As Sean Wise and I roll through the Canadian edition of our tour for our latest book, Startup Opportunities: Know When to Quit Your Day Job, we’ve been talking a lot about the starting point of one’s entrepreneurial journey. I’ve talked about mine intermittently but was reminded recently about a summer that really started me down the entrepreneurial path.
Anyone out there recognize the house on the left? If your name is John Underkoffler, Pat Ruekert, or Mike Barron, you may remember one fine summer in 1986 when you lived there with me while I rented the house from Cecelia Feld for our home and office.
We worked on three different projects that summer. Pat and I worked on the software for the first major Feld Technologies customer, Bellflower Dental Group. Mike and I worked on DOSBox, which rolled into a Feld Technologies project for a while in 1987 but never went anywhere. And John and I worked on DataVision Technologies, another company I co-founded, but was ultimately unsuccessful.
While I count the real start of Feld Technologies as 1987, which was the year that Dave Jilk became my partner and we formally started up, Feld Technologies actually dates back to 1985 when I was using it simply as a consulting company for work I was doing. My first client was Petcom, a startup in the oil and gas industry where I wrote two software products – PCLog (for Well Log analysis) and PCEconomics (for economic analysis of oil and gas projects). Both were for the early IBM PC (each actually run on a dual-floppy disk 8088-based PC). Another early customer was AEC, which was a division of IHRDC (a long-time Feld Technologies customer). I can’t remember what I did for AEC, but I remember the name.
The Bellflower Dental Group project came via Kevin Parent, a fraternity brother and close friend for many years. Kevin invited me out to LA for Christmas break in 1984 and I met his step-father, Peter Wylan. Peter had a gigantic dental practice in Bellflower, CA (hence Bellflower Dental Group). He’d figured out how to be the dentist for all the union workers in the area and had something like 100 people working for him, cleaning teeth, doing bridges, putting on braces – that sort of thing. It was entirely manual – paper and insurance forms everywhere. Over a three year period I wrote, with Pat, software in Dataflex which resulted in a 100 user+ PC-based network that Bellflower ran their practice on until the early 2000s. The Y2K issue is a story for another day.
I can’t remember how Mike and I met but he was a DOS hacker and we decided to try to make a Norton Utilities like thing for all the different PC-based interrupt drivers. C was just becoming popular and most people were struggling with the linkage between C and the DOS-based interrupt schemes that let you do a bunch of things with the PC that weren’t in the higher level languages.
DataVision came out of a relationship with one of Petcom’s customers, a guy named Gabriel Prieto, who wanted to start a business around a science called Cephalometric analysis. I no longer remember Gabriel’s link to that, but it was pretty cool stuff at the time and John and I thought we could write some software to automate what was then a very manual process that included Xrays, drafting paper, rulers, and protractors.
In hindsight, all three of these projects were at the beginning of a very long arc of automation. One – the Bellflower project – was very successful. While the software that John and I wrote for DataVision (mostly John – I did architecture / design work) was “jaw dropping” (sorry – I couldn’t help myself), it turned out that there was no market for it so the company failed. And DOSBox, while neat, went the way of so many other things that were very neat hacks but had a short duration of relevance.
But the summer was special. It was the first time we were living in a house away from parents or college. We must have had four bedrooms in the house, although looking at it makes me think the bedrooms were very small. I know we each slept with a computer in a our room. They were all connected with a Netware network (something I was the master of – we were probably running Netware 2.10 – which was a beast to keep happy.) John had the coolest hardware because of the special graphics boards we needed (I think they were from Matrix but I can’t remember now – they might have been STB.)
Regardless, we were in post-adolescent nerd heaven. We kept the place clean since my mom owned it. We were far enough away from my parents that they didn’t bother us much, but it was easy to visit. I’m sure our neighbors wondered what we were doing with all the lights on at 3 am, but no one ever asked.
