During the last years of the 20th century-the time of the tech bubble-we were bombarded with their stories. They were the Zeitgeist icons, and they were unavoidable. We'd read about them on the flat-screen monitor in the elevator lifting us to work; they spilled out of photo spreads in magazines. Often they stood before some newly purchased artifact of wealth: a yacht whose name cleverly alluded to technology, or a luxury SUV with a personalized licence plate.
They were the tech millionaires, and for most of us, their stories were aspirational pornography. A lot of people lost a lot of money when the bubble burst, of course, but these folks had exquisite timing. They're the ones who got out in time. Now, on the other side of the boom, they are-of all things-melancholic about the results. Possibly, this is thanks to the trauma that psychologists associate with the onset of wealth. One of the key pieces in the literature is a 1978 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study. It compares the happiness of lottery winners and that of victims of serious accidents, several years after their life-changing events. The accident survivors are happier.
Tech millionaires are not the same as lottery winners, but still, they've learned that the experience they long ago dreamed of-getting rich-can be as harrowing as anything they've lived through. "Selling a business and getting $100 million is wonderful," says Eileen Gallo, a Los Angeles psychotherapist who specializes in wealth-related issues. "It's also very stressful." As Gallo points out, the changes wrought by a fortune-the new homes, the moves, the early retirements-rank high on the Holmes-Rahe scale, a checklist of stressful events used by psychologists. Here, then, are some lessons learned by those who have lived through the trauma we all wish would be wrought on us.
(1) You can go wherever you want
As Dave Boswell prepares for our helicopter flight, he reminds me of something I've been trying to forget. It is almost exactly one year since Boswell left his job. But it is only one month since the instructor at his Northern California flight school awarded him his helicopter pilot's licence. I've met Boswell at an airfield about 30 minutes northeast of San Francisco. Our transportation today is a Schweizer 300, which seems about as stable as the mosquito it vaguely resembles. As I climb in, he asks whether I'm nervous.
"No," I lie.
Boswell is a bit of a gearhead: He calls helicopters the coolest machines around, besides computers, and I'm glad to see he's meticulous when it comes to the flight check. After ticking his way through columns of instrument verifications, he tips open an insubstantial plastic door, peeks his head out and sweeps his gaze around the aircraft. He shouts, "Clear!" Another flip of a switch and the rotors sputter into a slow spin. When the blades have accelerated to invisibility, we're hovering a metre above the runway. Soon we're speeding northwest from Concord airfield, velocity 70 knots, altimeter 1,700 feet. And that's when Boswell reminds me of the thing I'm trying to forget: I'm the first passenger he's ever taken for a ride.
This moment has been something Boswell has dreamed about since he was a computer science undergraduate
at the University of Waterloo, where his favourite pro-
fessor, Wes Graham, was an IBM alumnus. Professor
Graham suggested Boswell read the autobiography of Thomas Watson, IBM's founder and long-time CEO. Boswell did, and found himself entranced by the passage that opens the book, which recounts Watson's dream of becoming a helicopter pilot. Yep, the young Boswell thought. That's pretty neat. I'd like to do that.
Boswell was able to enact that dream in the autumn of 2002, heading to chopper school soon after he retired at the age of 47. Prior to that, he'd never actually been in a helicopter. He'd had a successful career in software development; the last of many buyouts came in the fall of 2001, when California-based Siebel Systems Inc. paid $1.5 billion in stock and cash for Toronto's Janna Systems Inc., where Boswell was executive vice-president of marketing.
As he banks his bird south toward San Francisco, Boswell's expression is serene. With your eyes at Godzilla's level, civilization is miniaturized-a trick of perspective that can instill in pilots an illusion of omnipotence. You look down and see office buildings nestled between your shoes. Extend an arm and you obscure a zip code. "It's therapeutic up here," says Boswell. "You take a helicopter into a hover, it's the closest sensation to a ride on a magic carpet. You have total control."
He might as well be talking about wealth. Below us is the region that was the engine of North America's tech boom. How many glued-to-monitors workers toil below? Tens of thousands? Boswell doesn't belong to their ranks any more. He can go wherever he wants.
It's the first lesson you learn when you're suddenly wealthy. What are Boswell's plans? Come autumn, he'll return to flight school to work on his commercial pilot's licence. What then? I ask. He talks about flying his wife for day trips to Carmel, or nipping over to Lake Tahoe. And, says Boswell, "I think it would be cool to own one's own helicopter."
