An Internet entrepreneur bids farewell to his firstborn

Although I've never been very religious, lately I've been thinking a lot about Moses. The guy leads his people out of Egypt, parts the Red Sea, hands over the reins to someone else, glimpses the Promised Land, and goes off to die. All of which was necessary in the greater scheme of things, I suppose. But hard cheese on Moses, all the same.

Readers of my last column will have some idea why I've got Moses on the brain. In July, about a year after founding a marketing-services Internet company called Gazooba with my buddies Zen and Shanti, I stepped down as CEO to make room for a been-there-done-that executive named Colin Campbell. Venture capitalists had been telling me they'd invest only in a CEO with a track record of hiring and managing dozens -- if not hundreds -- of people. And, in fact, Colin almost immediately secured a handsome round of financing for the company.

I harbor no doubts that passing the crown was the right move. Clearly, I wasn't the man for this particular job. But that begged the question, Having hired Colin to be Gazooba's CEO, what job was I the man for?

Not long after coming on board, Colin asked me to propose a new role for myself. In an effort to come up with something, I spent one Sunday morning at a Starbucks on Polk Street, comparing my skills and passions with Gazooba's hiring needs. Sipping a tall chai tea latte, I composed a list of things I'd learned to do -- and loved doing -- as a CEO and an entrepreneur. Here it is:

1. Persuaded a bunch of venture capitalists to back my half-baked idea.

2. Persuaded a bunch of smart people to leave cushy jobs to work for a company based on a half-baked idea and run by people with names like Zen and Shanti.

3. Chose for my company's moniker a word that didn't even exist but that we thought would make people smile.

4. Offered options to half the service population of northern California.

5. Presented my half-baked idea to big scary audiences at high-profile industry conferences.

6. Bribed real estate agents with T-shirts in order to secure prime San Francisco office space.

7. Made payroll by creatively cutting expenses, finagling bridge loans, and prostrating myself before vendors.

8. Persuaded big Web companies and even a major telecommunications company to pay money -- money! -- for my half-baked idea.

9. Chronicled the whole experience for a national business magazine whose editors kept warning me not to make anything up.

I read over the list, and my eyes welled with tears as I recalled the thrills, chills, spills, and other nonrhyming but no less dramatic and emotionally charged events of the past year. Only then did I realize three things. First, no matter how much I loved working at Gazooba, I'd be bored silly with a job as vice-president of one thing or chief of another. Second, I was thoroughly addicted to whatever chemical is released by the brain upon the successful transformation of a half-baked idea into reality. And third, everyone in Starbucks was staring at me because I was sobbing like a schoolgirl.

The next day Colin and I had lunch at the Tadich Grill, a venerable San Francisco seafood house around the corner from our office. Over sautéed sand dabs, I told Colin that I wasn't sure there was a place for me in the new Gazooba or, more to the point, that there was a place for the new Gazooba in me.

"Why don't you give it some tame?" Colin said, his Scottish accent no longer impenetrable to me. "Next week we're having some off-sites. I think they might give you a different perspayctive. Let's feigned out how yer feeling in two weeks." I was in no rush, especially if a fulfilling life at Gazooba was still possible. We set the clock ticking, and I promised to keep our conversation on the q.t.

For many of my coworkers, my announcement was akin to the Jolly Green Giant's declaring that he could no longer envision playing out his personal destiny among the sweet peas and pearl onions.

But I soon discovered that my future happiness at Gazooba was not to be, chiefly because there was to be no Gazooba. It happened on a Friday morning. Colin called about 10 of us into the conference room and introduced a couple of gents from Idiom, a naming consultancy. "Great," I thought. "We're going to discuss some names for our new product extensions." But no. "The reason we're here," said one of the Idiom guys, "is that now that your company has repositioned itself as a business-to-business provider" -- a decision I had made prior to Colin's arrival, partly at the urging of our board -- "the name Gazooba doesn't work anymore. We're here to pick a new name."

My heart sank. Gazooba was emblazoned on my soul and my license plate. I couldn't bear to see it die. I fully understood the rationale: we were selling to marketing managers at big corporations now, and our clients, perhaps understandably, weren't comfortable cutting $100,000 checks to an outfit whose name was chosen, in part, because it sounded Dr. Seuss-ish. Suddenly, I realized that it wasn't just the name change that was bringing me down. It was the whole concept of selling to marketing managers at big corporations. My company's new direction was smart and strategic, and it left me absolutely cold.

