Warning: this post contains no educational material whatsoever. It’s merely me, at the office late working on the new company and feeling punchy, telling a story about meeting Bill Gates at a urinal.
Microsoft made a buyout offer for Excite (corporate name: Architext) in December of 1995. That was two months after we had launched.
Cost of Excite in December 1995: $70 million.
Meeting Bill Gates at a urinal: priceless.
I said above that there was no valuable experience to draw upon here, but I was wrong. Here it is. Much of the early team was quite tempted to take the money. Others of us wanted to go for it on our own. It was Vinod who had some good perspective. He said that the hardest thing for a startup to do is get momentum. Gain some momentum and it becomes quite hard to stop the trajectory of the company. Said through an analogy, “once the rocket is off the pad and reaches escape velocity, it’s very difficult to stop.” Sure, but how do you know when you’ve hit escape velocity? That’s the tricky question and while Vinod certainly maintained that we had (given the winning of the Netscape deal (see Persistence Pays, pt II)) I was uncertain.
So, off to Microsoft we went to negotiate.
Microsoft received us with the usual parade of good cops and bad cops. The good cops were tough but engaging. Yes, they wanted to buy the company. No, we’re not paying more than $70 million. The bad cops were just plain hostile. I remember Nathan Myhrvold nearly yelling that search was not a business; that users would find their favorite site, bookmark them and then never go to search again. You honestly had to have that debate in 1995. Bookmarks? Sheesh.
During one of the negotiating sessions (with the good cops), Vinod and I took a break to hit the bathroom. Vinod pushes open the bathroom door and there, standing slightly hunched at the urinal, was a small man dressed in a sweater. “Holy shit” I said to myself. “It’s Bill Gates.”
Image you’re facing three urinals. Bill taken the right-most. Vinod takes centerfield and I’m out in left.
Vinod looks over at Bill.
Bill looks back at Vinod “Hey Vinod, who are you here with today?” (today? now is that a telling question or what.).
“I’m here with the Architext guys. This is Joe Kraus”.
Let me pause this dialog to say two things right now.
1. what is the appropriate bathroom etiquette? I had a massive internal struggle. Do I reach over the urinal barriers to extend a handshake to Bill? What would he do if I did?
2. I had complete urinal performance anxiety. I had not been able to pee up to this point. Nothing was happening in the presence of the man who brought us greatness like Microsoft Decathlon and the Blue Screen of Death.
What did I do? I said hello and then stood there silently not knowing what to do or say.
Shortly thereafter, Bill finished up, backed away from the urinal, washed his hands and left.
I should have shaken his hand.