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Shareholder.com
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Gruner: Well, I think that bootstrapping the company on a quarter of a million
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dollars made us a little myopic. We became so proud of that fact that we didn t find the middle ground. I think that in 98, 99, or 2000, we could have taken a million, $2 million of capital, at a very attractive valuation, and retained control and grown the company twice or three times as fast as we did. Perhaps that was a mistake, not doing that. I don t know, because everything worked out fine. And when you only have so much money, it makes decisions much easier. Here s an example: back when the whole Internet thing was getting started, I hired a computer consultant to come in and advise us about what our Internet infrastructure should be. He was a well-credentialed, Microsoft-accredited engineer, etc. He came in and said, You need to buy x number of servers and this kind of software and all that, and it s a quarter of a million dollars to do it right. We said we couldn t even come close to doing that. So I went down to Barnes & Noble, bought several books, including some of the Dummy series. And we built our first Internet servers, which lasted us several years, on Gateway desktop computers, using Microsoft Access as our database system and using basically off-the-shelf server software. We did that for $3 [thousand] or 4,000, and it worked great.
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Livingston: Did having a background in technology give you an edge I would
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think a lot of financial services companies at the time didn t.
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Gruner: Well, in financial services, that may be. But we were kind of a differ-
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ent breed of cat in financial services. We were a technology company providing great service to public companies. So we were always viewed as a technologist kind of company, and many companies liked that. Some didn t like that so much. But that was our niche. That was our differentiation. We understood technology better.
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Livingston: Who did you learn from Did you have any mentors Gruner: I had several. I tried to learn and listen to them. The whole founding
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group at Data General were really smart people. There were four founders there: Ed de Castro, who was the president, who was an investor in Shareholder.com, and who remains a friend after 35 years; Henry Burkhardt, who was the VP of software; Dick Sogge, the VP of engineering; Herb Richman in marketing. They re all really smart guys, and I learned a lot from watching and listening to them.
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Ron Gruner 445
Because de Castro was a hardware engineer like I was, I would view him as my primary mentor during those years. During the 80s, like I said, we had a good board of directors. Tom Perkins played a very key role. I think I absorbed a lot of the wisdom from him by osmosis just in board meetings, and how he conducted himself. How he did a good job, I thought, of managing conflict and disagreements. I have to say I m surprised, though, by how public he s let the internal HP board battle become. Seems to me that it s been very costly to HP.
Livingston: Was there ever a time at Shareholder.com when you wanted to
quit
Gruner: No, not really. I really enjoyed most every day. I enjoyed driving into
work, looked forward to it. Every company has its pros and cons. The nice aspect of Shareholder.com was that it was indeed a recurring revenue stream. So we had almost no financial worries. We could predict our quarterly revenues within a couple of percent the first day of the quarter. The worries that we had came from the fact that we were basically in the news business. When earnings season came out, we might be doing 50 earnings calls and webcasts and news releases on the same day. Every one had to be done on time and perfectly, because an earnings release, for all intents and purposes, is a legal document. So where we sweated was just managing that process. It s like running 50 television stations at the same time. If you screwed up, it was very visible. On rare occasions we did. We might get one webcast mixed up with another company. We d fix it within 3 or 4 minutes, but it s extremely embarrassing. And, believe me, chief executives don t like that at all. I d be the one to call up and apologize, and that was just part of the job. Most people were very reasonable, and they would understand things go wrong. I would use the analogy of a cell phone (that was when cell phones were really getting hot). I d say, Look, we ve all got cell phones or car phones. Sometimes they just screw up and they go wrong. And this is the same kind of stuff; this is pretty advanced technology and sometimes things go wrong. But we did occasionally lose a client that was just irrational, saying, My boss told me to fire you because you made this mistake. We d typically give them a credit for the whole thing, and we d say, If you ever want to come back, we d love to have you back. And many did.
Livingston: What advice would you give to someone who had never started a startup but was thinking about it Gruner: I went to an executive conference several years ago in New York. One
of the most interesting sessions had about six chief executives, all of whom were very successful, and the moderator asked, If you could describe in one word the key to success for your company, what would that word be Very few answered in one word. Some of them said integrity, or communications, and things like that. The last person to talk was Michael Dell, and he said one simple word: persistence.
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