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Chopra Reaches the Pinnacle

In 1985, Ajay Chopra got an unexpected bonus. He was an engineering manager working on a graphics workstation for Silicon Valley-based MindSet. Great design was one of the project’s goals, but even Chopra was surprised by its reception.

“It eventually found a home in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection,” says the current COO of Pinnacle Systems.

The reason? Sleek style. The workstation’s ultra-modern design was devoid of ugly internal floppy drives. Instead, it relied on slick external modules. (And it was one of the first to use a mouse.)

Although it delivered all the processing power a graphics pro could want, the workstation lacked one major component: applications. AutoCAD software was just beginning and, though popular for industrial design, wasn’t widely used in graphics. Chopra and MindSet had a problem—creating a PC platform without software—they couldn’t solve.

MindSet eventually failed, but the experience proved a turning point in Chopra’s career. He founded Pinnacle Systems, a manufacturer of editing graphics and server products. He has held numerous titles at Pinnacle, but as COO, he makes use of the biggest lesson he learned at MindSet: Always listen to your customer.

“MindSet was heavily technology-driven,” he says. “We did things that were cool and interesting, rather than what people wanted.”

At Pinnacle, Chopra kept the client’s needs paramount. And he has grown the company from a fledgling startup to one boasting more than $350 million in annual revenue. The company has become one of the largest players in the video market, with a number of graphics, editing and storage systems available for every level of user—from home videographers to professional broadcasters.

Pinnacle’s ascendancy began in 1985, when Chopra took a hard look at the video industry. (MindSet’s video division, which he led, was the only one to make money, but it wasn’t enough to save the company.) MindSet had closed that year, having sold its technology to JVC, and Chopra and a few former MindSet employees found themselves holding informal meetings in his living room. The group decided to attend that year’s National Association of Broadcasters convention to get a sense of the market.

For Chopra, the show was a revelation. “I couldn’t believe how rich the industry was,” he says. “There was so much money. Everything was so posh and polished.”

He also spied an opening—in computers. Few companies at that time were selling computer-based systems, and Chopra was certain the broadcasting industry would embrace them.

He and his co-workers decided to exhibit at the 1985 Society of Motion Picture Television Engineers convention, armed with little more than prototypes. Pinnacle was an immediate hit, taking more than $1 million in orders. The company faced just one problem: It had no manufacturing capability.

“We raised $1 million in seed money from the venture-capital firm Alpha Partners,” he recalls. “Our company was profitable from the very beginning.”

Pinnacle’s early success could be credited to a mix of smart acquisitions, engineering and management. Two products, the Deko character generator and Thunder server, drove earnings. Chopra had found his calling.

An Emphasis on Education

Given his nomadic childhood, it was hard to predict Chopra’s stable 19 years at Pinnacle. His father was a government official in India, and the family moved frequently. Chopra attended a British boarding school near the Himalayas and college in Rajahstan. “There is no bigger priority in India than a college degree,” he says. “As each generation sees a standard of living that is improving steadily, parents invest a lot in education.”

After graduating from college in 1978, he began applying to graduate schools. He was accepted at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Carnegie Mellon, but it was SUNY Stony Brook and its scholarship that drew him. The trip to Long Island was his first to the United States.

The California bug bit Chopra when he visited for a few weeks while working with Burroughs Corp. in the early 1980s. Although it took him a year, he eventually signed on with Atari, the then-videogame giant, because it was moving into personal computing.

Two years as a system architect at Atari, coupled with his MindSet experience, set the stage for Pinnacle’s inception. “Pinnacle has been a lifetime endeavor, since I love building products, companies and career opportunities for others,” Chopra says. “It’s been 19 years, and each one has been a different challenge.”

Pinnacle’s Future

The current challenge involves navigating rocky terrain. Pinnacle, under the leadership of President and CEO Patty Hart, has begun divesting bad acquisitions. Most recently, it sold Steinberg, an audio-editing unit. Such moves give the company additional cash, while making it easier to focus on core products.

Chopra continues to be inspired. “As long as challenges continue, I’ll remain at Pinnacle.”