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the deal with don

Ten years ago today, I signed away 51% of my second software company, Gravity Systems Inc, to a businessman with an incredibly deep gravely voice named Don Van Natta.

This time around, I’d been in business almost two years, working for next to nothing to chase my dream of a worldwide interconnected marketplace powered by multi-agent systems. In those days, it wasn’t unusual for me to donate plasma once or twice a week just to feed myself. Sure, I could get a good job just about anywhere, but I knew too well what was coming. I’d tell people, “the tidal wave is coming; I’m waxing my surfboard.” People that knew me didn’t quite understand what I was saying, but I’d keep saying it anyway: “Everything will be different in just a few years: business, art, education … it’ll all get transformed in ways that’ll make the original microcomputer revolution look like nothing.”

Aside from my plasma trips, I made cash developing a custom estimation package for Don’s mechanical contracting company. My plan was to make and market “Vienna Estimator” to plumbers, electricians, and HVAC shops, then use those profits to fund my Gravity & Colony dreams. That was mistake #1, resulting in me spending three years writing plumbing software instead of riding the wave like the Netscapes of the world.

In early 94, I started talking with Don’s son Steve, who had a startup Internet business in Boston. We hit it off. He confirmed my dreams, as did many new friends I’d “met” at the WELL, including some who were starting a magazine called Wired. I was all set to move from Bethlehem to Boston, to make some history with Steve as a partner.

Instead, I get a call from Don. “My son says you want to go into business with him. I told him, ‘Hey, whattya doing? I’m doing a deal with him.” He asked if I could meet with him in New Jersey. I agreed.

So, on April 8th, 1994, I had lunch with Don where he offered to buy 51% of my business, my designs, and me, for a measly $24,000 bonus and a salary of $26,000 a year. He’d also fund the company till it got on its feet. I vividly remember pacing in the parking lot outside the restaurant, thinking “Should I? Shouldn’t I?”. I knew the money was very low for what I was aiming at, but the thought of a regular paycheck was pretty appealing at the time. We signed a “Memo of Understanding” that day. Mistake #2. A few weeks later, Netscape opened its doors. A month later, the first international WWW conference was held in Switzerland. Everyone knows the rest.

Again in April, two years later, with our plumbing program almost ready to ship, I get another call from Don. “We don’t want to be in the software business any more.” My primary contact at his business, Don’s #2, had recently been fired, and the fallout extended to me. With that one phone call, my second business tanked. As far as I know, nobody outside of Don’s company ever used Vienna Estimator, the fruit of years worth of my own wasted work. Meanwhile, the Web was booming and I had spent very little time on Gravity & Colony.

So many things gotta come together before you can realize a dream. You can have the right idea, you can have terrific designs, you can have a prototype, a business plan, and a market just bursting to buy, but if you take your eye off the ball, as I did on that day when I did the deal with Don, you’ve got nothing.

To celebrate the anniversary, today we filed for the trademarks to our forthcoming products, Tidepool™ and Storymill™.

Once more into the fray . . . you folks are gonna really, really like ’em.

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