We weren’t rolling in dough, but for a time we were making more money than we were spending. And the work was piling up...
She moved through dozens of roles at Neoforma and ended up staying there longer than I. While my interactions with her became infrequent over the years, I did notice something amazing about her. She gradually evolved from a shy, somewhat plain woman into a very confident, attractive woman. While I am sure that motherhood and family life had a good deal to do with that, I’d like to think that the unbiased culture and abundant opportunities at Neoforma had something to do with it as well. She was one of the best employees we ever had at Neoforma.
From the beginning, I had been doing all of the computer programming, much of it based on code sketched out by Jeff. As my responsibilities and our customer base expanded, I realized that I needed to hire someone to augment and support our software. After all, I wasn’t even a real programmer. I was just an amateur.
I provided a few search firms with a detailed description of the type of person I was looking for. Unfortunately, it turned out that people with the specific experience I needed were the hottest commodities on the market at that time. It was going to be tough to find anyone willing to work for a start-up without a track record, especially one offering the ridiculously low salary we could afford.
The applicants would ask, “What does your options plan look like?”
And I’d say, “Options? Um . . . well . . . we don’t offer options at this time . . .”
This would elicit an audible sigh on the other end of the phone. I could almost hear them shaking their heads above shrugging shoulders and glancing over to someone at another desk with a look that said, “See what I hafta put up with?”
Naturally, I had heard of stock options before. I had even received a small quantity from Varian. But I really didn’t understand how they worked. I asked our lawyer about them. He explained what they were in terms that I almost understood and said, “Well, of course, you’ll want an option plan set up to create incentive to your key hires. Costs a bit to set up though . . . so you might want to wait awhile.”
I had always worked for a fair wage and a challenging variety of tasks. The options program didn’t seem very important to me. I figured we’d get around to setting one up when the time was right. If I understood it correctly, options didn’t mean much in a private company anyway and we certainly had no plans to be anything but a private company!
In came a trickle of résumés. I picked a few promising candidates to interview and set up meetings at Neoforma.
The early indications seemed good. While the people I interviewed generally had less knowledge about our specific programming environment and software support than I did, most had other skills that would complement mine well.
However, when we got to the salary discussion, things quickly turned south. These men and women were five to ten years my junior, had little or no college education, had very little experience, and were already making more money than I was! We couldn’t offer them anything close to what they were expecting.
This went on for months, with no success. The headhunters became impatient with me, as I kept lowering my expectations rather than raising my salary target. Finally, one of the headhunters called me and said, “There is this guy who fits your needs perfectly. He has the experience you need and is willing to talk about some kind of profit- sharing model rather than taking a high salary.” Well, this sounded promising.
I made an appointment with the guy — Isaac. He fit one stereotype of the opportunistic programmer — intelligent, sloppy, soft, arrogant, cocky and childlike. I disliked him, but he did seem to have the experience we needed.
He had worked primarily in large and established companies, so I made a point of clarifying that we were a start-up company without the infrastructure and support he was used to. He’d have to install his own software, set up his own systems. He’d have to learn our existing program mostly on his own and he’d have to be self-motivated about improving it. We were expanding to a second, adjacent office to accommodate him but our furniture was sparse and unsightly.
He assured me that these issues were trivial and that he had far more experience than we would ever need. Our negotiation was very aggressive and abrasive. He finally agreed to grace us with his presence, though it would be two more months before he could join us.
When the day finally came for him to join us, everything was creaking under the weight of the incomplete tasks that were waiting for Isaac. I called the office in the morning to make sure that he had arrived and was relieved to hear he had.
But by the time I got to the office at noon, Isaac was nowhere in sight. He had quit.
After waiting two months for the arrival of a guy I didn’t even like, I was beside myself. My anger was the most intense I had ever experienced. I must’ve looked like a caricature of rage — face flushed, ears burning, knotted muscles. I was near overload, but managed to calm myself down somewhat before I called Isaac’s cell phone. “So . . . what seems to be the problem?”
I could tell that the level of my calm confused him. There was some hesitation on his end. “Well . . . I looked at your software in some detail this morning. And I am not the right guy for you. There is too much to do. I’m going back to the firm I was working for. I’ve already called them. They’re fine with it.”
I could hear a fuse in my head pop. My anger rose beyond acceptable levels. The circuits overloaded. “NOT THE RIGHT GUY FOR US!?! WE STOPPED HIRING! WE WAITED TWO MONTHS FOR YOU TO JOIN US! AND THEN YOU CHANGE YOUR MIND AFTER A COUPLE HOURS? WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE TO PLAY WITH US THIS WAY?!”