In some ways, it feels like yesterday, even though it was 30 years ago. And, as a bonus, I get to work with John Underkoffler on a regular basis since he’s the CEO of Oblong and we are his largest investor. We’ve both come a long way from cephalometric analysis.
Several years ago, Alex Iskold wrote a great overview of What It Is Like To Sell Your First Company. I thought it was a great description and encourage every entrepreneur who has never been through the sale of a company to read it.
Rereading Alex’s post inspired me to write my first person account of selling my first company. I’m sure I’ll get stuff wrong since it was over 21 years ago (I was 27.) But I’ll try to capture the good stuff that I can remember, especially since I know I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and could only rely on verbal conversations with other entrepreneurs I knew to help me figure things out since there was no web, no real books to read, and entrepreneurship still wasn’t a word being used regularly. When I reflect on it, independent of the modest economics, the experience changed the trajectory of my life in a very powerful and positive way, even though it was an extremely confusing time for me.
It 1993, I sold my first company, Feld Technologies, to a company called Sage Alerting Systems (which, after several name changes, became AmeriData Technologies.) It was a six month journey for me and my partner Dave Jilk which was at some points exciting, often stressful, and occasionally extremely confusing. It didn’t help that I was in the middle of a deep two year depression which I kept hidden from everyone in the world except Dave, Amy (who I was living with at the time before we got married), my parents, Eric von Hippel (my PhD advisor), and my therapist.
It started, like many things, completely randomly. When we installed a network for a client, we used a company called Allcom (run by two brothers – Jim Galvin and Mike Galvin.) They were great guys, easy to work with, and we sent some business back and forth. This was before WiFi networks so the cabling jobs, especially in downtown Boston, were never trivial, especially in the older buildings. One day, Jim called me and said something like, “Brad – we’ve been acquired and the chairman of the company wants to get together with you for lunch.” At the time I had no real idea what this meant, but figured, what the hell, I’ve got to eat.
I had lunch with Jim and Len Fassler at a restaurant near our office by South Station in downtown Boston. I can’t remember the name but it was a funky place I went to all the time. Jim and Len showed up a few minutes after me and we sat at a table. Len looked like a cross between a powerful New Yorker and Yoda – sharply dressed in his jacket and tie but short and with a friendly face weathered from experience. I was nervous. Very nervous.
We ordered and chatted for a little while. Len asked me softball questions about myself, Feld Technologies, what we did, how we did it, how many people we had, and what our backgrounds were. I can’t remember if Dave was there, but I don’t think he was. In the middle of lunch, Len said, “Jim speaks very highly of you. We’d like to buy your company.”
I was in the middle of a bowl of soup. I remember having to use all my self control so it didn’t get spit out all over the table. I wasn’t expecting this in any way, shape, or form.
We kept talking. I asked a bunch of naive questions, in the form of “What do you mean?” I remember feeling completely clueless and out of my depth. Len explained Sage Alerting Systems’ strategy, talked about how as a public company they were doing a rollup and growing quickly through acquisition, and said they were looking for a lot of small companies in the IT services business. They’d acquired a few companies so far and had LOIs out to a few more. They were really happy with Jim, Mike, and Allcom and wanted to buy more companies in Boston. I learned that they weren’t in New York, but were in Stamford, Connecticut, which I’d never been to.
Lunch ended and Len told me to think about it and call him if we were interested. I don’t really remember the next few conversations with Dave and my Dad (who was an advisory and co-owner) but I do remember a lot of vacillation on my part. Eventually Dave and I decided to go to Stamford to visit Len and his partner Jerry Poch.
We made the drive down on what I remember was a brilliantly sunny day. We didn’t really know what to expect, but when we got to Sage’s office, it was a mad-house of phone calls, people moving from room to room with stacks of paper, and rapid discussions. It was a small but lovely office overlooking the Stamford Canal (I think the address was 700 Canal Street). Len’s assistant Mildred, who I ended up getting to know pretty well over the years, greeted us and put us in the big conference room, which wasn’t very big. A new guy I hadn’t heard of yet named Jerry LeBow came in. Jerry, along with Len and Jerry Poch became a very close friend over time, but in this meeting we just sat and listened to him tell us about Sage Alerting Systems (which he was President of), the emergency warning system (which he knew more about than anyone else on the planet), and the technology he was working on. It was a one-way conversation and it became clear at some point that Lebow was filling up airtime while we were waiting for Len, but that was ok because it was interesting and we were nervous.
