Interview with Wayne McVicker

Here is the interview with Wayne McVicker, author of Starting Something.

First of all, I'm curious about how the book was received by the people who are in it. You wrote a lot about things that typically go on behind the scenes in a startup — things that the public isn't aware of. How has that been received? Have you made any enemies?

As I was writing the book, I made a conscious effort not to edit my own raw feelings and opinions. I wanted to get as close to the truth as possible, even at my own expense. The book then underwent a substantial editing process. My editor was very good at spotting instances where I had written unbalanced perspectives. She would gently nudge me toward a fair assessment of the characters in the book with comments like, "Are you sure you mean this?" and "Does saying this about this character really add to the story?" Many times, I recognized that I was presenting my own emotional baggage, rather than telling the story.

Next, with the exception of a few public characters, I sent drafts to most of the people mentioned in the book, requesting them to check my facts (and memory). I only used their actual names with their permission. During this phase a few people were quite upset, but in every case I was able to edit the relevant text to mutual satisfaction without diluting the story.

However, there are clearly a few characters whose portrayal could be seen as negative. After careful consideration, I determined that their stories were much too important to edit out. In some cases, I slightly disguised the character to protect their privacy. To date, I have received no open anger or criticism from anyone in the book. That said, two of the characters have stopped smiling at me when we happen to meet.

Our early attorney and investor liked his characterization in the book so much that he bought a hundred copies and sent them his clients as holiday gifts. One person I had completely lost touch with, whose portrayal is not flattering, sent me a message last week. When I saw her name on my email, my whole body tensed. After about an hour, I gathered the courage to open the message. She told me that she had just finished reading the book. She was complimentary. I was relieved.

You write a little about your relationship with your wife Anni, and your co-founder and business partner Jeff. Were you surprised at the strain that was put on those relationships or did you expect that going in?

I had been in several close business relationships before Neoforma, so I really can't say that there was anything unexpected in the stress level between Jeff and me. I am most surprised that we were actually able to remain friends after the whole experience.

Early in the development of Neoforma, Jeff and I decided to limit the participation of our wives in the company. This was a good thing. Neither of our marriages would likely have survived that. As it was, while I knew that the risk I was taking would stress my marriage, I had no way of predicting the intensity and duration of the experience. Our relationship survived Neoforma, but the healing took several years.

If you look at the state of Neoforma at the time of the IPO, how much had it turned out like your initial vision of the company?

At the time of its IPO, Neoforma was nothing like what Jeff and I had envisioned at its formation. For many reasons, the company had diverted to a course that was very foreign to us. One can argue equally that we brilliantly anticipated and adapted to the market conditions at the time or that we were brilliantly manipulated by our investors to change the direction of Neoforma. The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle.

Your book is filled with discussions about the people-side issues of starting a business. Do you think people skills are more important than business skills for an entrepreneur?

I would say that people-side issues are as important to an entrepreneur as business skills. It is very easy for the entrepreneur to neglect the fact that his or her success is intimately connected to the success of every employee hired along the way. By nature, we tend to be obsessively focused on products and customers in the early phase of building a company. I wrote Starting Something because I hadn�t been adequately prepared for this reality by the books I had read.

Neoforma had some troubles because of the connections of your competition. For instance, it was difficult to find an investment bank to take the company public because the venture capital firm that was backing a competitor had working relationships with the major players that prevented them from working with Neoforma. Does it bother you that some people/firms have this kind of power? Do you think it is an asset or a detriment to entrepreneurship in America?

It certainly bothered me that Kleiner Perkins had such a substantial ability to make our lives miserable during 1999 and 2000, but I believe that this was a very unique case. It was only at that specific place and time that they could leverage that kind of influence. We were simply unlucky to bear the brunt of it. I don�t see any likelihood of this being repeated again.

However, entrepreneurs will always face resistance to new ideas on many fronts. Most often, customers� inertia will be the biggest obstacle to rapid success. In other cases, competitors or other companies with deep pockets will fight hard against real or perceived threats to their stability. It upset me when companies with nearly a trillion dollars of market cap formed two industry coalitions to crush Neoforma, but I can�t say that this was unfair or even detrimental. It was what it was. Entrepreneurs simply have to be confident, persistent and clever in the face of such obstacles.

You end the book with a list of twelve things to keep in mind when starting something. One of them is �never let your competitors drive your business decisions.� Do you think it is important to monitor the competition to ensure that you are sufficiently differentiating your company, or does that just cause you to lose focus of your own strategy?

Monitoring competitors for the purpose of market positioning is very important. Customers will need this information to be confident that they are making the right decision by selecting your products. However, it is very important for a young company to avoid making bad business decisions based on the activities of competitors. It is easy for the entrepreneur to become distracted by the apparent successes of competitors and lose sight of customer priorities.

If someone is considering the plunge into entrepreneurship, what are the key things they should consider that people sometimes don�t think about? What traits do you think are most important to ensure success?

The most important characteristic for an entrepreneur is persistence.

In 1984, a relatively small, private, eight year old company announced the first release of some software that was designed to address the needs of a relatively small percent of maverick users. Nearly ten years later, that company released the first moderately stable version of that software. The company was Microsoft and the product was Windows. It would take several more years before that software was good enough for most consumers.

There are very few overnight successes. The aspiring entrepreneur that recognizes this will be better prepared to manage the inevitable stress and frustration that comes with starting something new.

Are entrepreneurs born, made, or just in the right place at the right time?

All of the above. My entrepreneurial tendencies were clearly visible in high school when I gathered together a group of friends to invest a significant amount of time and money in a business breeding tropical catfish. And, while I started many small businesses during my twenties, my entrepreneurship appeared to hibernate for nearly a decade when I worked as a middle manager for a large corporation. Luck and an unquenchable desire to improve things led to the formation of Neoforma thereafter.
Not everyone is suited for the risk, uncertainty and complexity inherent in entrepreneurial activity, but many qualified individuals don�t make the jump simply because the timing is never quite right. I have received many melancholy compliments on my book from people mourning the times that they missed their own opportunities to make the jump to the startup lifestyle.

Feel free to leave comments if you have a question for Wayne.

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