Hi . . . I am the president of a rapidly growing, six-person, Silicon Valley, start-up company. We have just released a huge directory of healthcare products and companies on our website — about the same size as your healthcare product directory. A lot of people are using it.
The main difference between our directory and yours is that finding information on our website is much faster than finding it in your book. Oh . . . and . . . our site doesn’t cost anything to use.
Now, I would guess that your directory represents a very small percentage of your company’s revenue. So, you should let us help you take that old paper directory and bring it to the larger audience on our website. You have the means to maintain it. We have the means to publish it online. In exchange for your content, we’ll direct leads to you. Doesn’t that make sense?
I was already convinced that ECRI was the right partner for us. We had published a huge directory of products and a large number of people were accessing our directory of medical products using a powerful search engine. But real doctors were using our information to make real decisions about important stuff. We were getting emails like this:
Our ICU recently received a patient from Texas. Our respiratory therapists are not familiar with the type of trach this patient has. Could you please send any information you have ASAP.
I had researched and contacted the two for-profit companies that maintained paper directories with content similar to ours and had given them some variation of the speech above. They were cordial, but patronizing. They were cautiously supportive of the idea of working with a company like us, but let me know that it was very low on their priority list.
I was so passionate about the importance of getting information out to a broad audience that I had failed to adequately show my appreciation for the value of the information these companies had spent years gathering. To them, I was a robber, brazenly giving away information that was valuable to them. Who was I to suggest I had a new and better way for them to do business?
With passion driving me, I plowed through their resistance, not because I was oblivious to the value of their information, but because I knew that the world would be a better place if this information could reach more people.
But this was not necessarily a motive shared by them. They weren’t insensitive to the social benefit of their information, but they were used to the balance between the prices they charged and the number of customers they had. They were not comfortable having some new upstart come along and stir things up.
They had to assume I was a flake, but they weren’t certain enough of my irrelevance to be rude or dismissive. We agreed to keep in touch, but I did not feel any connection to these companies.
Then I called ECRI. I wasn’t sure if an investment-driven, start-up company like Neoforma would be compatible with a non-profit, focused entirely on the Social Good. But they did have a good reputation.
ECRI was a bit more difficult to contact than the others. I was able to find very little information about them. They didn’t even have a website.
I tried asking some of our customers for more information about ECRI. They told me that ECRI had the most reliable and unbiased information, but they didn’t really know much about the company.
At the trade show where Neoforma officially announced its expanded directory, I approached some ECRI employees in their booth. From the start, I sensed a refreshing attitude from these guys. They seemed very interested in exploring other ways to distribute their information. Rather than being focused on guarding and preventing the distribution of their information, they were focused on how the quality and, most of all, the integrity of their information would be preserved. I could address those issues easily.
And, I liked these guys. They believed in the value of their contributions to the world’s healthcare community. I had learned that I didn’t need to like people to work with them, but it sure helped when it came to building trust.
They were very open with me, until I began to ask them about ECRI’s plans for the Internet. Immediately they became evasive and vague. They told me I would need to speak with Tony, one of their vice presidents. So a couple of days later, I set up a meeting with Tony at ECRI headquarters.
The directions they gave me led me to what seemed to be an almost rural part of Pennsylvania. Driving my rental car through a primarily residential neighborhood I scanned the street for the address. My first time through I saw no indication of ECRI. After my second unsuccessful pass, I was concerned I was on the wrong road. It didn’t look like a neighborhood where I expected to find a corporate office.
On my third pass, I spotted a simple black sign with white numbers, obscured by the shadows of the trees lining the street. There was no business name, but the numbers matched the ones on my directions. I pulled onto the driveway in front of the sign, stopped, and peered over the steering wheel at a picturesque, tree-shrouded landscape.
Some distance up the driveway was what looked like a manufacturing building. I checked my directions again, shrugged, and drove up the drive, passing several small signs clearly indicating that trespassers were not welcome. Since there were no other signs, it was difficult to determine whether I was a trespasser or not.
I am a stickler for promptness, so at five minutes before my scheduled arrival time, I stepped out of the car, put on my suit coat and looked for an entrance. The December air was much colder than my Silicon Valley blood was used to. My thin suit did little to cut the chill. I was anxious to get inside, but there was no clear indication of an entrance or lobby. I spotted an area of dark windows over a slight rise in the front lawns, at the far corner of the otherwise windowless masonry exterior.
