Sunday, January 20, 2013
Guides: Willie Vadnais
[This is one post in a series about people who have had a great impact on my life. You may wish to read the introduction to the series.]
I started my company back in 1992. It wasn’t much more than just me for a while, but through the 90s I grew it, adding more and more employees. Mostly I hired fellow coder geeks, but I also spent a fair amount of time trying to find someone to run the business side of things so I didn’t have to think about it, someone to handle the acquisition of new clients, the management of old ones, deal with the financial crap, etc. Because all I really cared about was coding.
I had different amounts of success with this, but never did my company achieve any sort of greatness. Sometime around 2004 business had slowed to such a trickle that I had to start looking for a full-time job for myself just to pay the bills.
Meanwhile, in 1995, in the exact same town I lived in, three friends started an ISP that would eventually turn into ThinkGeek. And they actually did manage to achieve a sort of greatness—the chances are that you’ve heard of their company, but you’ve never heard of mine (trust me on that). They did that because they had a core group that was actually good at acquiring customers. They could have used some coding help, perhaps (though the original ThinkGeek code monkey was a demon of a workhorse and a great friend of mine to this day, he was only one man, and I’m sure he wished he had some help many times).
I’ve talked before about twists of fate that we think of as “coincidences,” and in fact the story of how I went to work at ThinkGeek is in that very post, so I shan’t repeat it here. What interests me now, as I look back on this story, is how much our lives are shaped by the strange twists of fate that don’t happen. For instance, the ThinkGeek founders and I were both working with Linux software in the same DC suburb. The tech community there wasn’t all that huge. How did we never meet? Why is it that they, who had brilliant ideas and needed programmers, and me, who had brilliant programmers but needed ideas, never managed to connect?
“The ThinkGeek founders” consist of the three original partners, plus their original programmer. I got to know all of these people pretty well over the course of the three years I worked there. They’re all amazing, and amazingly talented, people. In the music that ThinkGeek created, they were the core band: the rest of us were backup singers and studio musicians. And, in the band that is ThinkGeek, the lead singer is Willie Vadnais.
Just as I was the one who founded my company, the one who, even though he was not its CEO, its President, or the chairman of its board of directors, was still the heart of it, the man behind its vision, the oracle of its Delphi ... so Willie was to ThinkGeek. Not always in charge, but always the center. The man with the plan. If you wanted to know what ThinkGeek was, at its core, you talked to Willie.
There’s only one person I ever worked for who was more fun to work for than myself, and it was Willie. I’m not saying he’s the best boss I ever had—hell, technically he was never my boss at all—but in terms of sheer joy in coming to work every day, nobody has ever beaten Willie. I looked forward to going to work every day when I worked at ThinkGeek even moreso than when I worked for myself. And he was a big part of that.
Willie is in some ways a walking oxymoron. He’s a true salesman, and also a consummate geek. Now, in my post on reality and perception, I discussed why these are generally opposite sorts of people. They have diametrically opposed outlooks on life. So it’s pretty rare to find both outlooks in the same person. But Willie is that guy. He can come up with the brilliant ideas, sell them to the people who need convincing, and still talk technical details with the people who need to implement them. Honestly, he’s ruined salesmen for me forever: I’ll probably always compare any new ones I meet to him, and they won’t come out looking very good.
The folks who founded ThinkGeek sold it to a larger corporation many moons ago, before I ever came along. But they all stayed on to help run the company, to help keep things going smoothly, to keep the company true to its roots. Jon still wrote all the back-end code, and Jen still wrote all the front-end code; Scott still dealt with all the geeky, techy hardware that ThinkGeek sold. And as for Willie, he still kept coming up with the ideas, finding the unique products, rethinking how the website should work, tossing out the witty slogans that ThinkGeek would put on the tee-shirts. But, one by one, the founders left ThinkGeek, moving on in frustration or pushed out by corporate overlords who didn’t understand that the company couldn’t be the same without them. Finally, only Willie was left, and, this past Monday, ThinkGeek said goodbye to him as well.
Now, I don’t have any special insight into the corporation that currently owns ThinkGeek. I don’t have any insider information. But I’ve seen this pattern in corporate dealings before. It’s amazing how efficiently a corporate machine can dismantle a golden goose to produce goosesteaks. ThinkGeek will go on, I’m sure. There are still many good people who work there, and they will do their best to make sure the company lives up to its reputation. But its heart is gone. ThinkGeek without Willie is ... strange to me, a foreign beast that I’m unsure what to do with. I’m not sure I can in good conscience continue to shop there.
I consider Willie a friend of mine. He was wonderful with my children, he had me over to his house on many an occasion, and I’ve gotten roaring drunk with him several times. He’s wise in some ways, and full of childlike wonder in others. He knows what people want, what they like, what will please them and tickle their funnybones. He’s one of the few people in the world who, if they came up to me today and said “I have an idea for a new business,” I would say “I’m in” without even needing to hear the rest of the pitch. He’s inspired me sometimes, and frustrated me sometimes, and made me laugh a whole lot of times. He challenged my beliefs about salemen. My life is richer for having known him, and I hope I get a chance to work with him again someday.
Every now and again, I get a late-night IM from Willie, although it hasn’t happened in quite a while. Usually, he’s trying to convince me of some insane premise that’s he’s come up with, often after imbibing a few intoxicants. This might be a business premise, but just as often it’s something else entirely. I am typically skeptical; he is typically persuasive. Often I end up rolling my eyes at his ideas, virtually speaking. Still, I sort of miss it. Maybe now that he has more time on his hands, I’ll get another midnight message. Maybe he’ll have another hare-brained scheme percolating in his brain. If so, I’ll be honored that he chose to share it with me.