Memories of My Father

Although he’s been dead almost 20 years, look I still have a strong mental image of my father. In the image, he’s sprawled out on the couch. The TV is on, some news show, and he’s reading the newspaper.

Let me correct that, he’s reading from a pile of newspapers. His daily habit was to burn through three newspapers a day. The result was piles upon piles of newspapers throughout the house.

There was the pile littered over the coffee table. That was the “pending” pile. There was the scattered pile on the floor around the couch. This was the “read” pile. And at the top of the basement stairs was the stack that would reach the height of my adolescent waist . This was the “archived” or “ready for discard” pile.

When I asked him why he read so many newspapers, he gave a said, “It’s important to know the full spectrum of opinion. I read the Boston Globe for the liberal side. The [Nashua] Telegraph for the independent take. And I read the [Manchester] Union Leader for the conservative side.”

He also counseled, “You should read the letters section of the Union Leader. They’ll publish anything, no matter how incoherent. It’s hilarious.” So this kind of thing was drummed into me early – first, the importance of knowing all aspects of the argument and second, incoherent written opinion is hilarious.

Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I later majored in journalism. But it’s a shame my father passed before the internet arrived. If he were alive today, I have no doubt he would be an internet addict. And, like me, he would subscribe to a number of outlets that he disagreed with vehemently. If you look over my list of Twitter feeds, you’ll see Ann Coulter, the National Review, and (my very special form of torture/entertainment) Paul Azinger.

You may not have heard of Paul Azinger. He’s a former golf pro who dabbles in denying evolution over Twitter. If there ever was a medium for futility, it’s arguing science in under 140 characters. Azinger is like the online version of the 1980s letters section of the  Union Leader.

Every time I read Azinger’s posts I write some smart-ass reply and stop myself before hitting “send.” Then I laugh at myself as I remember Robert Frost’s quote: “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper.” So I say, write on Mr. Azinger! Your buffoonery will continue with or without my comments and I thank you for bringing back this fond memory of my dad.

What Paul Graham Did Right

While I was working at Viaweb, nurse a tiny software startup in Harvard Square, my manager asked me to find an “online contact manager.” This was way back in 1997 when the web was still a barren canvas, waiting to be filled with useful things. I looked for awhile until I gave him the sorry report – none existed.

But his request stuck with me. Obviously, an online contact manager would be a useful thing. And so, late one night, I got to work building one. I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time and, consequently, I had a lot more spare time than direction.

I called it ContactNet and I spent a lot of time designing the logo. I blatantly ripped off Hotmail’s design at the time. It didn’t have much functionality but I figured I could work on that later. The task was immensely satisfying – working late into the night in an apartment overlooking quiet city streets, listening to Mazzy Star while others slept.

And this is where YCombinator’s Paul Graham comes into the story. Before launching YCombinator, Paul was CEO of Viaweb and I was employee number nine. Paul was obsessive when it came to Viaweb. He knew everything that happened in the company and since ContactNet was on our company servers, it didn’t take him long to find it. He came up to me and asked “Did you make this?” I told him yes.

Paul immediately called a company meeting. He announced, “I am setting up a special corporate fund for people who want to work on projects outside of their regular work.” He held up an envelope, “In this envelope is $150. If you are here late at night working on a project and you want to grab dinner, take from it. I will make sure it is stocked, no questions asked.”

I dove into that slush fund a few times and, true to his word, it was always stocked. That was a good time, there were a lot of great restaurants in our area. But I’m sad to say that although Viaweb eventually was sold to Yahoo for $49 million, my ContactNet project went nowhere. Like many startups, it died.

Even though ContactNet was a failure, I never forgot the generosity, support and trust Paul gave to us, his employees. Viaweb was a tremendous company. Within it Paul created a true culture of innovation.

It’s no surprise to me he is now so successful at YCombinator, recently called “the most prestigious program for budding digital entrepreneurs” by Wired Magazine. This innovative startup incubator is putting into practice things he already did at Viaweb. The best thing? There’s no reason managers can’t setup something similar within their own companies.