Plainly, the options are endless.
(2)There are very few people to sail around the world with
Wealth means new issues. "It was, for me, a very surreal experience," recalls Sandra Wear, 34, a co-founder of Toronto's The DocSpace Co. Inc., which ran a web-based service that ensured secure delivery and storage of electronic files. California's Critical Path Inc. bought DocSpace for $43 million in cash and 4.1 million shares; when the deal closed in January, 2000, the total deal was worth $824 million.
"It was very difficult to grasp," Wear says. "You're excited and you're really happy, but you have not grasped the full ramifications of what's occurred. Because it's just too much to assimilate in such a short period of time. It took me about a year to really get a handle on it."
Once it sinks in, the standard reaction to wealth is celebration-certainly that was the motivation behind a party that Wear and her fellow DocSpace co-founders threw at Toronto's Casa Loma shortly after the buyout. The bash was remarkable both for its opulence and its date-March 5, 2000, the exact peak of tech-fired stock markets. More than 500 guests revelled while
jesters performed stunts and knights rode on horseback past buffet tables groaning with platters of food. The final bill was well into six figures.
Typically, after celebration comes rest. Many of the people who got out in time worked ridiculous hours before their cash-outs. So they craved weeks of nothingness, when the schedule on their Palm desktop amounted to an appointment desert. Some travelled. Lorien Gabel took the cash he made from the 1998 sale of Interlog Internet Services Inc., the ISP he co-founded, and invested much of it in bonds. Then he bounced around the world-Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East-choosing his destinations as much for the exotic rhythm of their names as for any desire to actually sample their sights.
But you can only celebrate good fortune for so long. For Gabel, real-life longing returned after about 12 months. "I got restless," says Gabel. "I stopped travelling because I got bored."
Ottawan Mark Janoska participated in one of the fastest seed-to-takeover cycles of the tech boom. He co-founded Extreme Packet Devices Inc. in March, 1999. PMC-Sierra of Burnaby, B.C., bought the company a year later for $603 million. Janoska outlines a dilemma common to many of the people who got out in time. "Yeah, sure, suddenly you can go and sail around the world," he says. "But then you learn very quickly that there are very few people out there to sail around the world with." There is a point when becoming a member of the idle rich is, well, a yawn. "After a few months," says Janoska, "your mind goes idle."
(3)Giving away money is more difficult than you think
To combat ennui, some of the newly rich devote themselves to eliminating its cause: their wealth. Take the case of Hamilton's Joyce Young. In the early '90s, she was badgered by her computer-geek nephew, Robert, to invest in a company he and a few friends were starting in the United States. Young had some money to spare, so-as much to get her nephew off her back as anything-she and a few family members helped out Robert with some seed capital.
Three years later, the company went public and Young sold enough shares to recoup her original investment-leaving a little batch behind as a lark, to see where the market took them. By January, 2000, the company that Young's nephew helped found, Red Hat Inc., a provider of Linux services, had a share price in the neighbourhood of $150. Young's "lark" was worth more than $40 million. She donated her entire stake to a community foundation in Hamilton. Why? "It was horrifying to have that much money."
Few of the wannabe tech philanthropists have found it so easy to part with their wealth. Not because they're unwilling to give it away; rather, these payoff-obsessed individuals say it's difficult to find organizations worthy of funding. To their eye, traditional charities are appallingly inefficient. The ideal? A company that simultaneously makes money and makes the world a better place. Failing that, they want to make donations that will produce big change. They've sparked a remarkable spate of charitable innovation, such as Canadian eBay co-founder Jeffrey Skoll's 2002 donation of $475,000 to a Kenyan non-profit that develops cheap agricultural equipment. The project is already transforming the Kenyan economy.
Representing the apex of this value-investing approach to philanthropy is Joyce Young's son, former tech CEO Bill Young, who spent two years researching how to give his money away before he would part with a cent.
At 49, Young retains some of the awkwardness of adolescence; he is thin and guileless, a bit like the title character from Gilligan's Island. He says things like, "Sheesh," and "My mother is a gem." Like his mother, he invested in Red Hat; he also had money to spare, thanks to the Youngs' family business, Hamilton Computers, a hardware reseller. When Young, a Harvard MBA, sold the company to GE Capital Ltd. in 1993, he knew he wouldn't have to work ever again. After travelling and getting married, he returned to his old sector.
