by Philip Muls
An afternoon on the water
|August 2000. With broad smiles on our faces we raise our champagne flutes in a toast to life. We are a cheerful bunch of young expats on the deck of an Amsterdam canal cruise ship. The sun is brilliant and we are Masters of the Universe. |
Brent, our CEO, says “Cheers guys, here’s to our IPO…” while at that exact same moment, behind him up on the quayside, we see two bike-riders colliding into each other. We all laugh, leaving Brent confused in the center wondering what’s so funny. Wenke, a stunning Dutch blonde who is our Head of HR, puts Brent out of his misery by whispering into his ear what just happened.
This gang clustered together two years ago in this hotspot for Internet start-ups, psyched by the Everything-Is-Possible feeling embodied by Amsterdam as a city. We are in the right place at the right time, personally kick-starting the new economy on the old continent. Putting glass fiber in the ground at an accelerating pace throughout Europe to feed the insatiable appetite for high-speed bandwidth. We’re hitting the sweet spot of the e-economy right where the smart money extracts maximum returns. Feeling privileged and entitled.
Only six months into our start-up, we got noticed by Venture Capitalists and before we knew it, we sold out to one of the pioneer dot-coms in the Valley. At the closing meeting in their San Francisco offices, I stood next to Dave, their global VP of marketing, a six-foot-two giant who startled me with his resounding voice: “Did you know we’re paying only 2.2M$ for a full 30-second Super-Bowl commercial, a hell of a deal! We’re on in the break, right after Pets.com.” Me: “Are we sure we’re reaching our core audience during a National Football League game ?” He looked at me with surprise turning into disdain. His face was the screen for his inner dialogue: “This guy doesn’t get it, don’t waste one more second on him” and left me at the coffee machine. So much for my day in the Valley as an Internet bad-ass.
Now back here in Europe, each of us is the proud owner of a ridiculous amount of stock options. Our new mothership successfully floated on NASDAQ one week ago, moving our options Deep-In-The-Money. The calls do not vest until eighteen months from now but today we are all Millionaires, on paper at least. But we have the confidence of seasoned entrepreneurs, this cannot slip away, we have forward momentum.
Nothing less than the UNESCO world heritage setting of Amsterdam’s canals suffices as the scenery to this “Yes, we made it !” celebration. The afternoon sun is burning on the water which acts as a prism, breaking the sun’s spectrum into its constituent colors. I look at my fellow entrepreneurs. The girls wear flowery summer dresses, the men geek t-shirts with the unavoidable funny quotes. Quite the assorted group: Irish, Dutch, American, South-African, Canadian and two Belarussian network engineers who only speak Internet Protocol. Our PR lady Natasha has recently joined from Cape Town, our Ops Director Tony is from Nebraska, they are into a heated discussion on driving Lexus versus Porsche, spending money they do not have. I smile and savor the moment. The future sure is lavish with opportunity.
The prospect of getting filthy rich is wildly appealing and it comes with a feeling of complete freedom. The unrestrained energy we demonstrate as a team comes from feeling unhindered by life’s usual limitations. All the ordinary in life is adjourned until we get to the end of this ride, for better or for worse. Each member of this gang knows that we are making history. Stars and planets must have been aligning in an unlikely fashion for something this extraordinary to happen. This experience comes as close to immortality as it gets, our horizon is eternity.
For the past two years, we’ve been in a state of flow, fully immersed in this challenge that takes all of our skill. We are at the top of our game and in the zone. Motivation is intrinsic, hierarchy is symbolic. We inherently know what to do.
Our company’s tagline is “Failsafe”, that is how confident we are. Each of us is a domain expert, we complement each other and as a team, we’re shooting for zero error. No need for endless discussion and deliberation, our game plan is crystal clear. We’ve named our conference rooms after famous prisons to remind ourselves not to waste time in meetings : Sing Sing, Alcatraz, Robben Island.
I feel really proud thinking about how we got here, but at the same time, something is bothering me. Staring down at the waterline, the word prism lingers from my earlier thoughts about the sunlight breaking on the canal surface. I know you cannot see what is in front of you through a prism because it bends the light. I mentally ‘see’ the metaphor and acknowledge that maybe, just maybe I might not have been looking at things clearly. Is my judgment clouded by the elated mood I am in due to the champagne and the exciting thoughts about unlimited wealth ?
Deep down I know that this is too good to be true. Our new owner is years away from turning a profit yet its valuation is sky high. Our stock price is blown out of proportion, based upon unrealistic expectations, emotions really.
Anything ‘brick and mortar’ is considered as doomed these days and I for one have a hard time believing that. If I could run to the bank today and cash in my options at fifty cents on the Dollar, I would do so right now. But the options’ vesting schedule holds me in a golden cage. So I have no choice to believe the bubble will not burst. I am resolved to see this through to the end. After all, the analysts are falling over themselves to convince the public that this is only the start of the boom cycle. I would be crazy not to catch this strong tailwind of the new economy and miss out on the gold rush.
Almost physically brushing my worries away, I raise my glass for a refill, looking for some liquid relief. I drink and tell myself not to worry, to cease this day. But the lightheartedness I felt earlier has gone, as if floating on the water, unknowingly, we’ve passed a tipping point…
With hindsight, that afternoon on the canals in Amsterdam was a defining moment. The dot-com collapse that soon followed turned our stock options into worthless paper. The new economy crashed and burned in a spectacular fashion and the NASDAQ ended the year 50% off its March 2000 high. The prospects of great wealth evaporated and we each went our way.
Looking back now, we were very lucky coming out with only bruised egos. But in the moment, it felt as if our universe imploded on us, back to being mere mortals. Stars and planets drifting back into normal orbits.
I did not get rich there and then but a couple of things I took with me, apart from the new term dot-gone.
That feeling of flow, when ego falls away. When actions and thoughts automatically follow previous ones, when one is completely absorbed by an activity without a sense of time. I have been able to capture and bottle that flow feeling and access it later in life at times when excellence was needed.
And of course that flavor of immortality, there on the water in Amsterdam. Young people celebrating existence, convinced they discovered the elixir of life.
I would not have missed it for all the money in the world.