The worst business I ever started: I raised more than $30 million from venture capitalists, and ultimately the business lost $100 million in investor money. I was the CEO.
Here was my pitch: “First there was the Internet, and now there is the wireless Internet.”
This was in 1999. With that one pitch, everyone from CMGI to Henry Kravis to various other billionaires threw money at the business. Yasser Arafat, through a shell vehicle that was uncovered after his death, invested $2 million.
I was so shy about talking to the other employees that I would call my secretary from downstairs and ask her if anyone was in the hallways. I had to be sure they were empty before I came up into my office and then locked the door.
BlackBerry invested in the company. Ericsson invested. Allen & Company invested. One time, I was pitching the company to a group representing billions of dollars of Saudi Arabian wealth, including the Bin Laden family.
I said something like “The signal goes up to the satellite and then comes down to the Earth securely through our software.” Someone brought up the brilliant point, “I thought the signal goes through cellular towers, like a phone call.” I had no answer. ”That too,” I said. And then I tried to explain further. “Sometimes, it goes into space, though, like if there are no cellular towers in the area.” They invested $5 million.
Then Merrill Lynch had a slide show about what our IPO would look like. On the last page was what my net worth would be if we IPO’ed: $900,000,000.
I had a very clear idea what I was going to do with that money. I was going to make a Super Bowl commercial of just me playing chess and walking around and hanging out. That’s it. No message. Oh, and I was going to get a divorce, which, as you might know, you need $900,000,000 to do.
Much later, the FBI visited me to find out more about the Bin Laden family’s finances. But that’s another story.
The two most successful businesses I started and then sold I did not raise a dime for. I had profitable customers from day one. Every month had more revenues than the month before. I was friends with all my customers. Venture capitalists were constantly calling, but I didn’t take the money.
Other successful entrepreneurs were calling, because they wanted to be CEO of the company. One guy I said “no” to, but I asked him for all of his ideas, which I promptly stole and used with great success. He knows who he is, so I will say it now: Thanks. (He’s O.K. with it. He just sold his last company for $800 million.)
There’s a big difference between raising a lot of money for a company and building a successful company, and it can be summed up by only one word. No other word will do. “No.”
You have to say “no” hundreds of times to find the right “yes.” I loved my customers. I would say “no” to customers I did not love. I said “no” to investors.
For my customers, I didn’t just sell a service. I sold everything. I gave them advice on their businesses, on their girlfriends. I would take their calls at 3 in the morning when they were depressed. I surprised them with 6-foot-tall trophies on their birthdays. I gave their nephews jobs.
I didn’t do this because I wanted their business. I did this because I now only do business with people I love. Those are the only businesses that work for me.
I only hired employees who were better than me. And I would encourage them to learn enough to start their own businesses. Some would. Some wouldn’t.
I’ve chased money for much of the past 20 years. Almost all of that chasing ended up in misery.
One night, when I’d had enough, I tried to figure out if the following was true: If I put a cigarette in a glass of water and left it over the night, then took out the cigarette and drank the water, would I die of a heart attack within 60 seconds because of the pure poison that would’ve leaked out over night?
I never figured out if it was true.
My therapist said to me, “What can I do to make you happy?” I said, “Write me a check for a million dollars. That’s the only thing.” He said, “That won’t help.” He was right.
Ultimately, I did find one thing that made me happy, and every business endeavor after that has resulted in some degree of success for me. Before, during or after I say, think or do something, I try to figure out if it will harm someone, including myself. If it does, I say, “no.”
I had to learn the power of “no” the hard way after many tears and many years of saying “yes” too many times.
But from that moment on, everything has been like magic: Saying “no” has saved me from the people who have tried to bring me down. Saying “no” has saved my relationships with the ones I love and made them a million times stronger. And saying “no” is, for me, what compassion has brought into my life, so I learn, over the course of thousands of “no’s,” when is the right moment to say “yes.”
I was afraid to write this column. Am I revealing too much? I don’t know. But I said “yes” anyway.