Trapped as I was in the role of an aggressive, dotcom entrepreneur, I lacked many, if not most, of the habits of the natives...
On the other hand, I did not get up late. I did not wear shorts and a T-shirt to work (very often). Jeff bore this responsibility for me. I only got around to playing ping pong at work once. My office was relatively neat. I ate breakfast and dinner with my family almost every day. And, I was in my late thirties—which made me downright old, if not necessarily mature.
So when I ended up at Buck’s Restaurant for a breakfast interview with a team of sought-after programmers from Netscape, I could not help but feel a bit disembodied.
I had read in several Internet periodicals about breakfast meetings at Buck’s. It’s a simple restaurant that its owner, Jamis MacNiven, modestly describes as “a Silicon Valley restaurant, tucked against the hills in the quiet village of Woodside, California where the venture-capital community and the Information Age execs conspire to bring you the 21st century.” This was a place where myths were born.
Jeff had already been initiated to Buck’s during an early round of fundraising. Alexander and JP had already convinced Robert to invest in Neoforma without meeting us, so Jeff’s meeting with him was merely a formality. Robert had suggested breakfast at Buck’s.
Jeff walked into the restaurant at the same time as another man. He and the other man surveyed the people in the waiting area. A couple of people waiting for their own breakfast partner surveyed Jeff and the other arrival. One pointed his finger at Jeff and said “John?” Jeff said “No,” then the other new arrival pointed back and said “Brooke?” They exchanged handshakes and were seated at a table.
Jeff then pointed at the other man in the waiting area and said “Robert?” and Robert pointed back and acknowledged, “Jeff!” After the obligatory handshake, Jeff and Robert headed to a table.
Once seated, Robert commented that there was close to a billion dollars in personal wealth belonging to the occupants of the surrounding tables. Jeff didn’t have a clue who these people were, but it was as good an ice-breaker as any. The discussion then transitioned into Robert and Jeff relating their interests and backgrounds.
As they methodically made their way to the topic for the meeting, they began to realize that something was wrong. Robert’s face expressed confusion, and Jeff found himself feeling increasingly disoriented. Something occurred to Jeff that he had a hard time accepting. He interrupted the conversation and pointed his finger at Robert for the second time that morning. “Robert? Robert Wilson?”
Robert looked back at Jeff, and said “Jeff? Jeff Mason?”
It turned out that Robert was not the Robert that Jeff had come to meet, and Jeff was not the Jeff that Robert had come to meet. After seconds of disbelief and internal calculation of the odds against this happening, both laughed and stumbled through their goodbyes.
They stood up and walked back to the waiting area, where the real Robert and Jeff were waiting. This time Jeff and the wrong Robert called out the names “Robert” and “Jeff” in turn. The other Robert and Jeff responded by pointing back and saying “Jeff?” and “Robert?” As soon as each had responded, all of them knew something strange had just happened. They laughed, matched up the right Roberts with the right Jeffs and went to separate tables. That’s just the kind of place Buck’s was.
Now it was my turn. I don’t know what I expected the place to feel like, but it seemed like a fairly conventional, semi-rural restaurant to me.
Wood-rimmed laminate tables and smooth naugahyde booths, wood- paneled wainscoting below table level, cluttered walls above. Assorted quirky novelties and large models were hung from the ceiling. The food was mostly standard fare, with some California cuisine high-lights. A few tables had small groups of well-dressed people straining to read papers scattered amongst the dishes, but I didn’t notice any- thing going on that looked particularly noteworthy. Maybe it was a slow morning.
I was the first to arrive, which made me a bit nervous since Alexander was the matchmaker here. As our company momentum increased, Alexander was becoming more involved in Neoforma. He was winding down his assistance to the company he and JP had invested in just before us. Initially, they had told us that they didn’t think we would need much operational help because we had far more management experience than most of the entrepreneurs that they helped out. However, with the quick Venrock investment and the sudden spotlight shining on B2B Internet companies, they had decided it would be best if we had some daily help managing our growth. As the operational guy of the pair, Alexander would be helping us out in a number of areas. Jeff and I were happy for any help we could get.
Alexander is not a patient man. As he jumped into the detailed operations of Neoforma, he vacillated between admiring compliments and expressions of exasperation—with an emphasis on the latter. He liked some of the processes we had set up. He liked, for instance, that our customer and website databases were completely integrated with our business processes. Anyone could easily retrieve the current status of every customer. That was unusual for a business as young as ours.
But he believed that our sales and marketing efforts were much too modest, being based on simplicity and cost-effectiveness rather than reach and company branding. We had to GROW . . . FAST! And our website conversion, to hear Alexander tell it, was a disaster. Everything was improving much too slowly for Alexander’s taste.