Eventually Len came in, apologized for keeping us waiting, and sat down to business. He’d asked us to bring our financing statements so he could look at them to come up with an offer. We gave them to him (no NDA required – we didn’t even know, or care, what an NDA was) and he started going through them. We always had very clean financials because we took it seriously so he quickly sized up our income statement and balance sheet. He asked us a few confirmatory questions, including how much salary we were each getting paid, separate from any distributions from the business, which was $100,000 / year each.
He turned over a piece of paper and scribbled an offer on it. It was 40,000 shares of Sage stock, options for another 40,000 shares of Sage stock, the cash and working capital on the balance sheet (which was about $250,000), salaries of 100k for year 1, 110k for year 2, and 120k for year 3, and 10% of the profits of our group going forward. I’m 99% sure that was the offer, although Dave might remember something different, so it’ll be interesting to see if he weighs in here and corrects us.
Len explained that was their formula for doing deals – 2x multiple of Net Income + balance sheet cash + a three year employment deal. At the time, Sage stock was around $6 / share so it was like a $500,000 offer for the business, half with cash that we’d already earned but had tied up in the business, but upside in the stock and the options. Len made the point that the stock and the options had a lot of upside.
By this point I think Len could have offered us $1 for the business and we would have taken it. We were both totally burned out running the company, had never really thought about the business, were excited about the idea of being able to sell it, and entranced by what was going on around us. Remember that I was very depressed (although I used up all my energy not showing it) and I’m sure Dave was totally worn out from dealing with me. I knew I liked Len from lunch and fell in love with him in that meeting, a love which endures to this day.
Len didn’t propose this as a “bid/ask” type offer – it was a very soft, straightforward “take it or leave it” offer – and it was clear that they were doing lots and lots of transactions and if we weren’t interested, that was fine and they’d quickly move on.
Suddenly Jerry Poch came in the room. In contrast to Len’s calm fatherly approach, Jerry was awesomely full of fire, power, and energy. He was loud, aggressive, and enthusiastic. He knew about us, even though we hadn’t met yet, told us how excited he was to be talking to us, and mentioned how the Galvin’s thought we were great and hoped we could do a deal together. And, before I knew it, he was gone, off to the next thing.
I remember meekly telling Len to send us an offer. I remember shaking hands and vaguely felt like we’d just agreed to a deal. We said our goodbyes, Dave and I left the office, and went to our car for the three hour drive back to Boston.
to be continued…
Do you remember your first board meeting? I do. Well, I sort of do, kind of, maybe.
Danielle Morrill of Mattermark memorialized her first board meeting on the web in her post Post Series A Life: Reflecting on Our First Board Meeting and What It’s Like Working with Brad. It’s a detailed view of her expectations leading up to the first board meeting we had along with the blow by blow from her perspective of the board meeting.
I have two simple pieces of feedback to Danielle, Kevin, and Andy about the board meeting. First, bring the rest of the leadership team the next time so we have a room full of the team for most of the meeting. Second, you did great – I love the style of board meeting we had.
We didn’t have board meetings at Feld Technologies – we didn’t really have a board. There were three owners – me, Dave Jilk, and my dad. Dave and I had a monthly offsite where we went away for a day and an overnight somewhere within driving distance of Boston. We did this eight to ten times a year and these were some of the most powerful and useful working days, and personal days, we had together. Once a year my dad would join us for a long weekend somewhere where we hung out, talked about the business, and drove around New England.