My rage, of course, had little effect on Isaac, other than, perhaps, to reinforce his decision. But it did make me realize a thing or two about the importance of our culture. This guy hadn’t felt right from the beginning—even though he had sounded right. I had focused on his computer skills—which can be learned— instead of more important and innate qualities — like an arrogance, born of insecurity—that would have made him difficult to work with, even if he’d stayed.
Staring at two months’ backlog of work, I certainly couldn’t appreciate it at the time, but he had done us a favor by leaving. He had not only kept our culture intact, but he’d reminded me how important it was to preserve it.
After venting the last of my outrage on the headhunter who had sent Isaac to us, I began looking at résumés again. There were a few promising candidates. But the next interview did not go well.
When I shook hands with the attractive woman in the lobby, I could tell at once that she was doing everything she could to present an image of calm and confidence. It must’ve been very hard for her because she was clearly trying her best, but she was not succeeding.
To make it worse, I noticed, as we went into the conference room, that she was dragging an eight-foot length of toilet paper behind her. Apparently, in her nervousness, she had caught it on an edge in her pants and dragged it along with her.
Nobody else had seemed to notice, but I was nonplussed. I’d already realized how nervous she was. How was I supposed to put her at ease while pointing out that she was trailing more than a little toilet paper behind her? There was a risk that she would be horrified to the point of immobility. I couldn’t tell her. And yet, how could I ignore it — especially if the end of it still stuck out under the closed door? The situation was macabre. I sat there visualizing what would happen if someone absent-mindedly pulled the thing from the other side of the door or she got tangled up in it as she stood to go. I struggled to focus on her words—and heard enough to realize that she had overstated her capa- bilities, so she wouldn’t be a good fit for the job.
As I waited the appropriately respectful time before ending the interview, I began to experience a sense of dread over what might happen as she left the building. Yet I simply sat there, feeling incredibly guilty that I hadn’t found a more courageous way to handle the situation.
She may have had bad luck coming in, with a trail of toilet paper behind her, but she had amazingly good luck going out. Her tail did not get snagged on the door. And no one seemed to notice. The normally busy corridor was unusually empty. The receptionist did not have visibility below visitors’ waists, so she couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary.
I watched as this earnest woman, trying so hard to please, walked out of our offices in shoes that were clearly too tall for her to walk in comfortably, with her black pantsuit trailing that embarrassing white banner. I could only hope her luck would hold and it would come off on its own before she noticed it.
Then we found Dante.
Finally, a candidate who felt right! Dante gave the impression of being a young, slightly large guy. Actually, it wasn’t so much that he was large as that his suit was small. It was obvious that he didn’t have much occasion to wear a suit and had somewhat outgrown this one. I did appreciate the fact that he made the effort to dress up for the interview though.
When I got to know him better, I found that Dante never wore constraining clothing voluntarily. It was T-shirts and shorts every day of the year, except for weddings, funerals, trade shows and interviews.
Dante was willing to take a salary cut in exchange for the opportunity to expand his experience. He was willing to work at whatever would help the company. He didn’t ask about our options plan. He was a bit less experienced than I was looking for, but something felt right about him — and I was learning to go with my instincts about who would fit our culture.
I liked and hired him on the spot. He was eager, curious, persistent — the opposite of Isaac. He was willing to ask questions when he didn’t understand something and to offer advice when he did understand something.
If he had a concern, he expressed it, but he never complained. He took responsibility, aware that each situation was a direct result of his decisions. He took his decisions seriously. I had the pleasure of watching him grow, in a very short time, from a talented young man into a mature leader. He was with us when we had to work all night, as Mona was. And, like Mona, he outlasted me at Neoforma.
I hired a few more people over that next year, but it wasn’t until the beginning of 1998, when we would first receive some investment money, that I began hiring more people in earnest. I did so at an increasing pace that would eventually overwhelm me.
While Jeff spent most of his time seeking additional investment and selling our services to some of the largest suppliers in the industry, I used my time trying to spend that investment well.
The most substantial and important investment we had to make was in building a team to carry an enlarging vision forward quickly. We had entered the Internet race. This was something we had not anticipated, but we were up for a challenge.
Of the first hundred employees of Neoforma, I hired — directly or indirectly — about seventy-five of them. Jeff interviewed many of them and shaped the decisions too. While this was a very diverse group of people, they shared a core set of values. They sowed the seeds of a new culture.
A year or so after we had left the company, Neoforma asked Jeff and me to present the history of Neoforma to a group of new employees. Looking into the eager eyes of those new recruits, I had a strong sense that that same culture survives today. I hope so. We had been rejected by the culture at Varian. And we went on to form a culture that was more like us. This is the nature of evolution. We are compelled to reproduce ourselves in the world in any way we can. And we are deeply enriched when some of our traits live on in what we have created.