Note: Names and products are kept intentionally vague to protect the innocent… mostly me!
In 1999 I interviewed for the CTO position at a well-funded start-up. I was flattered by the offer, but the job was in a high tech incubator 100 miles away from where I lived, and it was more of a CIO position anyway — babysitting web servers. I’m a product developer at heart and I wanted to build things.
On my way out the door the CEO of the incubator asked me to listen to another idea he had. For several hours I sat in his office while we discussed his vision. Then *he surprised me by asking to me to start a whole new company based on this idea.* The incubator would fund me, I could open a small office back home and hire a couple of developers. I’d get a small percentage of the company and a decent salary. I said yes!
Soon I had my cheap, little office above a bar in an decent part of town, hired a couple of young developers and started putting together the proof of concept. Once a month I would travel back to the incubator, report what we had done and take care of paperwork for accounting, payroll, etc. It soon became obvious that the original idea would require industry partners. That’s when the incubator hired my startup’s first CEO.
Up until that time I was acting as the head of the company, but the new guy was great. He made phone calls, knew people and had a good sense of how to conduct the sales and business development for the company. He had lots of charisma. Meanwhile, I got to concentrate on creating a great product.
While working on the product we were pre-selling to customers in our target vertical. It was interesting because clients seemed more interested in talking about their current issues than what our soon-to-be-delivered product could do for them. One issue kept coming up over and over again — but the web browsers simply were not made to do what they were asking for.
Then, one night in 2000, it came to me in a dream… (I swear, it’s true!) I bolted out of bed, sat down at my computer and had a prototype done 12 hours later. On my next trip to the incubator, I sat in a board room with my CEO, the incubator CEO and a few other people. I brought my demo up on the big LCD projector screen and everyone’s jaw dropped. No one had ever seen anything like it. Within days a patent was filed, our old product idea was dropped and my “dream” became the focus of our company. That Fall we introduced the product at a big trade show in New York and won “best of show” in the same category Microsoft had a product competing in. We were golden!
Sales were a bit slow, mostly because it was hard to describe to customers why they would want this product until they saw it. Also, it was a Windows-only product for Internet Explorer. (Remember that this was 2000: Netscape and Macs did not have industry wide support.)
Then the bubble burst. Payroll was late. I drove down to the incubator to find them boxing up expensive glass desks and Aeron chairs. The CEO informed me that the incubator was closing. I would have to let my developers go and close my office; I would have to work alone from my apartment. As he killed the two dozen other companies at the incubator he decided that he believed so much in our product, he was going to personally become CEO of my company and keep it going. Our current CEO, the nice guy I got along with, decided it was the end of the ride for him, and he left.
What followed are what I now call “the lean years”. You never knew if a paycheck was going to show up. My incubator-now-startup CEO was working on two or three ideas at the same time. As my savings account dwindled, I redoubled my efforts: I wasn’t going to let this die. I came up with second product. We filed a second patent and began selling anew. This new product got some traction. After a year, a group of investors on the east coast expressed interest in investing in Version 2.0 of us. They insisted we move the startup to the east coast, and we’d need a new CEO. I was part of the deal, but I had to sign a two-year employment contract and move my family 500 miles away to an expensive and uncomfortable city. Long story short: I packed up my family and moved.
Three years later the company is doing very well. We have fifteen employees, millions in sales and a team that works really well together. We’ve spent a decent amount on PR (I truly believe in the “The Fall of Advertising & the Rise of PR” by Al and Laura Ries) and have received a nice amount of press. Our CEO was on CNBC a couple times and we’re consistently mentioned in trade journals. One thing I got used to is that every press release we put out has a PR-crafted quote from our CEO saying something impressive. The press likes the CEO. He’s the face of the company.
Last year we had a nice big article about us written in the local newspaper. I was interviewed for over an hour by the reporter. I gave her the back-story — my invention of the products, all the all-nighters and going through “the lean years”. The article hit the front page of the business section on a Friday: It was a huge story. There was picture our CEO in front of a screenshot of the product I had poured my heart into. I looked for my name. The whole history of the company was there. I read the article again. I was not mentioned. Not my name. Not my importance to the company. *I had become The Unknown Founder.*
I was furious at first. I’ve cooled off since then. You can’t control what a reporter chooses to include in their stories. You can barely control what your PR firm pitches to reporters. I’ve spoken to business friends who are not surprised that a founder, maybe for publicity purposes, had ceased to exist. They all agree, *founders tend to become less important as a company matures*. The Bill Gates of the world are rare. This is the way of things.