My first real board meeting was at NetGenesis. I remember the place – an MIT classroom. I remember the attendees – Rajat Bhargava, Eric Richard, Matt Cutler, Matthew Gray, and Will Herman. The chalkboard was black, the chalk was white and dusty. Will and I had each invested $25,000 for a total of 20% of the company. It was 1994. The meeting was around a wooden MIT classroom table that looked like it was from 1894. I don’t remember much of the meeting, except we wrote lots of lots of things on the chalkboard. There were no PowerPoint slides.
I remember my first board meeting for a company I joined as an outside board member. This company was SBT Accounting Systems, based in San Rafael, California. I flew to San Francisco from Boston, stayed overnight in the city, and drove over the Golden Gate Bridge. I’d only been to San Rafael once before, presumably to interview for the board position under the auspices of spending the day at the company. I was nervous because I had no idea what to expect. I showed up a little early, was ushered into the very large board room, and fed breakfast of bagels, pastries, fruit, and coffee. For some reason, I remember eating so much that I was full before the meeting started. SBT always had outstanding, freshly ground coffee filtered through Melitta cone filters which meant that I often drank way too much coffee. Unlike my NetGenesis board meetings, and the few others that I had started attending like ThinkFish’s, this one was formal. Everyone took their place at the table, with blue board books in front of them, and “the show” began. After a number of years of faithful service, I left that board, but I learned a lot and remember the time on that board as helpful to forming my view of an ideal board meeting.
My book, Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors, covers what I’ve learned over the ensuing hundreds of first board meetings, and thousands of board meetings, I’ve participated in. While the book was hard to write, and at some points I feared that it would be excruciatingly “boring” to read, the feedback has been positive, especially from entrepreneurs and CEOs like Danielle who are having their first “real board meeting.”
Just remember – keep it real, not fake. Be yourself. And own the meeting.
Dave Jilk, my partner in Feld Technologies, recently dug up a bunch of old stuff. I blogged one of the documents recently – The Simple Formal Beginnings Of Feld Technologies – and have a few other fun ones coming.
Today, let’s look at another example of a contract that we signed in the context of “keeping it simple.” Over the seven years we were in business, we used a very simple form we referred to as a “Professional Services Agreement.” This was the document that we signed with almost all of our clients. Every now and then we had to deal with something more complicated, but even large companies typically were willing to sign this agreement in 1990.
Over the life of Feld Technologies, we were never sued. We had our share of difficult client situations and were fired a few times, but were always direct and straightforward in how we dealt with stuff. We tried to always keep it at a business level and have a personal relationship with our clients so that when projects got into a difficult place, we could get together and work them out directly. And even when the answer was to part ways, we were always graceful about it.
The PSA shown above is our standard, but listing us as the client and MaK Technologies as the vendor. I believe it’s the first piece of business for MaK Technologies, a company co-founded by my long time and close friend Warren Katz. Dave and I met Warren through his wife Ilana, who was the employee #7 at Feld Technologies.
One of our clients was Monitor Company, at the time a young but very rapidly growing consulting firm in Cambridge. They used a bunch of Sun Workstations for all of their presentations (this was in the time of Harvard Graphics – well before the ubiquity of PowerPoint – which was completely inadequate for what they did). Instead, they used the Sun’s and Interleaf running on Unix. While we had a lot of hardware and networking expertise, we didn’t do anything with Unix (we were all about DOS and Novell Netware) so we subcontracted Warren’s company to help us with the Unix stuff at Monitor.
Warren and I have done many things together – some that have worked and some that haven’t. Twenty-two years later we still do business with a handshake. Warren has a great chapter about this in Do More Faster. Remember – keep it simple.
My first business partner, Dave Jilk, emailed me our original partnership agreement for Feld Technologies. It’s one page.
We incorporated a month later as an S-Corp. It cost us $99 to do this – I remember using an organization called The Company Corporation – we called an 800 number, gave them some information, and the documents were automatically generated and filed. A short letter agreement specifying the equity splits and the boilerplate legal docs were the only legal docs we had until we sold the company in 1993.
