Online bookseller Amazon.com said Tuesday it agreed to buy Junglee, a software company that makes it easy to comparison shop on the Web, and PlanetAll, a Web-based address book and reminder service.
Under terms of the transactions, Amazon will issue 1.6 million of its shares—worth $173.2 million based on Monday’s closing stock price of $108.25—for all shares and options of Junglee . . .
Wired News Report, August 4, 1998
Just before graduating from architectural college, I burned out of school in spectacular fashion. I used the excuse that I had run out of money and jumped into a chaotic cycle of exploration...
While I was very efficient at my day jobs, my real interest was in my evening explorations. Each new discovery brought renewed vigor to my pursuit of life’s secrets. Work became increasingly distracting. In an attempt to break completely with my natural tendencies, I moved through a series of increasingly dire living situations, at times going for days without money or food.
While designing a restaurant in a Southern California tourist beach community, I met two quirky local craftspeople, a married couple. They liked the odd, and strangely controversial, wooden sign I had designed for the restaurant and asked them to build. We kind of hit it off.
Vern, the wood carver, was an edgy, evasive man, with a persistent skin condition that changed the way he looked from day to day. Mary, the painter, was a thin, effusive, New Age woman, with curly hair and desperate eyes. They lived with their seven-year-old son and two-year-old daughter.
When they learned that I was sleeping on the restaurant owner’s living room floor with the restaurant staff, they offered to rent me the empty room under their rented house. I knew that they lived near the beach and the idea of having an actual room of my own was very appealing. I asked to see the room.
When Mary and Vern guided me down the exterior path that led from their porch to the back side of the small hillside house, my first impression was quite positive. The view from the front door of the room did provide glimpses of water over an apartment building that fronted the ocean. The sound of waves was hypnotic.
The first thing I noticed was that the exterior door did not close completely, let alone lock. Entering the room I observed a dark, low-ceilinged, musty smelling crawl space that had been partially, and sloppily, enclosed with gypsum board. A sand-and-dirt-encrusted rug covered most of the concrete floor in the eight-by-ten-foot room. A tiny toilet and shower enclosure was wedged along one side wall. Shelves of rough lumber, filled with the odds and ends commonly stored in a garage, lined the other side wall. Carved, literally, into the back wall, was a nook containing a raised mattress.
I pulled up the mattress and confirmed what I had suspected—it had been placed directly on a bed of dirt. Why bother with all of that extra excavation? The entire back wall and ceiling over the bed were constructed of old sheets that had been tacked up to conceal the dirt, foundation and joists that supported the house above.
The ocean-facing wall, in addition to the entry door, was pierced by a small, square casement window with glazing divided into nine panes by peeling wood mullions. Three of the panes were missing. Another was broken. The window frame had warped such that it could only be pulled to within three inches of a closed position.
In short, the place was a dump. But it was better than sharing a living room with the restaurant’s kitchen staff. And, oh, what a great, artistic way to suffer a bit more!
So I moved in. By this time, moving in meant hauling and stacking two small particleboard cabinets next to the bed. One contained my favorite records, the other contained my books and drawing supplies. On top of this cabinet went my turntable. Next to the cabinet went the duffle bag that contained my clothes.
Immediately above my quarters was the house’s living room and kitchen. My hosts were night owls, which suited me just fine. I owned no clock or watch. I usually stayed awake until the sky began to lighten.
My landlords were very social. Almost every night, and well into the morning, anonymous, laughing and arguing crowds would gather a couple of feet above my head. The floors creaked with every footfall.
Often, after her guests had left, Mary would come down to my room, drunk, carrying a bottle of the two-dollar sparkling wine they consumed by the case. She didn’t knock. The door was always open. She’d stagger over to my nook, sit uncomfortably close to me, her loose blouse gaping, and lament the state of her life. She knew that she drank too much. She knew that her husband was becoming increasingly withdrawn and belligerent. And she knew that her children were becoming overly attached to me, even calling me dad occasionally. (The kids pretty much took care of themselves, cooked their own meals and followed their own routines.) She’d inevitably express her worry about being able to pay this month’s bills.
Broke as I was, I increased my own rent twice and even commissioned her to draw a portrait of a friend, which cost me my next two paychecks.
I didn’t know what else to do as I listened to her convey her woes, spittle gathering at the corners of her mouth. I couldn’t hug her, which I knew she needed, because inevitably Vern would come into the room soon after her, equally drunk. He would cast a friendly, jealous, and deeply menacing glance at me, smirk painfully, then firmly guide Mary, obliviously, off the bed, out the door, and up the stairs.