At the end of the path I arrived at a darkened glass door with the letters ECRI painted above. Whew . . . at least I was at the right building. While I now knew that I was on the correct property, I was still not sure I was at the right entrance. I pulled on the door handle and stumbled backward due to its lightness and ease of movement. Some part of me had expected the door to be locked, or at least unyielding.
I stepped out of the light. As the door rattled closed behind me, I faced a glass wall with another door in it. I knew instinctively that this door was not unlocked. To my right was a wall with a window that reminded me of an all-night gas station security booth, except that I was in the enclosure looking out. I stooped to speak through a small opening in the glass.
A large woman gazed suspiciously at me through the glass. I tried to sound confident and friendly as I said, “I’m here to see Tony Montagnolo.” His name was difficult enough to pronounce under normal circumstances. I was content that I managed to speak most of the syllables in order.
She frowned, as if I couldn’t possibly be so important as to warrant a meeting with Mr. Montagnolo. I was thinking that I probably should not have worn my usual California business outfit, a nice but informal sportcoat and T-shirt combo. She asked, “Do you have an appointment?”
I told her I did, feeling pleased to convey that I was following the rules. She pointed at a log book on a pedestal on my side of the window and told me to sign in. She picked up the phone and quietly announced my presence.
I was startled to note that other visitors had arrived earlier that same day. I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed that someone else had discovered this secret place before me. After a pause, the receptionist nodded into the phone and hung up. “Mr. McVicker . . . Mr. Montagnolo will be with you in a moment. Please have a seat in the lobby. Here is your badge. Please wear it at all times.”
She buzzed open the vestibule door, handed me the pin-on identification badge, and pointed to some chairs in the dark, spare lobby ahead. Instead of sitting, I wandered in front of the assorted plaques and documents on the walls. Each plaque reinforced ECRI’s position as a conscientious defender of All that is Good.
I also perused a wall display, posted with their assorted brochures. I could easily see how many of their products and services could fit seamlessly into our website. I decided that we would probably need to buy ECRI someday. The added value of the two companies’ information would be spectacular. The irony of this arrogant fantasy was not lost on me, but it did not diminish my sincere belief that purchasing ECRI would simply be one more logical step toward providing efficient global access to needed information.
After waiting for the appropriate period of time—so as not to feel too important or unimportant—Tony greeted me. We shook hands as he asked if I had been able to find the place okay. I said, “Sure . . . no problem. I’m glad to be here. It would help to have a sign out front . . .”
Tony grinned at my comment, and then led me down a long, dark corridor with a solid wall on the left and interior windows on the right. The left wall was mostly empty, except for a display case that held what appeared to be some type of traditional Japanese clothing. The windows on the right exposed transparent meeting rooms and what looked like laboratories beyond. The décor would have made a subway designer proud. For the first time, I saw hints of people moving about in the distant rooms. Above a door at the end of the corridor was a sign that read: QUIET!
The door opened into a large windowless office area, filled with unusually tall acoustic partitions. The office felt completely still and silent. I assumed that most of the cubicles were empty, but, as Tony led me to a conference room, I saw that every cubicle was occupied by someone who looked busy doing something. Some were even speaking quietly into their phones.
I thought of the Neoforma offices, where six of us shared two small offices, along with our phones, servers, fax machines and printers. The idea that someone could promote silence, separation and isolation to such a degree was disorienting to me.
Once we were comfortably seated in a conference room with a wall-size world map filling one end, I asked Tony to tell me about ECRI. As he spoke, I tried to classify him. He wore the glasses and casual-conservative clothing that fit my image of information technologists. He was a bit younger than I was, which made me concerned that he might not have adequate authority to pursue a strategic partnership.
Tony did not begin by telling me about the products and the services of the company. Instead, he told me about how the company had been founded more than thirty years ago by a doctor, Joel Nobel, who had witnessed terrible patient injuries caused by the use of faulty medical devices. He founded ECRI to test and report on the safety of common devices. Everything they did sprang from that mission.