But by the dawn of the millennium, Young was tired of the tech boom. "It did seem like the world had gone mad," Young says. "I wasn't enjoying business as much. You know, this marionette dance according to what the capital markets wanted." And there was that big win from Red Hat. So Young left technology and founded a charitable foundation in April, 2000.
Giving away his money proved difficult. He saw little on the nonprofit side that he wanted to invest in. "We've been imprisoned by this notion that there's this big dividing line between corporations and not-for-profit, and they have completely different rules and regulations," says Young. "But what we need are more hybrid solutions"-socially responsible companies. The companies he funded, Young decided, would one day have to break even, independent of donations. His team identified 40 potential companies across Canada, then started narrowing the field by considering factors such as accountability and the public good. They ended up donating to none of them.
Young then decided that if such hybrid companies were so difficult to find, he would help entrepreneurs create some. To that end, he founded Social Capital Partners. "It's not designed to help people get jobs. This is designed to help people have jobs, and own companies, to get the business self-sufficient and profitable."
To date, Social Capital has funded three groups. There's a business that matches disadvantaged youths with summer jobs in Quebec, and a London, Ont., company that packages products for such clients as 3M and Research In Motion while offering transitional employment to people in need of both job and life skills; it has more than 50 employees and generated $1.4 million in revenue last year. But Young's clear favourite is Winnipeg contractor Inner City Renovations, which started up in September, 2002. It now has 25 employees, 18 of whom are aboriginal; it recently billed $130,000 in a month.
When he talks about his ambitions, Young speaks faster, and every so often his voice squeaks. He's as excited as a VC talking about a business plan-which, in a way, he is. And what does he get out of it? "My motivation's never been about making a fortune, but all of a sudden I ended up with one anyway," he says. "I was just in this incredibly lucky situation. What a privilege I've been given. I don't think there should be anything unusual about what I'm doing." Smiling, he adds, "I think we have some real change-the-landscape sort of ideas here."
(4)Getting rich is more fun than being rich
Mark Janoska, the co-founder of Extreme Packet Devices, stayed with PMC-Sierra after it bought his firm. Two years in, Toronto venture capitalists VenGrowth Capital Partners asked Janoska to join them. They wanted him to open an Ottawa office for the firm, which has more than $1 billion under investment. He decided to go for it.
As a general partner in one of Canada's larger venture capitalists, Janoska acts as a wise man for the companies in his portfolio. He relishes his ability to drive an entire cluster of companies. "I call it painting with a larger brush," he says, comparing the role with his start-up days.
One afternoon this spring, Janoska looked back at that crazy, intense period. He spent much of the year ricocheting across North America, meeting with clients and vendors. "Building a company can be brutal," he says. "The sleepless nights and the anxiety, and the constant travel-flying through thunderstorms and plane delays and missing flights, and then maybe a customer kicks your ass for being late for a meeting." He used to dream of his exit strategy and the sorts of things he might do if he was able to cash out; being a venture capitalist seemed just about right. But now that he's actually doing it, Janoska finds he's nostalgic for his start-up.
He's not alone. Anyone who has lived through the maelstrom of a successful start-up will tell you there is nothing more backbreaking. And then they'll tell you it was the best time of their lives. They find themselves pining for the adrenaline, the intensity, the camaraderie and the strategic challenge of founding something. They wonder whether they'll ever again feel the sort of purpose that their life had during the tech boom.
It's why so many entrepreneurs fail at retiring. Take Sandra Wear, the DocSpace co-founder, who left the company figuring she wouldn't have to work that hard for the rest of her life. She started
up a consultancy, Tykra Inc.; she's a vocal advocate for women in technology; and she's been producing a Spanish cooking show, Quixote's Kitchen. But within a year, she hopes to join a start-up. Her change of heart stems from something she's realized since becoming financially independent. "Ultimately, you have to do what makes you happy. And I get the most satisfaction from executing deals," says Wear. "Starting something from scratch and building that up-that's where I find the excitement."
Canada's classic example of serial entrepreneurship is Vancouver's Adam Lorant, John Seminerio and Paul Terry, the trio of engineers who created one of this country's most lucrative start-ups. They founded Abatis Systems Inc. in 1998 and sold it in July, 2000, to California's Redback Networks Inc. for shares then worth $1 billion. By that autumn, they had begun preparations to found OctigaBay Systems Corp., which closed a $24-million round of VC funding earlier this year. "There's a tremendous amount of satisfaction walking into a place that you're helping to build," says Lorant. "It's just a lot of fun. It's like a roller-coaster ride."