As my partner Jason Mendelson told me after I sent him this the other day, “If things go well, it’s fine. If they don’t, it’s a fucking disaster.” And he’s completely correct – in this case things went well so there were no issues.
I continue to try to do deals this way. I lay out the terms, will negotiate a little, but am clear about what I want. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, I move on. Once the simple terms are agreed to, I let the lawyers generate hundreds of pages of documentation to support the deal. I used to read every word on every page myself (I learned that from Len Fassler, who bought Feld Technologies). I still look through the documents, but I only work with lawyers who I deeply trust to do it right (like Mike Platt at Cooley) so I focus on the stuff that matters for the specific deal.
Trust matters more than anything else to me in a deal. Sure, I occasionally get screwed in a deal, but never more than once by the same person. And, for people like Dave Jilk and my dad, I’ll work with them over and over and over again because I trust them with my life.
Keep it simple. It’s much better.
Ben Horowitz from Andreessen Horowitz has a beautiful post up titled The Struggle. He captures – in words – what many entrepreneurs, especially entrepreneurial CEOs go through. I’ve heard variants of it many times over the years and have experienced it myself in several companies where I’ve been the entrepreneur and many companies where I’ve been the investor. Ben states that there is no answer to The Struggle but offers some things that may or may not help.
I’d like to take it one step further and explain the brilliance of The Struggle. And I’ll begin at the end, by starting with one my favorite John Galt quotes.
“It’s not that I don’t suffer, it’s that I know the unimportance of suffering.” – John Galt
When you accept the complete and total unimportance of suffering, you can actually enjoy The Struggle. It’s just a step along the way, another experience in life, of the cumulative experiences before we ultimately die. Suffering, The Struggle, disappointment, failure, and self-doubt – these are all part of being an entrepreneur. And that brings to mind the famous Nietzsche quote.
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Remember always that we all will die. And it’s unlikely that The Struggle will kill us. If we approach it the right way it will make us stronger. Here are a few examples from my first company, Feld Technologies (1987 – 1993).
Hyperion: While Feld Technologies was a software consulting company, the companies that installed the networks that our software ran on (mostly PC-based Novell Networks) were so shitty that we set up our own small network installation group. Some of our clients wanted to buy everything from us so we also sold them the hardware. We made about 20% margin on the hardware so this was worthwhile, especially since we were able to bill by the hour for all the time we spent on this stuff. People liked working with us – all of our new business either was “random” or “word of mouth.” We ended up working for a bunch of Boston-based VC firms and several of them referred us to their biotech investments. In the early 1990’s, biotech was white hot – these companies raised tons of money and spent it on crazy wet lab facilities, which included lots and lots of hardware. I can’t remember much about Hyperion other than they were out on 495 somewhere (it was a long drive) and they bought a bunch of hardware from us. They paid intermittently and one day we realized they owed us around $75,000 and hadn’t paid us in over 60 days. For another 30 days I called and kept getting promised checks, which never came. I vividly remember The Struggle – I was lying in bed with Amy in our apartment at 15 Sleeper Street (Apt 304 in case you were curious). It was the middle of the night and I couldn’t sleep. Amy could feel the wheels turning in my brain and asked me what was wrong. I told her I was worried Feld Technologies wasn’t going to make payroll because Hyperion owed us $75,000. I then went in the bathroom and threw up. It’s important to realize that it wasn’t that we were out $75,000, but the hardware had cost us 80% of this and we’d already paid our hardware vendor so we were really out over $125,000. We were a $1.5m-ish self-funded business at the time so this was a devastatingly large amount of money for us. After a sleepless night, on a totally empty stomach, I got in my car and drove out to Hyperion. They were still there (thankfully) – I then sat in the lobby until the CFO would meet with me, and I stayed in his office until he brought me a check for whatever they owed us. They went out of business a few months later.
