They Can’t Kill You And They Can’t Eat You
It’s the summer of 2001. The NASDAQ peak is in the rear view mirror. Many Internet companies are struggling. I’m sitting at the breakfast table at Len Fassler’s house in Harrison, New York drinking a cup of coffee and chewing on a bagel.
Len and I co-founded Interliant (originally Sage Networks) with Steve Maggs and Rajat Bhargava in 1996. We took Interliant public in 1999 on the second attempt (the SEC didn’t clear the filing until a week after the end of the first road show, our first of many misfires with Merrill Lynch, who was our lead banker.) At the peak in the spring of 2000 Interliant hit $55 / share and was worth over $3 billion. By breakfast in the summer of 2001, the stock was trading under $1 / share.
I was exhausted. In addition to my role as co-chairman of Interliant (Len was my co-chairman), I was also a partner at Mobius Venture Capital, sitting on over 25 boards, including five non-US companies. I was on three other public company boards, including being co-chairman of MessageMedia with Jerry Poch, who was Len’s partner in their previous company (AmeriData Technologies – which had bought my first company – Feld Technologies – in 1993). I’d known Len and Jerry for almost eight years and was deep in it with each of them in parallel universes, as MessageMedia was also trading at under $1 / share that summer after reaching a high of $15 / share (and a $1.5 billion market cap) in the spring of 2000.
Back to breakfast. I’m chewing on my bagel staring out the kitchen window wondering what new version of a fucked up shit storm I was going to experience during the inevitable long day that would unfold. I no longer remember why I was at Len’s house that day, but I often stayed at his house when I was spending time at Interliant’s headquarters which was in Purchase, NY. I do remember that the coffee was hot.
Len walked in with a bounce in his step like he had every time I saw him. He stopped, looked at me, and said “what’s wrong?”
I looked up at him and said, “I’m tired. I didn’t sleep well last night. I know today is going to suck. I don’t feel like I can catch a break.”
He looked at me, walked over slowly, stood behind me, put his hands on my shoulders, and said, “Suit up. They can’t kill you and they can’t eat you. We’ll get through it.”
He then gave me a hug from behind. He patted me on the chest and went to get a cup of coffee. I sat there silently for a moment, stood up, turned around, and smiled at Len.
“Thanks,” I said, from the bottom of my heart.
This time he gave me a real hug.
That was the moment when everything changed for me. Len had already had an extremely successful business career. His last company – the one he built with Jerry Poch that had acquired my first company – was bought in 1996 by GE Capital for $500 million. He didn’t have to co-found Interliant with me, Steve, and Rajat. He certainly didn’t have to get up every day and go to the office, which by the summer of 2001 was a real business battle on multiple fronts.
But he did. With a smile. Not just for him, but for everyone he worked with.
Since I’d first met Len in the spring of 1993, he was beloved by almost everyone around him. Sure, every now and then someone didn’t fall head over heals for him, but the number of people who would follow him anywhere, do anything for him, and work tirelessly for whatever he was involved in were endless.
I was one of them.
In that moment, I realized why. Ever since I had met Len, he gives more than he gets. The amount of energy he put into me, and his relationship with me, was unexpected by me when he bought Feld Technologies in 1993. I immediately felt a connection to him and his partner Jerry, which is part of what caused me to ultimately agree to sell Feld Technologies to them. As time passed, I felt loyal to Jerry, and learned an enormous amount from him, but I loved Len.
In the summer of 2001, I felt guilty about dragging Len into the mess that had become Interliant. When I’d mention this to him, he’d tell me to let it go – it was his choice to get involved. As the shit got deeper, there was no time to feel guilty as all our energy was aimed at trying to save this company that was clearly failing.
There wasn’t a single day that Len didn’t give it his all. Even after the point at which he knew there was no way he’d see a dime from Interliant. We had both invested money up front along with a huge amount of time and personal credibility into the company. We had each hired friends, bought companies from people we knew (and had gotten to know), and spent late nights doing unnatural acts to get the company to the point where, in 2000, it was doing $50 million of revenue a quarter and seemed to be a very successful Internet business.
One year later we were on a steep downhill slope to a failed business. But Len kept showing up every day and doing everything he knew how to do for all the people still involved. Including me.
As we got in his car to drive to Purchase, with the ever-present smell of cigars that Len smoked on walks and the end of the day, I once again told him thanks. I didn’t realize it yet, but that morning fundamentally shaped the way I would think about the rest of my working life.
They can’t kill you and they can’t eat you.
And, if that’s true, why do you do it? And how do you do it?