I’d return to my reading or drawing, listening to the floorboards squeak above me as they made love, wondering how they managed that in their inebriated state.
When I needed a break from my introspections, I would entertain myself by rolling up my pant legs and walking slowly across the carpet, which I ordinarily avoided. The fleas were so prolific that I could usually get ten to twenty of them to hop on me in a single pass. I’d kill as many of them as I could and repeat the process. It seemed entertaining at the time.
I had no television, and my radio only received a limited number of AM stations. The fleas and I had an agreement. Most of them stayed in the rug, only visiting my bed when their hunger became life-threatening. At least, that’s what they told me.
However, I had been unable to reach such a truce with the four-legged occupants of the establishment.
They tacitly assumed that I was willing to share my space with them. After all, they had been there first. I kept my plate and cooking pan fastidiously clean. I hung my garbage bag from a rope attached to the ceiling and made sure not to put any food products in it. But the rodents watched me from the shadows and assumed that if I were putting so much effort into protecting this bag, it must be worth exploring.
Several times, I awoke to the sound of trash falling to the floor through the hole they chewed into the bottom of the bag. Somehow they had walked across the ceiling and crawled down the narrow rope to get to the bag.
Actually, trying to keep them out of my trash was more of a game than a concern. What really bugged me was that my bed was right in the middle of the primary access path from the underside of the house to my room, and through its window, to the outside world. At first, they were courteous, choosing the long way, around the edges of the bed. But once they saw that I wasn’t a threat, they wasted no such effort.
Finally, exasperated by a night of being awakened several times by feet treading callously across me, I kidnapped Zoe, Mary and Vern’s cat. It wasn’t really their cat. They didn’t feed it often enough. But it had hung around long enough to get a name.
I blocked the larger holes around the broken window, so Zoe couldn’t get out, and closed her in for the night. She tried to get out for a while, but eventually settled on the bed with me. She was absolutely flea infested, but I could handle that.
Within minutes of turning the light off, Zoe caught her first victim, a small mouse. I let her torment her victim for a while, which seemed only fair. Then I tossed the carcass outside. She caught two more critters that night, another mouse and a rat. She caught at least one rat on each of the following three nights, and then nothing for several nights. Satisfied, I set her free to hunt elsewhere.
I had only occasional rodent visitors after that. I felt good. I had helped the cat. The cat had helped me. Now we no longer needed each other, so we parted ways. If only all relationships could be that simple.
A friend from high school visited me. When I showed him my living quarters, he was aghast, visibly disgusted. He asked, “How can you live like this?”
I told him, “It’s not so bad. I don’t have mice in my bed anymore.”
He suggested we walk down to the beach. He did not stay long and did not visit me again.
One evening, I was sitting on the bed, surrounded by the many books I was reading at the time. I was suffering dissociation vicariously through Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. The room was illuminated solely by a reading light that rested on the edge of the cabinet next to me. Gradually, at the edge of consciousness, I became aware that the record I was playing on the turntable didn’t sound right.
I blearily glanced over the book, to where the turntable was. What I saw was so odd that I didn’t react at first. Droplets of water were landing directly on the center of the record, snaking to the edge as the record continued to spin. The needle slid one way, then the other. Classical music had never sounded so, modern.
How bizarre. I thought. It’s not raining outside. How can this be? Almost immediately, the individual drops merged together, becoming a thin stream. My eyes followed the stream, dazzling in the glow of the single light, up to the ceiling. There I noted that the water was emanating from a dark spot on the fabric ceiling directly above the turntable. I also noticed that the fabric was bowing, expanding, getting steadily more taut.
I think I gasped or squawked. In any case, I know I made some exhalation of alarm, then jumped from the bed, scrambled to pull the electrical cord from the wall, ran out the door, stumbled up the stairs, threw open the house’s unlocked front door, which opened into the kitchen, and gazed upon the eye of the storm.
Kneeling on a chair that had been pulled up to the kitchen sink, was James, the seven-year-old boy who had called me Dad. His sleeves pushed above the elbows, he moved his hands slowly and purposefully through the mounds of bubbles that floated in the sink. He had apparently been washing dishes and discovered that when large amounts of soap were distributed under a fully opened faucet copious bubbles were produced. Soft, delicate, beautiful, vulnerable bubbles.