Avatar: My parter Dave Jilk and I were at a gas station filling up his red Ford Tempo with gas on our way to Avatar in Hopkinton. We knew it was going to be a terrible meeting and each of us was incredibly anxious. We were in the middle of The Struggle. We’d taken on our first Mac custom software project and were using an RDBMS called ACI 4D which was new to us. It was one of the two choices on the Mac at the time (the other was Blythe Omnis) – each had their own version of suckage especially when compared to the PC-based 4GL called Clarion that we used for most of our clients. We we’re really struggling with 4D – performance on the Mac was awful, the networking dynamics were weak (and the Mac networking software was terribly slow at the time), and our understanding of how to really tune it was non-existant. We had heard of some successful 4D implementations but they were hard to find out much about. We knew this was likely our final meeting where we’d get fired, even though that rarely happened in our world. We were meeting with Tom Bogan, the CEO, and a few other people on his team. We liked Tom a lot – he was a very direct and thoughtful CEO and we knew we were failing him. Over the preceding months, we had tried extremely hard and worked many unbillable hours trying to get things working, but just couldn’t. I don’t remember the ACI folks being very helpful and I remember a number of conversations with Dave about “the fucking Macintosh.” We were deep in The Struggle. Tom eventually fired us (I don’t remember if it was at that meeting or not). He and I lost touch over the years (I’m sure he was glad to be rid of us) until I had breakfast with him in Boulder in 1997 when he was first looking at investing in Rally Software. I started out the meal by saying “hi – sorry we did such a crummy job for you at Avatar” and he responded, graciously, with “that was a long time ago, wasn’t it.”
I’ve got a lot more stories like this from Feld Technologies and several other companies I co-founded, including Interliant and Email Publishing, along with long stretches of time at Mobius Venture Capital. All of them share The Struggle and when I reflect on it from my perch at 46.5 years old, I recognize the unimportance of suffering.
I’m fascinated with first offices. I’m not talking about the bedroom, the dorm room, the garage, or the apartment. I’m talking about the first real office. Here’s mine.
Bill Warner took this picture of me standing in front of 875 Main Street in Cambridge, MA last year. My first real office – for Feld Technologies – was the fourth floor. The building is a narrow five story building (three windows on the front) – long and skinny – 1600 square feet total. The elevator opened directly into the office, the front of the building (that you see) was to the left; the bulk of the space was to the right. I vaguely remember a cave like office near the back along with the bathroom and lots of open space in the middle. When we moved in all of the left over shit from Pegasystems was still there – they were the previous tenant.
While I had offices in my bedroom at my fraternity (351 Massachusetts Avenue) and in my bedroom at my parents house in Dallas, this was my first real office. We had to take out the garbage and the place always smelled like damp, sweaty, anxious nerds. We had some great times and some awful times, but this was where it all really started for me.
Where was your first real office?
Steve Bell of Startup Trek came to Boulder about a month ago and did an interview with a bunch of Boulder people, including me. Following is part one (12 minutes) of the interview where I talk some about my history, my first company Feld Technologies, and the Feld Technologies’ motto (“we suck less.”)
I also spend some time talking about how I first learned how to do deals, acquire companies, and make angel investments. You get to learn how I met Fred Wilson, Rich Levandov, and Jerry Colonna. And, as a special bonus, you get to see a reasonably tired version of my avatar sitting in one of the chairs in my office.
Every now and then I run across someone who is still using software that we wrote at Feld Technologies. Some of this software dates back to 1987 – a fact that never ceases to amaze me. And – no, I can no longer provide tech support at any price.
We didn’t have much swag at Feld Technologies. In fact, I think the only swag we had, other than a few t-shirts which still make their appearance every now and then, is the mug pictured above. A fraternity brother of mine from MIT emailed me this picture recently – apparently this mug sits on his desk and serves a very mug-like purpose.
I remember how agonizing it was to buy these mugs. Should we get 50? 100? There was probably a price break at 200 and we even considered that. Were they too plain? Should we spend an extra $0.17 per mug and get a grey background to match our stationary? Who should we give them to? Should we charge for them? Decisions, decisions.
Anyone recognize that font?