The Invisible Man

Note: Names and products are kept intentionally vague to protect the innocent… mostly me!

In 1999 I interviewed for the CTO position at a well-funded start-up. I was flattered by the offer, but the job was in a high tech incubator 100 miles away from where I lived, and it was more of a CIO position anyway — babysitting web servers. I’m a product developer at heart and I wanted to build things.

On my way out the door the CEO of the incubator asked me to listen to another idea he had. For several hours I sat in his office while we discussed his vision. Then *he surprised me by asking to me to start a whole new company based on this idea.* The incubator would fund me, I could open a small office back home and hire a couple of developers. I’d get a small percentage of the company and a decent salary. I said yes!

Soon I had my cheap, little office above a bar in an decent part of town, hired a couple of young developers and started putting together the proof of concept. Once a month I would travel back to the incubator, report what we had done and take care of paperwork for accounting, payroll, etc. It soon became obvious that the original idea would require industry partners. That’s when the incubator hired my startup’s first CEO.

Up until that time I was acting as the head of the company, but the new guy was great. He made phone calls, knew people and had a good sense of how to conduct the sales and business development for the company. He had lots of charisma. Meanwhile, I got to concentrate on creating a great product.

While working on the product we were pre-selling to customers in our target vertical. It was interesting because clients seemed more interested in talking about their current issues than what our soon-to-be-delivered product could do for them. One issue kept coming up over and over again — but the web browsers simply were not made to do what they were asking for.

Then, one night in 2000, it came to me in a dream… (I swear, it’s true!) I bolted out of bed, sat down at my computer and had a prototype done 12 hours later. On my next trip to the incubator, I sat in a board room with my CEO, the incubator CEO and a few other people. I brought my demo up on the big LCD projector screen and everyone’s jaw dropped. No one had ever seen anything like it. Within days a patent was filed, our old product idea was dropped and my “dream” became the focus of our company. That Fall we introduced the product at a big trade show in New York and won “best of show” in the same category Microsoft had a product competing in. We were golden!

Sales were a bit slow, mostly because it was hard to describe to customers why they would want this product until they saw it. Also, it was a Windows-only product for Internet Explorer. (Remember that this was 2000: Netscape and Macs did not have industry wide support.)

Then the bubble burst. Payroll was late. I drove down to the incubator to find them boxing up expensive glass desks and Aeron chairs. The CEO informed me that the incubator was closing. I would have to let my developers go and close my office; I would have to work alone from my apartment. As he killed the two dozen other companies at the incubator he decided that he believed so much in our product, he was going to personally become CEO of my company and keep it going. Our current CEO, the nice guy I got along with, decided it was the end of the ride for him, and he left.

What followed are what I now call “the lean years”. You never knew if a paycheck was going to show up. My incubator-now-startup CEO was working on two or three ideas at the same time. As my savings account dwindled, I redoubled my efforts: I wasn’t going to let this die. I came up with second product. We filed a second patent and began selling anew. This new product got some traction. After a year, a group of investors on the east coast expressed interest in investing in Version 2.0 of us. They insisted we move the startup to the east coast, and we’d need a new CEO. I was part of the deal, but I had to sign a two-year employment contract and move my family 500 miles away to an expensive and uncomfortable city. Long story short: I packed up my family and moved.

Three years later the company is doing very well. We have fifteen employees, millions in sales and a team that works really well together. We’ve spent a decent amount on PR (I truly believe in the “The Fall of Advertising & the Rise of PR” by Al and Laura Ries) and have received a nice amount of press. Our CEO was on CNBC a couple times and we’re consistently mentioned in trade journals. One thing I got used to is that every press release we put out has a PR-crafted quote from our CEO saying something impressive. The press likes the CEO. He’s the face of the company.

Last year we had a nice big article about us written in the local newspaper. I was interviewed for over an hour by the reporter. I gave her the back-story — my invention of the products, all the all-nighters and going through “the lean years”. The article hit the front page of the business section on a Friday: It was a huge story. There was picture our CEO in front of a screenshot of the product I had poured my heart into. I looked for my name. The whole history of the company was there. I read the article again. I was not mentioned. Not my name. Not my importance to the company. *I had become The Unknown Founder.*

I was furious at first. I’ve cooled off since then. You can’t control what a reporter chooses to include in their stories. You can barely control what your PR firm pitches to reporters. I’ve spoken to business friends who are not surprised that a founder, maybe for publicity purposes, had ceased to exist. They all agree, *founders tend to become less important as a company matures*. The Bill Gates of the world are rare. This is the way of things.

I’ve had a wild ride, I’ve had success, and I’ve learned a hell of a lot. I’m taking pride in what I’ve built, the jobs I’ve created and the customers I’ve helped with my company. My partners, my investors and most importantly my wife know my story and they are proud of what I’ve accomplished. I’m beginning to embrace the paper bag that was placed over my head… especially if it means the company might go on to greater success by giving the limelight to the “face” of our company.

I’m still with my company, though I’ve started moonlighting on another idea. You can read about my progress at: http://unknownfounder.blogspot.com