I’ve read one-too-many tech boom-to-bust sob stories lately and now I have the urge to just summarize them all as follows:
I got my ticket on the tech boom gravy train back in 1997 when a stranger I had shared a taxi with pitched me a leading technical position at his new start-up company, Yellow River. The next day I was interviewing for the job in his top-floor mid-town office suite overlooking the Bay. I was asked who invented the dumbwaiter (luckily I knew it was Thomas Jefferson) and how to best move a flock of sheep between two moving icebergs, and before I could answer I was hired.
Rick, our CEO, and his college drinking buddies had a revolutionary idea that was going to change the world. All they needed was more investors, 300 programmers, 200 administrative staffers, a mile of warehousing space, a fleet of private jets, and a few international trade treaties to be rewritten. Our software afterall would forever change the way people adjust the brightness and contrast of their computer screens. I was an area of computing that was wide open and untouched: the monitor, the screen itself. People adjust brightness and contrast on their screens all the time manually pushing big old fashioned buttons and twisting knobs and dials, and they have to be in front of the monitor to do it. This is where Rick saw the opportunity: Why not let people adjust their screen settings from anywhere in the world over the web? At the time we could barely comprehend how profound of a concept that was, and I was excited to be part of it.
In no time we had investors beating down our office door. Because of our tight non-disclosure agreements we couldn’t even explain to our investors what exactly we were working on, we could only tell them it was going to be “big and yellow.” Thus the project code name “Big Yellow” which we later had to hire lawyers to wrestle that trademark away from the Yellow Pages, but it was worth the battle because we liked the color yellow, it meant something to us, and for our investors it was all they had from us so far.
I was charged with hiring our entire technical staff of programmers, tech support reps, internal support, networking, and field technicians. Although I didn’t see the harm in it at the time I immeditaely hired all of my friends from the local role-players’ gaming club to fill out the top technical positions in the company. Some of them had actual computer experience and others were just really cool people to hang out with. We worked long hours together, only it didn’t feel like work because we turned our management process into a role-playing game, another revolutionary idea that we were very proud of.
The trouble started when we missed our first ship date. Little did we realize it at the time but most computer monitors settings can not be controlled through software, a major setback. It also didn’t help that most of my staff had been put on the “Bigger and Bright Yellow” project which Rick’s cousin Nell was personally managing. Soon there were a clash of personalities and unexpected failures in our role-playing-modeled management process. Investors were also starting to demand some kind of description of what our product was supposed to do and our lawyers couldn’t hold them back much longer. After Rick came back from his new time-share in the Italian Riveria, we had the talk I was dreading all along. I was being replaced. Rick’s brother-in-law Jed had just been certified to repair PCs and other electronic devices and now his wife wanted Rick to make Jed as our new CTO. Jed was a smart kid in his own way, but he clearly did not know anything about role-playing games. That made it difficult for us to respect him as our boss.
But we worked hard and the money didn’t mean anything to us. As long as my stock options were still worth more than $20 million, and my salary was twice the market rate, the money didn’t mean anything. These were the fun times. Our office was a playpen of ideas and creativity, we had really smart people and free soda, as much as you could drink all day and night.
By 1999 it was all over. None of us saw it coming. Our executives were dragged out of the office in handcuffs; apparently the investors decided to play dirty and called the FBI on us. I couldn’t believe they would accuse us of fraud — we had a product, we just hadn’t finished thinking about how to make it yet. The saddest part came when I had to fire my friends. They felt betrayed, the week before we were shopping for luxury yachts and now they were wondering how they would make rent next month. All I had left from my years at Porkius was the twelve-sided die we used to cast our most important executive decisions.
Still I am ambivalent about the outcome. After all, I have learned some valuable lessons: never trust guys named Rick — Rick is an asshole, Rick lied to me; never trust investors; hire only the friends who play the same games you do; and wait until the computer monitor market matures before stepping back out there.