He had become so entranced with the spectacle that he had failed to notice that the sink was completely full. Water was pursuing its freedom in all directions along the sink’s edges, pouring onto the wood plank floor, down through the cracks between the boards, seeking safety as far from tomorrow’s sun as possible.
His expression was so calm and rapt, I experienced a moment of joy. A brief moment. I tried to sound calm as I said, “Please turn off the water!”
I didn’t have a chance to see the impact of my interruption on his revelry. I was already on my way down the stairs.
By the time I returned to my room, the trickle had become a torrent. Water was cascading off the turntable, onto and into the particleboard cabinets, pooling around my bag of clothes and sundries. With the exception of the books on the bed and the dishes in the main room, everything I owned was drenched.
I simply sat down and watched the fountain, until the torrent became a trickle, then a stream of drops, finally slowing to an occasional drip.
I laughed aloud, ignoring my moistening eyes.
As the flow subsided, my thoughts drifted backward, one event at a time—seeking an explanation for my current condition. It was clear to me that I had orchestrated this moment, or at least one like it. I had succumbed to unconscious forces, letting them drive me, one step at a time, to the point of complete surrender, of complete loss.
So here I was. Having given up conscious control over my actions, having freed myself of all material and social constraints, I had become addicted to the shadows. I had learned a great deal about the shadows, but what now? What good could these discoveries do if I stayed in this cave?
It was time to turn around, to regain control of, and take responsibility for, my decisions. I hoped that I would be able to rebuild my life with expanded vision.
Slowly, surely, I dug my way out of surrender. The lessons I had learned about releasing control would be more valuable to me than I could ever have imagined.
Ten years later, as Neoforma grew quickly from a company where I had complete control to a company where I had yielded much of my control, I was shocked by how often control issues came up and by how few people could cope with them.
The problem was most obvious in those individuals who assumed that any gap in control was theirs to exploit, regardless of their qualifications. But by far the most common, frustrating, and damaging issue I had to deal with in those days of frenzied growth was disempowerment.
As much as I had screened candidates for ability to cope with discontinuity and uncertainty, most had no experience with the tumult that they were about to encounter.
Everything was new or transient—technologies, tools, job titles, org charts, accounting processes, human resources policies, product priorities. Things were happening so fast that there was no time for documentation or formalization. Everybody was expected to wing it.
And we were hiring from the bottom up. First we hired the people doing the work—then, when the need was absolute, we hired the managers to organize the work, and so on.
This growth pattern was driven in part by economics—we were getting more money to be able to pay for more experienced employees.
Our development was also driven in part by the boisterous job market, in which candidates had the luxury of choosing the lowest risk opportunity—in other words, the one closest to IPO. As we approached that mark, the experience level of our candidates increased.
And most of all, our growth was driven by practicality. There was so much to do that we hired whoever could do the job. We’d figure out how to put it all together later.
Within this dynamic, unstable environment, employees were convinced that their voices were not being heard. No matter how much we tried to ensure that they were empowered and had access to me and other executives, many felt undervalued. They flooded into my office, yelling, crying, pleading.
Competent, intelligent, creative people were unwilling or unable to recognize that a young organism is focused on its growth, not its form. Each organ has to function individually before the organism can function. And, most importantly, every organ is critical. The brain is not more important than the heart.
Seemed simple to me, but the tendency of so many individuals to believe that their initiative was being restrained by forces adjacent to or above them drove me nuts. Their perception that they had limited power and importance within the company was completely out of sync with reality. We needed and listened to them all. It certainly wasn’t a question of money. Jeff and I paid the vast majority of the staff substantially more than we paid ourselves.
Because we couldn’t communicate an unwavering message, employees let their minds drift to fantasy. They imagined all sorts of obstacles, incompetence, and motivations.
I listened, guided, reminded, reasoned, advised, manipulated, motivated, scolded, flattered, and complimented. Whatever it took. And it took a lot.
My objective in those early days—what really thrilled me—was to assemble a bunch of bright, caring people together, and let them put their best into creating unprecedented solutions to a real-world problem. In our idyllic vision of the company, everyone mattered equally. It wasn’t until we had twenty or thirty employees that Jeff and I gave in to an increasing demand for printed titles on business cards.
In the end I wondered, What was it that made so many people value themselves so little? I knew this wasn’t a simple question, but I couldn’t help but wonder, Had my past flirtation with abdicated personal responsibility somehow rubbed off on the corporate culture? Or was there a broader cultural influence? I hoped it was the latter, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept or deal with.