Tony went on to emphasize the not-for-profit nature of the company. He described how, as a trusted reporter on the medical device industry, ECRI went to extremes to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest. Each year, every employee was required to submit their tax returns to the company, so the company could confirm that no one was investing in, or otherwise benefiting from, any medical device companies.
I began to understand why visitors were not welcomed with open arms.
After Tony finished his summary, he asked me to describe Neoforma. I gave my practiced spiel with sincere enthusiasm. He asked me a few questions that conveyed that he was closely watching the evolution of the Internet and was aware that the impact on ECRI could be substantial. However, unlike my meetings with his competitors, he clearly understood that the Web was more of an opportunity than a threat.
Tony seemed to be genuinely enthusiastic about the possible benefits of working with companies like Neoforma, but he informed me pointedly that ECRI was in no hurry to embrace the Internet or any particular partner in that arena. They were just now converting a number of their publications from paper to CD-ROM. That was quite ambitious enough to keep them busy for awhile.
He said, “I don’t want to discourage you from keeping in touch with me, but, frankly, I have no idea if Neoforma is going to be a winner or loser in the race to come. I don’t know if you are a competitor or opportunity. And I don’t think you will be received well by the GPOs.
“We are very slow and cautious here. By the time we are ready to seriously consider a proposal as aggressive as yours, you might not even be in business. And even if I supported and presented a plan to abandon control of the product directory to our executive committee, of which I am a member, they would not receive it well. We need more time to figure out what the Internet means to our business. But . . . I like some of your ideas and I will certainly think of Neoforma when the timing is right.”
I was quite discouraged by his polite dismissal, but I was used to hurdling over obstacles, so I asked him, “Who else can I speak with in the company? Perhaps Dr. Nobel would be interested in a demonstration of our website?”
Tony made it clear that he was the right contact for me, that he was responsible for future technology initiatives, and that working around him was neither appropriate nor advisable.
As a consolation, he suggested that Neoforma might benefit from adopting the ECRI product categorization scheme, which was the closest thing to an international standard. That way, if we did work together in the future, it would be easier to connect our information to theirs. I was frustrated by this clear signal that our conversation was near its end. I am sure that my polite agreement to pursue common standards did not mask my displeasure or impatience.
We parted company, promising to keep in touch.
I did keep in contact with Tony. I called him every month or so to remind him that we should be working together. As the months passed, Tony became less responsive to my calls.
Meanwhile, as greater numbers of hospitals used our website, the importance of maintaining the quality as well as the breadth of our content became increasingly critical. By March 1998, we had discovered several instances of outdated information in our database. It wasn’t bad for a database of tens of thousands of items, but it wasn’t good enough for me. I knew that small inaccuracies, ignored now, would cascade into huge problems in the future. If we weren’t going to be able to use ECRI data, then we needed to quickly build our own team to manage the website’s expanding content.
We needed smart, literate people who were familiar with the products used in a hospital. I let the headhunters I was working with know that I was looking for nurses. I figured that there must be plenty of underpaid and underappreciated nurses who were tired of the day-to-day clinical grind.
When one of the headhunters told me she had found the perfect candidate, I was excited, until she told me that the candidate was a doctor, not a nurse. I said, “There’s no way I can afford a doctor. I told you what I was willing to pay!”
She said, “No, wait ‘till you meet with him. He is willing to work for less than he’s used to making. And he wants to take some time away from the clinical environment and put his energy into something that contributes broadly to the improvement of healthcare. Talk to him. I have a feeling that you’ll like each other.”
So we interviewed the doctor. He introduced himself as Anil. And I quickly recognized him as a fellow iconoclast. He was so sure of himself, yet so innately unsettled, so intensely curious. He would also be tough to hire. He’d already had job offers that would pay substantially more than we could, and they would be far less risky.
But something in that risk, and our persistence, compelled Anil to join our small team. His first task was to bring quality to our quantity. He tackled this task with passion, vigor, and, at times, impatience. He was used to getting things done quickly. In the clinic, he was king. If someone didn’t get something done right now, a patient would be at risk. He brought that immediacy with him into Neoforma.
Over the next several months, he hired a group of nurses and other clinical professionals. Without exception, all of them that survived the first couple of weeks of his demanding supervision were among the finest employees Neoforma would ever have.