Speaking about the engineers I had hired, he told me, “These are good guys you have, but come on—they have no idea how to take you into the big leagues. They don’t have experience building a world-class e-commerce system. You need the best of the best, if you are going to compete in this race!”
And naturally, Alexander had someone in mind. Three someones, actually. There was this team of three guys he knew. They were among the pioneers of e-commerce. They might be convinced to move to Neoforma. The company they were working for had been acquired a year ago by Netscape, then one of the hottest public Internet companies. They were not happy with how they had been treated during the acquisition. They believed that they had been left out of much of the process and the gains.
Alexander had tried to hire this all-star team to the company he was working with before us. They had politely turned him down. It was not a big enough market play. Alexander believed that they could be sold on the idea of Neoforma, though. Healthcare was such a huge industry, how could they find anything larger? And, if we could get a team as high-powered as they were behind us, our next funding round would be a cinch.
With Alexander, everything was always about the next funding round. Every decision was measured in units of investor return. That still bothered me.
Alexander was right about our development group, though. I liked the team we had in place, but they seemed a bit overwhelmed by the scope of our development needs. And rewriting the website was only the first of many planned steps. The next priority would be the addition of e-commerce to our site. We had completely abandoned our profitable supplier advertising model and would need to have some new revenue mechanism in place before another funding round. E-commerce, with its potential returns—not to mention the buzz it had in the press and the investment community—seemed to be the most important next target. We needed someone who had experience in this domain.
So, many conversations and much posturing had led to this breakfast meeting. Alexander was very excited and, uncharacteristically, nervous. He had kept me out of the early conversations with the all-star team. Now he believed that there was a good chance we could get these guys! He wanted me to meet them. He could see his investment swelling, if only I wouldn’t screw things up. He knew I would focus on operational and cultural issues. He feared that I would downplay the scale of the Neoforma mission and opportunity.
He coached me incessantly on the importance of painting a portrait of what the company could be, not what it was. I was a bit hurt by his implication that we were still small fry, but I knew what he meant. He was nervous because he hadn’t spent a lot of time with me in my role as motivator and employer. He had seen me only in my investor role, where I was largely deferential to Jeff. I assured him that I was perfectly able to play the part I needed to play here. After all, we had convinced him and JP to invest hadn’t we?
Soon after I had sat down in the restaurant, feeling quite small and alone in the large booth, two unfamiliar men approached my table. They asked if I was Wayne. I said that I was. So they joined me and introduced themselves as Mitch and Apar. To fill the awkward moments before the whole group was assembled, Mitch and Apar exchanged gossip about several of the people who were at the restaurant. There was an Internet executive here, a well-known headhunter there, a prominent venture capitalist over there. They speculated on the purpose of their meetings. The seeds of the company they worked for were said to have been planted right here in this restaurant.
I tried to play along, as if I knew who they were talking about. I read all of the Internet industry periodicals, but I always focused on the business models, not the names of the Players. We made small talk.
Mitch was a tall, slightly rounded man, with functional glasses, functional clothing, functional hair. He wore a white T-shirt under his plain, short-sleeved cotton shirt (another of the stereotypical things I didn’t do.) Mitch had an unsharpened pencil over his ear—also classic, but this was one of the very few times I would see the pencil over his ear. Usually, it ended up in his hand, spinning nervously between his fingers—during meetings, during conversations, while he worked, while he walked, pretty much all the time. I had no difficulty visualizing Mitch in front of a computer.
Apar was another matter. Of medium height and medium build, sharply dressed and edgily calm, his gaze took everything in. He didn’t look like a programmer to me.
Alexander phoned me on my cell to tell me that he was stuck in the middle of some crisis with another company. I’d have to start without him. I could tell he was nervous about that. He had staged the meeting so carefully, coaching me on which areas he would address and which ones I would cover. I was a bit relieved though. Now I could just be me.
The purported leader of the group, Dave, was still due to arrive. We continued with small talk, since I assumed that Dave was the key guy I had to convince. I didn’t want him to miss any of the preliminaries. Alexander had been working on him for two months. I had met Dave a couple of times and been impressed. He was a rarity in the industry, being several years older than I. Though he was tall and thin, his purely functional attire and inclination to stoop diluted any impression of physical dominance.
His intellectual presence was another matter. Even during the most mundane conversation, nervous energy seemed to flare from every pore. Sharp spikes of intellect and creativity would burst energetically at seemingly random intervals.
