At the beginning of this year, I sold my remaining interest in TECHnacity, a software consulting company I started back in college with two partners.
It was the fall of 1997, and I had spent the summer going city to city, auditing mobile-phone sites for a large big-name hardware company. But after two summers, I knew that I didn’t want to be an engineer for a big company. In fact, I had wanted to work for myself for as long as I could remember, from an oddly young age. At the time of my summer internship, the tech world was a pretty exciting place: the Internet was new, Netscape had gone public a couple years earlier, and as a graduate assistant, I was helping put the first classes on the Internet. I was teaching myself how to program and had started spending time at a start-up where I helped build 3D games that taught kids about science (way ahead of its time).
I pitched my dad on buying us a server, a hulking $3,000 computer, probably less powerful than the phone now in my pocket. (I remember the awkward dinner when I asked my parents for money. I’d later learn that they had to put the purchase on a credit card.) We originally named the company Celestial Systems, which makes me cringe a little in hindsight. But I was so excited to have started a business. I still remember the corporate seal that came in the mail-order new-company kit.
I set up basic hosting and e-mail on our server, and we opened up for business. I spent the holiday break, ultimately to no avail, sending letters to everyone I knew who owned a business, offering hosting, e-mail, and web-design services. Back at school, with no customers, we continued to put classes online for the engineering department. The university needed us, and with graduation approaching, we pitched them on the idea of a consulting contract to continue the job after graduation. They accepted—our first customer. I actually ended up doing my master’s thesis in electrical and computer engineering on distance learning using the Internet.
During a brainstorming session in one of the engineering buildings, my partners and I came up with our new name. We were combining words and had paired “technology” with “tenacity,” and thus TECHnacity was born. The idea was the relentless (i.e., tenacious) application of technology. Luckily, we didn’t stop at Biznacity. (Incidentally, this is the same way we named Infinium many years later.)
Our office in Champaign was basically in a metal barn on the south farms. The university had some office space there, surrounded by cows and fields, that housed a couple small companies. I’d drive out there after class and often ended up working through the night. I remember two things from that office—the stars and the smell.
The company grew, and we began building prototypes for start-up companies (it was the late 90s after all). We built an XML switching engine for a company that was briefly public, although we’re still not exactly sure what the switching engine did. We put patented processes online, building a site that custom selected toys and one that optimized media buying. We built basic websites and wrote applications as our skills improved. We’d often pitch a project, win the contract, and find ourselves in the computer-science section of Borders (back in the days of book stores), learning the required technology like SQL or XML. Sometimes we’d even buy the book.
I moved to Chicago, and the company continued to grow. I remember forcing myself to go to networking events at night and to make sales calls (both of which I hated). Often, the events would be at the Union League Club, so I’d have to remember not to wear jeans and would often have to borrow a tie from the club host. We built a bit of a customer base in Chicago, and I ran the business out of our living room, eventually having employees come to my apartment every day for work. We lined the living room with desks, which I can’t imagine my three roommates appreciated, but they were very supportive and never said a word.
The problem with billing time is that it doesn’t scale—the only way to make more money is to hire more people or bill more hours. I was running out of hours in the day, and the technology bubble was bursting. Luckily, we had taken some cash and not just stock in the start-ups we were helping. The cash paid the bills as most of the start-ups went under. That period and those projects were hugely valuable to me not just because I could pay my rent but because I learned what did and, often more important, what didn’t work in technology and as a business.
After five years, we scaled down the business, and I became involved in finance, but we kept the company open. For ten years after scaling down, something would still always come up: a contact we met years ago or a former client would refer us work. Now fifteen years after it all started, I’ll technically exit to one of my long-time partners.
This is how most businesses end: there was no grand exit; it exchanged hands at the value of the checking account. But by all measures, it was a success. We billed millions of dollars in revenues over the company’s lifetime, I paid back my dad for the computer, bought a car in Champaign, bought our first house in Chicago, learned a ton, and added value for a variety of customers across all kinds of industries and applications. I am proud of what we achieved, and though I have repeated this process multiple times now with companies that technically were more “successful” than TECHnacity (in terms of revenue, size, etc.), I will never forget the excitement and pride of taking that very first step, the very big risk of eschewing a secure job with a stable employer and making a go of it on our own. And perhaps I’ve even come full circle: with my involvement in ampCNG (where compressed natural gas is made from the waste of dairy cows), cow manure once again smells like independence and opportunity. Who would have guessed.