But in spite of the amazing quality of this content management group, there was still the issue of quantity. As the number of products in our directory grew past fifty thousand and the number of manufacturers grew past ten thousand, I was still convinced that we could be far more efficient if we worked with ECRI.
In the past, Jeff had not been as concerned about the content quality issues as I was. There were other things to focus on—like making sure that we had enough investment capital to keep the doors open. However, by October 1998, he was becoming as concerned as I. Our slow but sure movement into the public limelight made it very difficult to ignore or accept outdated information on our website.
Once he decided that we needed to find out what was really up with ECRI, Jeff was determined to stir things up fast. He lectured me, as he was inclined to do whenever he saw me drift into the realm of self-imposed ethics: “Not everyone’s driven by a sense of public good the way you are. You know from our Varian days how each person in an organization has his or her own motives, fears, and desire for power. Tony may have the responsibility for a partnership with us, but you can’t get anything significant done with a company unless you are talking with whoever is in charge. Remember that we would never have been able to spin Neoforma out of Varian if we had not worked directly with Ed, the Boss.”
So without hesitation, Jeff picked up the phone, dialed the front desk of ECRI and said, “This is Dr. Kleck, CEO of Neoforma. I am going to be on the East Coast next week. I was hoping that I could meet with Dr. Nobel for an hour when I get into town.”
It was that simple. In minutes, he had set up the meeting I had been unable to get for nearly a year. I was pissed for a few minutes; then, when I got over my damaged ego, I was thrilled to be reminded that Jeff and I made a pretty good team. I briefed Jeff on my latest ideas for a meaningful partnership.
Upon his return, Jeff grinned and said, “What a strange company! Anyway, you haven’t met Joel, have you? He’s not quite what I pictured. First of all, he wears surgical scrubs to work every day . . . which is a sight to see.”
Jeff’s meeting with Joel had been short, but it had gone well. They had spent much of the meeting discussing Joel’s time as a doctor on a naval submarine and Jeff’s theories about the future of assorted medical imaging technologies. I was frustrated to hear that Jeff hadn’t discussed any of my proposals with Joel. But Jeff had staged a follow-up visit for me. And so, one year after my first visit to ECRI, I was going to meet the Boss.
Many things had changed in that year. Neoforma was a much more established company, with more than thirty employees. I was a bit more mature or, at least, experienced. I was much more realistic about what it would take to attract the interest of a conservative company like ECRI. What hadn’t changed was that we needed a cost-effective source for our basic catalog content. We had better things to do than reinvent the wheel.
And I still believed that ECRI was our most real threat as a competitor and our best opportunity as a partner. I had designed a new model for supporting our architectural planning content on the website. I knew I could convince ECRI to work with us on it if I could convince their founder that I was sincere when I said that the primary motive behind Neoforma was the improvement of healthcare. I knew that I usually turned off investors by expressing our mission too enthusiastically, but I had decided that a little enthusiasm would be okay here.
When I finally arrived at ECRI for my second visit, I was ready to be open and sincere.
A woman greeted me cheerfully in the lobby and hastily guided me to the same conference room as the last time, explaining that Dr. Nobel was on the phone to an important person in some exotic country. She said Joel would be with me as soon as possible.
I waited for quite some time. I would have used this time to catch up on my backlog of phone calls, but this half-underground, windowless, concrete building was probably the only place in the state that did not receive a cell phone signal. I stood and studied the large world map on the wall instead.
In the midst of contemplating whether they should replace the map, since it still indicated the USSR, a man came into the room that could only be Dr. Nobel. Clothed in threadbare surgical scrubs, he appeared to be in his early sixties. The sparseness of silver hair on his head was more than amply made up for on the readily visible portions of his arms and chest.
His greeting was hurried, apologetic and cautious. He asked me to call him Joel. Nobody in the Valley called me Mister, so I didn’t think to ask him to call me Wayne.
