Napkin Sketches – The Story of Compaq Computers

CPS - Napkin Sketches

A firefly enters your field of vision and you reach out to grab it.  But as quickly as it appeared, it vanished.  

Ideas are just as fleeting.

Ideas are known to dance just out of reach when you look for them.  They sneak up on you in the shower. They come into existence fully formed just as you are about to fall asleep, and promise you they’ll still be there when you wake.  But they lie.

Anyone who relies on ideas knows that if you find an idea, you better capture it in a jar before it flies away.  Our engineers at Custom Powder learned years ago to be ready when ideas come to visit. Some record a voice note on a smartphone.  Others keep a note pad handy. And, if it’s absolutely necessary, you can always write it down on a napkin.

Because so much of what we do for our clients is customized, our engineers are constantly thinking up new ways to solve problems.  Engineers in all industries share this trait. A mad puzzle of disconnected ideas flits through the air…until one day…BAM! It seems to fall together on its own, and it gets scribbled down on a napkin.

compaq sketch
Original Sketch of the Compaq, drawn in a “House of Pies” restaurant in Houston TX.

Joseph “Rod” Canion, along with two coworkers at Texas Instruments, had one of these “napkin moments,” and the result became known as Compaq Computers.  One morning over a stack of pancakes, Canion came up with an idea that would give us a portable computer.

At 28 pounds it wasn’t quite ready to be called a “laptop.”  Laps weren’t ready for that kind of burden. But the scribbles on a napkin from a pancake place told these three they were on to something big.  Instead of working for someone else, they ventured out on their own. Canion told investors they expected sales between $20 and $30 million in the first year…and they all laughed.  “That was unheard of,” he said. A company had never started with their first-year sales that high.” It’s true that his estimate was wrong. It turned out he guessed way too low. After the first year in business, Compac Computers made over $111 million.  By the second year, that number was $329 million.  

If you speak with our engineers here at Custom Powder, you’ll likely hear a story similar to Canion’s.  Growing up, he liked to tinker. Hot rods were his hobby, and that would lead him to pursue an engineering degree.  Our tinkering-engineers can be found building remote-controlled planes, gardening, and repairing pinball machines.  

All engineering ideas need to work within a framework.  Architects must abide by the laws of gravity and physics.  Automobile manufacturers need to follow federal regulations.  Custom Powder technicians need to know laws and understand the realities of your business.  And the young creators of Compaq had to come up with a computer that would be compatible with industry standards.

This was years before the words “plug-and-play” or “user-friendly” would be connected to computers.  They had to figure out a way to make their Compaq Computers work with most of the software and add-ons available.  We think nothing of that today, but in the mid-80s scribbling this out on a napkin would prove to be revolutionary.

Compaq would become the fastest company to ever make it onto the Fortune 500 list, achieving that honor in just four years.  In an industry that was dominated for decades by IBM, Compaq also became one of the first young computer companies to give them serious competition.  And they wouldn’t be the last.

Many businesses stretching from Silicon Valley all the way to our company in the Ozarks, rely on intuitive people coming up with new ideas. 

If your company finds itself stuck for a new way to tackle and old problem, we have a team of whip-smart engineers and a big stack of napkins ready to come up with a fantastic solution.

Some of the greatest ideas in history came to life by writing them on a scrap of paper, the back of an envelope, or as you read in today’s story, on a House of Pies restaurant napkin.

At Custom Powder, we believe in working with you every step of the way, from pencil to product. We realize that inspiration often strikes at the most inopportune times, and sometimes you just have to grab what’s in front of you and write it down. You’re not alone.

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