Dave arrived a half-hour late. I learned that he tended to arrive late to meetings. Actually, he tended to arrive late to everything. An avid time traveler, Dave always lived in multiple dimensions at once. The past, present and future existed simultaneously. With so many things going on inside him at once, time was just not a constant to him.
Anything that could be, should be--now. The slightest suggestion that something was not practical to produce now could send him into an all-night frenzy to prove the suggestion wrong. He would usually succeed, on the schematic level at least. The energy he directed at the improbable and the impractical was breathtaking. He didn’t seem to sleep. He talked and worked so quickly and disjointedly that I could not follow him most of the time.
As part of evaluating the idea of working for Neoforma, he had produced poster-sized diagrams of the healthcare industry and our role in it. They were so extensive and complex that we could have spent decades connecting all the pieces. To him, the diagrams were illustrations of the present as he would have it. He had no inhibitions at all regarding his capabilities. He gave limits not the slightest attention.
Anything that had been, still was, happening now. The past was a major presence in the present. Any flaw exposed to him, any mistake that had been made, would flood into any decision he was about to make, creating an inner turbulence that was at times frightening to observe.
Since anything going on now had happened before and would happen again, he believed that if he had been screwed before, he was going to get screwed again. We wanted to hire him first, then have him help us recruit a team. Because he had been burned before, he told us that he wouldn’t join us unless Mitch and Apar joined at the same time to reduce his risk.
Anyway, I was glad that he had finally arrived so we could get things started for real.
I asked each of them to give a summary of themselves and I gave them a description of Jeff and me. Then I moved on to an outline of Neoforma’s history and development. I conveyed my enthusiasm. I played up our accomplishments. I did not exaggerate, but neither did I display my usual modesty, as Alexander had feared.
They asked very intelligent questions. Dave took us off track at every opportunity. Apar tactfully brought things back into focus. I quickly realized that Apar was actually the key decision-maker. He asked the most critical questions without the slightest hint of aggression. He clearly wanted to know what he was really getting this gang into and would have no patience with evasion or incompetence. This worked well with my natural tendency toward frankness in situations where I am asking for someone else to share some of my risk.
The only issue with which I had to be evasive was the area of compensation. Alexander had made it clear to me that I should not discuss this in any way. I was uncomfortable leaving these details to someone else. I was impressed with these guys and knew they would not only be expensive, but they would want a substantial amount of equity. I had always handled the negotiation over compensation myself, but I knew Alexander had more experience with people at this level. So I told them that any issue regarding salary or options would be handled by Alexander.
Dave made it clear that he just wanted to be compensated fairly. That’s all that mattered, that we were fair. He did not want to be screwed again. Of course, I had no idea what he thought was fair. I hoped Alexander would.
Mitch seemed to like, or at least accept, most of what I said. He had one major concern: “Will I be able to have time with my wife and baby? I have put in so many hours for so many companies for so long that my family life has really suffered. Not that I won’t work hard wherever I am. It’s just that I don’t want to continue at a burn-out pace.”
This was an issue I could certainly relate to. So I responded from my heart. It would come back to haunt me almost immediately.
I told them that I firmly believed in quality and efficiency, rather than quantity and regularity. I was proud of the fact that, while we did work long hours around deadlines, the office was empty most evenings. We did not have the stereotypical office with people working every night. I told them truthfully that I ate breakfast and dinner with my family almost every day. I told Mitch that I believed that family comes first and that I hoped Neoforma would be a company that con- tinued to value family commitment. As long as employees worked well and hard, their outside life would be accepted, if not embraced. Nobody would be ostracized for taking a vacation, as long as they didn’t take it during a deadline.
I truly believed this, so I was convincing as I said it. What I did not, could not, tell them is that I wasn’t the only one driving the culture anymore. It was too early for me to admit that to myself, let alone this group of relative strangers.
Alexander arrived just as we finished up the meeting. He apologized profusely and told them that he would meet with them the following week whenever and wherever they wanted. They didn’t seem upset by his absence. I took this as a good sign.
After they left the meeting, Alexander asked me how I thought it went. I told him that I liked them and that, while I couldn’t accurately gauge their current interest level, I thought it went well. If they didn’t want the job, then they weren’t the right ones for us.
So ended my first meal at Buck’s. Over the next few years, I would have breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings at many of the best known haunts in the Valley, but I would never again be quite so self-conscious about playing the stereotypical role of the Valley dotcom entrepreneur. The mystique was fading. It was starting to be just another part of the job.
After a rough month-and-a-half of on-and-off negotiations, we did hire Dave, Mitch and Apar. I was proud to have a group as talented and skeptical as they were join Neoforma. They would indeed help carry us to the next level, but not without a few bumps along the way.