After we sat down at the table, he cheerfully bemoaned the complexities of working with so many international companies and governments. With a few simple statements, he was telling me that he was busy, casual, important and focused on big issues. His tone and manner reminded me of several of the angel investors we had spoken to—specifically Shawn and Denis, who had founded their own companies. They also had quickly established their credentials as successful entrepreneurs in a fashion that was direct and unassuming. While their comments could be seen as arrogant, they were simply expressing who they were in the quickest way possible. I realized that I was probably beginning to define myself in a similar way. I sensed this underlying bond between us almost immediately, in spite of the huge differences on the surface.
He abruptly asked me what brought me to ECRI. As I summarized first my previous communications with Tony and then my new thoughts and objectives, he listened intently, displaying what appeared to be mild amusement. I expressed some frustration at how little I had accomplished with ECRI over the last year. He smiled, sighed and said, “Yes, they are very protective of me. They don’t want me shaking things up with too many new ideas.”
I was startled that he would speak so openly with me. He went on to explain that ECRI was run by an executive committee that included him, but that he didn’t have any greater vote than the rest. Decisions from the top to the bottom of the company were driven by consensus. I had always been very skeptical about the value of decisions being made that way and I told him so. I asked him how any decisions were made at all. He laughed and said, “ECRI is very slow to make any decision. I am often frustrated by this, but because the decisions are made through an inclusive process, once a decision is made, things get done efficiently because the entire organization understands and is behind it.”
I was beginning to run into substantial leadership issues as Neoforma crossed the thirty-employee mark. His words gave me some pause, but I couldn’t figure how an organization moving at the speed that Neoforma was could apply his experience.
He talked a bit on how confusing the whole Internet thing was to him. He was all for easy-access information, as long as there was support for the institutions that had created the information. With a generous use of words like youngsters, whippersnappers, troublemakers and hotshots, he described how free information was a threat to quality information. I was prepared for this argument and used his cue to demonstrate my ideas on the computer I had brought. He seemed pleased by what he saw and asked me to create a formal proposal and set up an appointment to present it to the executive committee.
A few weeks later, I presented our proposal to their management team. They seemed enthusiastic. A few concerns were raised. I modified the proposal to address these concerns. I submitted it to the ECRI team. There seemed to be general agreement on both sides to move forward. Since they had a larger legal department than we did, we agreed that ECRI would draw up the formal contract. This is the stage where all of the small and previously glossed-over or missed details are addressed.
The end-of-the-year holidays were coming up. I knew that we couldn’t expect to get anything back until after the start of the year, but I was thrilled that the deal was essentially complete. Just formalities from here. I could move my focus elsewhere for 1999.
When no contract arrived from ECRI in early January, I called Joel to check on its status. He said their legal department was simply backlogged. It might take a little time to get this to the top of the list. Frustrated that a month had already passed, I volunteered that Neoforma could draft the final contract instead of it sitting in their legal queue. He agreed.
In a week or so, I submitted a contract to Joel.
Four months later, in spite of almost daily communication, both sides were still bickering over a few sections of the large document. We just couldn’t seem to work it out on the phone.
I believed that the only way to get this thing done would be to meet in person. Since I had full authority to approve the agreement for Neoforma and ECRI needed the approval of many, I made my fourth visit to ECRI. I tried to make it clear that I didn’t want to travel to ECRI unless every decision-maker was available. Joel probably thought I was joking when I said, “I am not going to leave until the contract is signed.”
I flew east on a Monday. I didn’t think I would need the entire day Tuesday to complete the agreement, but I scheduled my return flight for late Wednesday just in case we needed Wednesday morning to finish up. I figured that we’d probably celebrate the completed agreement over drinks Tuesday evening.
I arrived in their offices at nine Tuesday morning. I would have preferred to start earlier, but I knew that most of the people at ECRI did not get in early. When the receptionist asked who I was going to meet, I went down the list of the execs I was supposed to meet with. I got quite far down the list before the receptionist was able to find someone in the office.
I had only spoken with Susan briefly on the phone. She was in charge of one of the business units I needed to negotiate with. She seemed a bit flustered when she greeted me in the lobby. She asked, “Who were you going to meet today?”
“Well, in addition to you I have a list of four others.”
She said, “Me? Oh, well, I’m sorry, but I’m right in the middle of something. I can’t get together with you today. Who else were you meeting with?”
As I read each name, she informed me that the person was either embroiled in a deadline or was out of town. She said, “I’m really sorry for the confusion, but I’m afraid you’ll just be wasting your time if you stay here.”
