We were still basically giving away CDs loaded with catalog information and calculational tools to help hospitals and architects. I know that sounds kind of dry. But it was the size and scope of it that was exciting...
The disk had little playful animations, illustrating various actions. The abrasive collaboration between Todd and me had led our CDs through an aesthetic wonderland. We experimented with odd, but cool interfaces. We created fun and unique ways to get through this myriad of new information.
I am sure that we drove our customers nuts with the constant changes, but the newness and potential of it all made us innovate at a frenzy.
I loved the design aspect of this process. I didn’t think of myself as a programmer. Computer code was simply my sculpting tool. I learned each new function with only perfunctory attention. To me, each function was like a new architectural material. I had to learn its properties in the context of the structure I was trying to build. The materials had no significant interest for me. The creation was my focus.
We only charged hospitals for the more powerful versions of the tools. We were increasingly convinced that the bulk of the money to support the whole thing should come from the suppliers.
So, the more suppliers, the more money. The more money, the more fun we could have building stuff that helped others. What more could we ask?
But we were battling with how to fit the huge amount of catalog information required by a typical hospital onto the CDs that we were successfully distributing. There just wasn’t space for all of the information and pictures.
And no matter what we did, much of the product and supplier contact information was obsolete almost as soon as we distributed the CDs.
The Internet was the perfect solution. Once we went online, the number of people using our online catalog doubled every month. Previously, we’d been committed to continuing our CD development. Looking ahead, we weren’t sure we needed to anymore.
When we had started Neoforma, relatively few people were using the Internet for business and Internet connections were generally slow. Now things were changing. The rapidly increasing number of visitors using the catalog on our website proved it.
The Internet was still very young and unproven, but if we really wanted our efforts to make a difference, we knew that we would need to tie our fate to that of the Internet. Nothing else would fit our ambitions.
So in October, after much debate, Jeff and I decided to stop the CD development entirely. We printed up enough disks to support the professional society distributions we had committed to and sent them out. We even refunded money to hospitals that had paid for the professional version of our tool and to suppliers that had paid for product placement on the CDs we weren’t going to distribute as widely as promised.
It was difficult, taking this step away from the known, finite, rewarding path to an unknown, risky, yet potentially infinite path.
In an Internet company, I would need to rely on others for our technology. I knew every line of code and field of data on the CD. But I had little idea of how to put information into a browser. I wasn’t familiar with the properties or details of how things were managed behind the Web.
I wasn’t comfortable navigating in this new world, but I trusted myself. I was usually a fast learner. If the Internet was to be the source of our bread and butter, then we couldn’t continue to rely so much on an outside firm for our website development. I had to learn some Internet basics and then I had to hire someone to take us beyond the basics.
I figured it wouldn’t be too difficult to find someone to help us develop Internet technology that was as cool as what we had produced on our CDs.
While Alexander and JP had made it clear that they couldn’t devote much time to us, they did offer to help set us up with people they thought might be able to help us. Alexander knew that my familiarity with software programming did not extend far into the Internet world. He and other potential investors had been nervous about my lack of formal programming education. Graduates of MIT, or some such prestigious school, were always much more impressive as technology company founders.
So Alexander set up a meeting for Jeff and me to meet a properly educated technology guy. We met Scott at his small, starkly furnished house. Much younger and more polished than the two of us, and properly educated as a technologist, Scott was clearly living the life of an entrepreneur-to-be. His computers were the centerpieces in his living room.
After brief introductions and background summaries, he demonstrated the Internet technology that he and some buddies were developing into a business. In fact, the reason Alexander knew Scott was because he wanted Alexander to line up some funding for him.
Alexander told us that he had decided not to fund Scott because his business model was a little weak, but he hadn’t told him yet. Alexander did recognize the value of Scott’s clear understanding of Web technology, however. He felt that if Scott were to work with an experienced team like us, the best of two worlds would unite.
Scott was doing some neat stuff. Clearly, he understood how to design cool and complex Web pages. All I would have to do was figure out how to communicate my ideas to him and we could continue our wave of innovation and service.
But as I excitedly spoke with Scott about how what he was doing could help take our business to the next level, it became immediately clear that Scott was simply trying to sell us on his own business. I could tell that he assumed Alexander had brought us in to help evaluate his technology.
When we broached the subject of combining his technology expertise with our business model, Scott cordially accepted our offer to consider the idea, but I could feel his lack of enthusiasm. He saw himself as a founder. Since we had been in business for a year-and-a-half, he could never claim that status if he joined us. There was too much eager money out there waiting to support a guy with his credentials. So, after some additional wasted conversations, we politely parted company.
Ultimately, Scott did found an Internet company. He raised impressive amounts of money from notable investors and created some very fun and popular stuff that was enjoyed by millions of consumers, until his company became one of the multitude of victims of the 2000 bust. He sold the business for pocket change, just months after closing a twenty million dollar funding round.
Our experience with Scott’s need to be the inventor, rather than the collaborator, did not bode well for our search for a key collaborator in the Internet world. I started thinking that this bridge between the CD and the Internet might turn out to be a bit more substantial than I had imagined.