Live actors, including Kevin Nealon and Victoria Jackson, making fun of Oracle's early database development work for the CIA and Oracle's penchant for acquiring other companies.
Ellison and Miner, who worked together at Ampex in the 1970s, started Software Development Laboratories in 1977 to develop database software for the CIA under the code name "Oracle." The Silicon Valley company had $2,000 in funding from Ellison, Miner and co-founders Ed Oates and Bruce Scott. And the startup had a cardboard sign in front of its first office.
Some of the anecdotes related by Ellison: The company bid $300,000 for the CIA project with the next biggest bid hitting $2 million -- an example of how little the founders understood finances. The company kept no real financial books for its first two years and Ellison and company had no idea what a balance sheet was. When they discovered that the man who delivered pizza to the company every night was a Berkeley accounting student, they convinced him to quit school and become the company's first CFO.
The original "terabit database" project for the CIA failed and in 1982 the company changed its name to Oracle. ("Because the project failed, the name was available," Ellison said.) The CEO also admitted that the first version of the company's relational database was dubbed Release 2.0. "Who would buy Version 1 of a database from four guys in California?" Ellison said. He also related a story of a confrontation with a marine guard at CIA headquarters when he lost his security badge while installing the company's software at CIA headquarters.
Eventually the company's sales began to grow, and at one point reached $48,000, "which for us was an unimaginable number," Ellison said. But success brought responsibilities: "We had to start wearing suits. Or at least long pants and socks."
President and CFO Safra Catz took a few minutes to describe some of Oracle's philanthropic programs, including donating software and related resources to high schools and colleges. And the evening opened with music by cover band Gear Driver, made up of Oracle employees -- including Doug Kennedy, senior vice president of worldwide alliances and channels, on the drums.
And the evening began with an effort to get the audience to spell out "30" using provided sheets of red cardboard, North Korean stadium-style.