My feelings must have shown, because Colin didn't invite me to any of the follow-up meetings. I felt left out, of course, and maybe a little resentful. But mostly I was relieved at not having to take part in the relegation of Gazooba to the dustbin of Internet history. In the end, the management team narrowed down the choices to two names: Qbiquity and Metafinity. Qbiquity and Metafinity. Qbiquity and Metafinity. I said the two words over and over, but they just weren't ... well, they just weren't Gazooba. [Editor's note: the company ultimately settled on Qbiquity.]

On the day of the off-site, my mind was already made up, although I don't think I knew it yet. The event took place in a conference room at the nearby Hyatt Regency; the facilitator was Dan Foxx, a consultant who assists executive teams with goal setting. Dan led us through a series of visualization exercises. First, we were to imagine in great detail an initial public offering for Gazooba (or not-Gazooba). Dan then asked employees to calculate how much money they'd make on their options and what they'd do with their windfalls. Most replied that they would buy things for their families. I said I'd donate a hefty chunk to my old summer camp. After each person spoke, Dan smiled and said, "Wow. Thank you for sharing that."

Now that our dreams were on the table, Dan took one step back. "OK," he said, "we know where we want to be. Now, what do we have to do to get there? To reach this stock price, how much revenue and profit would we need? How many customers? How many analysts covering the company? By when would we have to do all this?"

While my colleagues responded to Dan's questions, I stayed silent. I felt as though I were an oarsman headed someplace I didn't want to go on a boat I had once steered. Dan, who had been writing on the board, paused and called a time-out. "I've run this exercise with a lot of other companies," he said, looking out at us, "and there's always a lot more excitement than there is here. Is there a dead moose in the room?"

I knew what Dan meant. I was the moose. Looking over at Colin, I asked him with my eyes for permission to break my promise of confidentiality. He nodded.

"Dan," I said, "there is a moose here. I've been talking with Colin about what my role will be at Gazooba, and we've agreed that there isn't one that will both fulfill me and benefit the company. So I'll be leaving at the end of September."

My coworkers sat there, stunned. For many of them, I had become synonymous with Gazooba, and my announcement was akin to the Jolly Green Giant's declaring that he could no longer envision playing out his personal destiny among the sweet peas and pearl onions. Dan broke the silence. "Andy," he said, "I can see from your face that you are truly committed to Gazooba, and that this is a decision made out of commitment. Is there any message you'd like to leave the session with today?"

I hadn't prepared anything, but I blurted out: "Of all the things I've accomplished, I'm most proud of the people I've hired at Gazooba. This is an amazing group that will go on to achieve great things. I've worked for companies where people talk behind one another's backs, where you have to assume people are talking about you behind your back. At Gazooba I never felt that, and I'm proud to call everyone here my friend." By the end, I was choking back tears.

In the preceding weeks I had discovered that one of my cofounders, Zen, had been traveling a similar path and had arrived at the identical destination. Now, seeing me bathed in the spotlight of emotional catharsis, Zen sought to steer some attention his way by announcing that he, too, would be leaving, as soon as someone could be found to assume his role of chief technology officer. Of the founding triumvirate, only Shanti -- who had matured into a kick-ass product manager -- would stay on.

On my way out of the hotel, Doug Gross, our sales manager, stopped me in the hallway. "I just want you to know, Andy, that I joined Gazooba because of you, because of your vision and your enthusiasm," he told me. I was enormously gratified, especially considering that Doug's first impression of me was formed at our launch event, where I was acting as a mime. The fact that I could barely summon words to answer him seemed somehow fitting.

So I didn't reach the promised land with Gazooba after all. But I still own a chunk of it, and my severance package is nothing to sneeze at. What's next for me? Well, since I seem unable to shed my entrepreneurial skin, I'll stay out here in Silicon Valley looking for the next big thing and chronicling the search in my Inc. column. (Incidentally, readers who know of any next big things are invited to contact me at the E-mail address below.) But first I'm taking some time off to scuba dive, snowboard, windsurf, and participate in assorted other activities that don't require a consultant. Zen has suggested that we rent a small office near our favorite windsurfing spot and use it to develop new business ideas.

And I expect I'll be wallowing -- just a little -- in nostalgia. Last night I reread the first installment of E-Diaries, which I wrote exactly a year ago. In what amounted to Gazooba's birth legend, I described giving up the pleasant certainties of life in Manhattan for the shimmering question mark that is Silicon Valley. "It's going to be hell out there," whined the Andy of a year ago to Zen, "working 24 hours a day, beholden to a bunch of VCs."

"Yes," Zen had replied. "And you'll love it."

He was right.

Andrew Raskin, the cofounder and former CEO of Gazooba Corp., is now a full-time seeker of opportunities in Silicon Valley and beyond.

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