She saw the panic—and something more disturbing—in my eyes. I was pissed! I had traveled all the way out here thinking everyone was taking this deal as seriously as I. I felt the sudden, uninvited adrenaline rush I recognized as rage. This was a rare state for me, so it took me a few moments to regain control. I tried very hard to appear calm.
In my most restrained voice, I said. “Perhaps you could look more closely at the schedules of each person who is here. I won’t need much of their time. I am available at any time, day or night. And if you let me know when the two guys who are out of town are due back, I can set up a time to meet them. As I told Joel, I am not leaving until this agreement is signed.”
When she saw that my stubbornness would not be abated, she shook her head and said, “Well, if you don’t mind waiting in the conference room, I’ll check everyone’s schedule again. I can’t promise anything though.” Her tone said she hoped that I would, indeed, mind waiting.
With a backlog of development work on my laptop computer to do, I actually welcomed the time away from phone and email. So I settled into the conference room and got to work.
Susan updated me an hour or so later: “I can’t set up specific times, but Angela might be able to meet you sometime later this afternoon. It might be tomorrow though. And I definitely can’t meet with you today. Perhaps we can cover the remaining issues over the phone next week. Stuart should be back in the office tomorrow, but I don’t know what his schedule looks like. Tony is out of town all week. Joel is out until Thursday and probably won’t have any time to meet with you this week. Since he needs to give us final approval, you’d have to wait until next week to get anything signed.”
I politely said, “I’ll be happy to meet with you, Stuart, Angela and Joel whenever you are available. I don’t have any remaining issues with Tony, so it shouldn’t matter that he’s not around. I’ll be right here until we get this done. I have plenty of other things to do.”
She glanced at my computer and the piles of paperwork I had scattered around the table. I could tell she was upset, but what could I do? I was not going to let this product directory issue hang over my head for another week, or month.
And there was the issue of my pride. For six months, I had been telling the content team back at the office that an agreement with ECRI was imminent. So I ignored her frustration and got back to work. Passing employees glanced at me through the conference room’s glass wall with noticeable curiosity.
I did not meet with anyone that day, but Susan stopped by my new office late that afternoon and told me that Angela could see me for a couple of hours the following morning. She’d let me know if she and Stuart could find any time to meet with me.
I called Anni at home and reluctantly told her that I didn’t think I was going to get out of there until Thursday. She could tell that it was important to me and made the mistake of saying, “That’s okay . . . take whatever time you need to get this done.” Now they really weren’t going to get rid of me.
The next morning, I did meet with Angela and settle the remaining issues that affected her. There was no news on getting time with Susan, Stuart or Joel.
Thursday morning, when Susan walked into my office in the conference room, I could tell that she was losing patience with me. “I thought you were flying out last night.”
“I told you that I’m available until we get this worked out,” I said, pleasantly. “No rush . . . I’m enjoying this time away from the office.”
She said, “I don’t see why you have to stay here. I’m sure we can
work out the remaining issues over the phone.”
I said, “It’s okay . . . really. This is important to me.”
She was clearly agitated as she left the room.
Around noon, Joel walked into the room, “So, Susan tells me that you’ve moved in here. You must be serious about not leaving.”
There was no hostility in his voice. He appeared to be amused, but not necessarily pleased, by the situation.
I said, “That’s true. I’m willing to take whatever time is necessary to make this happen.”
He sat down and addressed me seriously. He told me that he liked the idea of working with Neoforma, but that he couldn’t get comfortable with the financial model. He couldn’t pursue a partnership that was as encompassing as the one I proposed without more confidence in its viability.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Their agreement that the nature of the deal was worth considering did not necessarily indicate an intent to move forward. It was suddenly clear that they had had no intention of actually closing a deal any time soon. Even as I processed this information I realized that I had known it all along. I had simply been unwilling to accept that outcome.
I summarized to Joel how we were going to fundamentally improve the quality of healthcare with the joining of their information with ours. I outlined how each point of the deal would accomplish this. I told him that the business issues were secondary. I said, “Do you want to do this or not? I am not asking if you like the business terms. I am asking if you think we have a shot at doing great things together.”
He paused, and then acknowledged that he thought we could indeed make something important happen.
