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A CEO and His BMW (Small Company Life)

Thursday, July 22, 2004
Optimism is a primary trait of startup company CEOs. With all of the risk and obstacles involved in getting a company off the ground, they have to be optimistic. The type of optimism goes beyond “glass half full” optimism. I’ve worked with CEOs who, when spotting an empty glass sitting on the hot asphalt of a desert highway, will convince everyone nearby that a freak microburst of rain is inevitable, and the glass will be full any moment now.

I worked with one of these CEOs during the bubble years. He was a charismatic factory of entrepreneurial ideas. Once the big money came in from the venture capitalists, however, the collective wisdom of higher powers decided the company needed an experienced business person at the helm. We didn’t need optimism anymore, we needed execution. So we acquired a new CEO who was equipped with the people skills of an ostrich and completely devoid of creative ideas.

Actually, I take that back – he did have one idea I can remember. We were working with a customer who built on the Java platform and wanted to use some of our COM+ components. At one point he wandered into a common engineering area and asked if we could “SQL some data around” to provide integration. Other than this, I don’t remember him ever coming out of his office, except for the monthly company meetings.

The company meetings happened every month only because we had monthly layoffs. I suppose these meetings were meant to boost the company morale and assure us everything was under control. It was during one of these meetings when the CEO described layoffs as “a way to scrub the barnacles off the bottom of the boat”. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine if these words contain any inspirational value, because it is a subjective call. I can only remember thinking what we really needed during these times was the unabashed optimism of old. Well, that and another $30 million.

During the course of a year we dwindled from a headcount of about 150 people to 12. Sometime near my last paycheck the day came for Mr. CEO to go. The word was getting around that he was packing up in his office. We saw him roll a chair out to his 2-door sports car. We saw him carry a desktop computer to the car. A crowd gathered to watch from afar. Another computer went out the door.

I remember reading once about a contest at a car dealership. The person who could guess the number of golf balls that would fit into an SUV would win the SUV. I’m sure this guy knew exactly how many golf balls fit into his car, because he was using every square centimeter of space. Next to go was a bookshelf. It was incredible to watch.

A mob mentality began to form, and we began to collectively speculate if we should start tearing the place apart and taking it home. Being a mostly civilized group though, I think we ultimately decided just to go out for lunch and celebrate the end of an era. Not that we really had a reason to celebrate, because our time was coming soon too, and by the end of the month the company would officially close the doors. I wasn’t allowed to take any office furniture with me when I left, but it wasn’t the last time I saw my desk….