Tuesday, July 15, 2008

When I Started a SemWeb Company, Part Three

Things were moving along pretty well - I knew the problem I wanted to solve, I'd confirmed customer interest in my approach, the open source technology already existed and I had the the support of the community leaders, and I had some pretty clear ideas about money. Now to start building a team, starting with the right partner... 
If you've read the previous entries, you can imagine that I was starting to get pretty jazzed about my prospects. But I'm not a technical guy and in 2004, there were literally only a handful of people available to fill the role of CTO. I felt I needed someone with unquestionable technical skills, a significant profile within the SW community, and the ability to articulate the value Human Element was trying to deliver in clear, understandable terms that potential customers and investors would find appealing. I'd been in the mix long enough to know exactly who I needed to reach out to. (All names changed to protect the innocent, the guilty, the shrubbery in my back yard, and whatever else.)
  • Candidate 1: I'd interviewed Bill in the course of researching my thesis. He'd been really helpful and at the time, his own venture seemed poised to do well. In the interim, it actually folded, which made me think he might be interested, even though he was on the West coast. The reality: I've never been able to track the guy down. I don't know anyone that's heard from him since, and I've never seen any record (at all) of his activities, even to this date. It was easy to move on from this one, but it still seems strange. Maybe he works for the government in a secret bunker a half-mile underground...
  • Candidate 2: James is one of those other-worldly smart Ph.D. types, but I knew who he was and his qualifications were unquestionable. I pitched him on the idea and he was lukewarm at best. I persisted, and he asked, "...what's the end game?" Recognizing that cutting to the essence of the matter was crucial, I answered simply "Money." I'm talking about a business after all, and that's what businesses are supposed to do - make money. James responded "figures, coming from a business guy..." I tried pointing out that in a business, people count on people like me who think about money because they need to get paid, pay their rent, kids' tuition, eat, etc. I've been in touch with him since then and I'm convinced that one day he's going to turn the world on its head, but I guess not with me. Moving on...
  • Candidate 3: Harry had been in an SW venture before and actually had some business experience. He'd left his company and had some time on his hands, so we talked about the idea and he seemed interested. I continued to ask and he continued to not say no, round and round we went until one day he basically said "Listen, I'm going to finish my Ph.D. and I really want to focus on that." OK, I understand that, particularly since I just graduated from a mid-career masters program myself. Time and possibilities were running out at this point...
  • Candidate 4: There were a few other candidates that I haven't mentioned, partly because I ruled them out quickly or because they never responded. Carl was different. He'd been advising me for some time and he knew what I was trying to do. I also think he was genuinely hoping I'd succeed. Naturally, I pitched him. Carl had never been in a business venture before. He'd always been in academia, but he made it clear that he was losing enthusiasm for that lifestyle. As my sales conversations were moving along, he assured me he'd deliver a demo. I persisted in asking him to join me and he reported back that what I was saying synced up well with what his lawyer was telling him. This conversation took place over six to eight (valuable) weeks...radio silence ensued.
During this period when the reality of not finding a partner was sinking in, I was on the phone with a close advisor one day. I was telling him that I was uneasy about my search for a technical partner and we were talking about how this was a make-or-break issue. Our conversation moved along until I mentioned that I had to leave - I was on my way to a meeting with Polaris. He knew the person I was meeting with and advised me based on his experience. Then he asked "How are you going to deal with the technical questions and what are you going to say about your search for a partner?"
Instantly, my stomach sank and my heart was in my throat. I don't remember what I said but I ended the call shortly thereafter and left for my appointment. By the time I arrived at Polaris I knew what I was going to say and frankly, the meeting went well. I'd set expectations for an informal "this is what I'm working on what do you think" kind of visit and it ended up being very productive. I've been back since then, but only to discuss a different venture.
By this time I was out of candidates and I'd exceeded my timeframe for attracting a technical partner. There weren't any other candidates and financially, I couldn't afford to pursue this venture any longer. I'd met my roadblock.
Milestone #5, attracting a qualified technical partner within the required time period, failed. This was the most important task I had to complete and it was a deal killer.
The following week pretty much sucked. I'd extended my deadlines because I wanted to believe I'd landed a technical partner. Now it was time to kill my idea and move on. Fortunately, I bounced back quickly and I have to admit, my experience as an athlete helped - being conditioned to move on from a single defeat, a loss of a point, a rally, a heat, whatever, made a big difference.
I learned a lot from each one of the tasks I set for myself and obviously, I lived to tell my tale and fight again another day. I'm still looking for the right venture and the right team, and if you've read this far who knows, maybe we'll find ourselves on the same team some day. 

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