"Look," says Janoska, "there's nothing more satisfying than building a company. Nothing. You conceive a rough business plan and then convince somebody to give you millions of dollars of investment? And then you sell your product to customers? And if you're lucky enough to have an exit? That's tremendously rewarding."
Janoska compares the experience of living through a start-up to university. "The all-nighters, the stress and the celebration-once you've left it, you look back and you say, man, we had a hell of a good time. There is nothing more stressful, and there is nothing more rewarding."
Venture capital is great, says Janoska. But..."It's just
not the same. It's a tradeoff. I enjoy helping the smaller companies, and the ability to step back, see the larger
picture. But you don't get the huge adrenaline rush. And I miss that."
(5)I had no clue why I did it
More than anyone, former Janna Systems CEO Bill Tatham demonstrates the peculiar problem of the tech millionaire. Tatham is 44, and it's been two years since he got out. In his former life at Janna Systems-where he was Boswell the helicopter pilot's boss-Tatham used to get invited by business schools to impart his wisdom to students. He developed a routine for these performances. He'd laser-point his way through a few slides, and before too long he'd present his audience with a question. "Why do we work?" he'd ask. He'd stop and survey the audience's eager, wrinkle-free faces, watching the ambitious young men and women process the question. Then he'd toss out some possible answers: "Is it because I like the challenge? Is it for the intellectual stimulation?" Some nods. "Because I like to associate with a quality peer group?" Some shrugs, as the room wonders where Tatham is going with this.
And then Tatham would stop his pacing and he'd face the audience and say, speaking in italics: "That's bullshit. We work for money. We work because...we...need...money."
The point, Tatham says, was that young entrepreneurs should remember, when they're drafting their business strategies, that the ultimate metric of company performance is profit.
But Tatham has recently discovered that, for all these years, he's been misleading the students.
Tatham used to dream about not having to work. The pace of his working life was insane; two years ago he was 40 pounds heavier and strung out from building his company into the world leader in its niche, customer relationship management software. Because Janna Systems catered to large financial institutions, such as investment banks, Tatham typically spent one day a week in New York, and another in Chicago; he usually had to work weekends. A good thing his Toronto place was just a block and a half from the Janna headquarters. "It was a very drop-out-of-society sort of lifestyle," says Tatham. "I'd like to think most days I made it home in time to kiss my kids goodnight. But my wife would tell a different story."
For 16 consecutive quarters between 1997 and 2001, Tatham led Janna to improved results for quarter-on-quarter revenue. Staff levels grew 100% annually. By the beginning of 2000, Janna had stomped its main competitor, Siebel Systems Inc., for clients on Wall Street. In turn, Siebel paid Janna the ultimate compliment: It pitched Tatham on a takeover. "The value was far larger than I had ever set as a target," he recalls. When the deal closed on Nov. 15, 2000, Tatham's 3.1 million Janna shares were worth approximately $240 million.
Over the seven months that he spent managing the transition, Tatham diversified his holdings. "I never wanted to have to work again," he says. He bought a cottage on Muskoka's Little Lake Joseph and a Ferrari. He began construction on a house in Toronto with a massive garage. Tatham spent the summer of 2001 at his new cottage; lots of family time. That September, he returned to Toronto to get the kids ready for school. His wife then returned to her city routine.
And Tatham smacked into an identity crisis.
He had achieved the fantasy that motivated most of the suits on Bay Street, on Wall Street. Still, he slept poorly and was restless when he was awake.
Tatham's problem ran deeper than a lack of hobbies. His career as Janna's CEO had made him proud. He also had a reputation as one of the tech sector's best crisis jockeys. Now he'd gone and sold his horse.
Tatham talked to the rest of his executive team from Janna and found many of them felt the same way. They decided to pool their capital to create a private investment firm and came up with a funky name-XJ Partners Inc. (as in ex-Janna); seeing an opportunity, they focused on providing capital for health-related tech companies. And they set themselves a grand goal: The companies they backed must not only be profitable; they must also make the world a better place.
One day this spring, Tatham sits in his Sharper Image back-massage chair, simultaneously fiddling with the controller and evaluating the first 18 months of XJ. He has realized that what he used to tell the young entrepreneurs was a lie. He doesn't work for the money. "I realized that that's bullshit," he says.
"There's a fulfillment from work, one I'm not sure you can get any other way," he says. "What else in life gives you that sense of fulfillment? Do you do it as a power thing? Naw, it's more than that. It's creating something.
"And I like that."