I’ve had a wild ride, I’ve had success, and I’ve learned a hell of a lot. I’m taking pride in what I’ve built, the jobs I’ve created and the customers I’ve helped with my company. My partners, my investors and most importantly my wife know my story and they are proud of what I’ve accomplished. I’m beginning to embrace the paper bag that was placed over my head… especially if it means the company might go on to greater success by giving the limelight to the “face” of our company.
I’m still with my company, though I’ve started moonlighting on another idea. You can read about my progress at: http://unknownfounder.blogspot.com
7 thoughts on “The Invisible Man”
Thanks for providing a riveting & instructive account of the often thankless & selfless task of building a company. Not everyone is willing to check their ego at the door to success.}
Great article. Really interesting to hear stories like this.}
A certain balance is needed to keep the sanity in a growing business. While a CEO may be the “face” of the business and speak publicly to the world, other team members are the heart and creativity of it. In your case, it would be nice to receive more from the public, but as mentioned, the ones who know that you are behind the scenes appreciate you and know the difference.
I believe that there is also recognition that is given internally within an organization, and based on your efforts, I really hope this was noticed and granted.
It all sounds very unbelievable to me. Not just the fact that all the “CEO”s of your company let you be in the shadows, but also that you too didn’t mind being there.}
Correct me if I’m wrong and reading too much between the lines, but the key phrase is “we discussed his vision,” with the emphasis on “his vision”, and not “your vision”. Having that spark, that vision, is what captures the imagination of the people and the press, not toiling away in obscurity, no matter how important that is to the development of the project.
Ever hear of William Joseph Hammer? He was Thomas Edison’s lab assistant and probably one of the many guys in Menlo Park who really pushed Edison’s idea forward. Edison didn’t invent the light bulb, but it was “his vision” for a commercially viable incandescent light.
And just like Edison and Menlo Park, it sounds like the CEO/incubator was behind the financing of the company and that “decent salary” of yours, too. Let’s not overlook that small point either.}
I want to thank you all for commenting on my story. I wrote this up when I started my blog but never published it. When Carleen asked me for my story I had trepidations… I really didn’t want to come across as whiny or bitter. It is very difficult to compress nearly eight years of hard work into a few hundred words.
A bit of the first part of the story was edited by Carleen to bring down the word count and make if flow a little faster. In looking back on the original draft I sent Carleen I wrote that the CEO of the incubator that funded my start-up had an “idea” not a “vision” and that my being able to describe to him how one could create a product and company based on that idea is what made him decide to take a chance on me. I also thought I was pretty clear that original idea never went anywhere after we changed the course of the company due to my “dream” invention, my vision for a new product and company direction, if you will. As for funding my “decent salary,” I still have the bad credit and loans that I’m still paying off because of the inability of the company to pay any salary at all during many months of the lean years. I put significant, non-compensated, sweat equity into the company. During those years, you don’t worry about recognition, you worry about paying the rent and keeping the lights on.
The three CEO’s do deserve credit. They all worked very hard. I did forget to mention that our first CEO, the nice guy, was also not mentioned in the newspaper story. The current CEO does have vision and is a leader, as proven by our success over the last few years. In the office we, along with the CFO, are very much partners with a shared vision of the company and how it should grow, but in the press (primarily due to our PR machine) he is the face of the “vision” and the “spark”. The lesson I was trying to share with everyone was that hard work and being critical to a company’s success does not guarantee public recognition.
At least Mr. Hammer made it into the history of Thomas Edison’s lab, I have yet to be so lucky.}
Mr. Hammer probably didn’t feel the need to wear a paper bag over his head, either.
This is an interesting read, but I think everyone is already familiar with the concept that a lot of efforts in this world go unsung.
Instead of spinning just another Aesopian tale, why not point out where along the way you could have stepped into the limelight, and where you should have pushed hard and made sure you were properly compensated for your wunderkind efforts? Analyse where you made the mistakes.
Just telling a story of how you played Woz to Jobs only comes off as sounding a bit whiny.}