I said, “Good. Now, let’s figure out what it will take for us to really get this done . . . this week . . . right now.”
He outlined the monetary and contractual assurances he would need to make the deal. We haggled awhile, but made quick progress, now that we were dealing with the real issues.
He excused himself from the room for awhile. When he returned, he had set up times for me to meet the remaining members of his team.
The meeting times slipped. Old issues were slowly addressed. Words in the contract were analyzed, moved around, removed, added in. New issues rushed to fill the void. Finally, by Friday afternoon all of the issues had been tidied up.
At about four in the afternoon Susan told me, “Okay, all we need is for Joel to approve and sign the final agreement.”
“Great. Let’s get him in here.”
She said, “Umm . . . he has left for the weekend. But, that is just a formality at this point. I’ll catch him first thing next week and send you the signed contract right away.”
I am sure she saw that now familiar disturbing look in my eyes. I said, “I didn’t know he was leaving this early. I told you that I’m not leaving without this complete. You’re an executive. Can’t you sign the agreement?”
She acknowledged that she could, technically, but Joel would still have to approve it. I asked, “Isn’t there some way to fax the contract to Joel for him to review, then you can sign it and I can go home?”
She looked at her watch, “Well, I don’t know if he is available to review this now. He’s left for the weekend. And I have plans for this evening.”
I said, “That’s okay. I can be here anytime this weekend.”
I could tell by her frown that the only thing worse than being late for her evening engagement would be knowing that I was still in Pennsylvania over the weekend. She said that she would try to contact Joel.
Susan returned a while later to the conference room. Sure enough, she had been able to fax the latest draft of the contract to Joel and get his comments. He only had a couple of small semantic changes, which I agreed were acceptable. She left to print out the final document for us to sign. I was thrilled and exhausted. I was looking forward to getting home.
Then Susan returned. I could tell by her grim expression and empty hands that there was a new problem.
Joel’s protection of ECRI’s reputation for absolute integrity led him to measures we couldn’t imagine in our part of the Valley. I had already been surprised to learn that all email going into and out of ECRI was channeled through one carefully monitored email address and Internet access was only available via supervised computers in their library.
Now I discovered another control he’d instituted. To reduce the possibility that information might be inappropriately accessed and removed after business hours, all computer printers in the building were automatically rendered inaccessible after 6:00 p.m. It was after 6:00 p.m. Not even senior executives could access the printers after hours or on weekends. Since it was after closing on a Friday, everyone had left for the weekend, including the network administrators.
Susan was ready to go home. So was I. We had slightly different views on what that meant. To her, it meant that the final contract revisions would be made next week. To me, it meant that we would hand-write the changes, initial them, and sign the darned thing. I made this suggestion. She looked at her watch, shrugged, and complied with my suggestion. I was ready to go.
She led me through the silent, darkened building to a back door. We shook hands and parted ways—me to my rental car, her to her life. As I drove back to my hotel, I wondered for the first time if the visit had been worth the effort. Now that my compulsion had been satisfied, I saw the partnership I had just created in objective terms for the first time since I first proposed the deal.
In my obsessive drive to completion, I had made compromises that I should not have made. And much was changing at Neoforma since those early discussions. I hoped that the value I had visualized could be delivered now that so many other factors were driving Neoforma in directions I had not anticipated.
As it turned out, we did add some truly great functionality on the Neoforma website by incorporating ECRI content, but the partnership did not meet either of our expectations. Neoforma headed in a direction that diluted the value of the partnership almost as soon as the contract was signed. And, as I might have known, the fast-paced Neoforma culture and the methodical ECRI culture were not a good mix. But the partnership did deliver in an unexpected way.
After signing the agreement, Joel gave me a great deal of advice on balancing the give-and-take of control in a growing organization. I will forever value the lessons he taught me.
As for those scrubs, he would say that he wore them because they were comfortable, efficient and cost-effective. But I never bought it. I think he wore those scrubs to remind himself, and those around him, every day, why he had started ECRI. He had been wearing that outfit when he first witnessed a problem that had to be fixed. He had started a company out of stubborn conviction and had been met with a hos- tile reception. And he had survived. The world is truly a better place because of that man and his scrubs.