Archive for June, 2011

Tornado relief work in Joplin, Missouri

I flew off to Oklahoma and Missouri last week to help however I could in Joplin, Missouri. That’s where an unusually large & destructive F5 tornado hit on May 22, 2011.

I flew to Tulsa, spent a night there, rented a pickup truck, and drove 90 miles to Joplin. I figured I’d drive into town and find somewhere to be useful – a church, Red Cross, fire dept, City Hall, whatever. And that worked great… once in town, people told me to register at the nearby Southern Missouri State University.

The Central Christian Center on Virginia Street needed a guy with a truck to take food, water, diapers, peanut butter, Gatorade, etc, out to field tents where residents turn up for supplies.

I was a guy with a truck 🙂

I spent the next couple of days driving around damaged parts of Joplin, looking for telltale tents where the smaller re(distribution) centers were. Sometimes they had all they needed for the day, but usually, they were happy to get more stuff.

On my 3rd and final day, they didn’t need deliveries done, but wanted me to deliver water and Gatorade in residential areas. They had everything but ice, so I found a gas station that sold ice, bought 4 bags, and was on my way.

The people of Joplin really appreciate all of the volunteers, and it was great meeting them, as well as other volunteers. I’d go to Outback for dinner and eat at the bar, and I’d always meet other folks who were there for similar reasons. One night, some Texas contruction guys paid for my dinner. That was really cool of them. I later read in the local newspaper that Outback lost one of their employees in the tornado.

Most of Joplin is fine, which is good because at least people can take shelter and comfort with family & friends nearby. I spoke with a guy from Louisianna who said Hurricane Katrina was insane because the damage was similar, but so widespread that the nearest basic civilization (electricity, water, gas, etc) was hours away. That is a truly frightening idea. Like I said, in this case, as bad as the tornado was, at least you could drive to Starbucks or Outback like it never happened.

Anyway, the trip was a great trip. It was good to be slightly disconnected – just connected enough to answer sales calls and check in now and then. Customers were very supportive when they heard where I was!

I checked Twitter less often, and given the surroundings, many of the topics seemed somehow less relevant 🙂

The people were great! One guy told me that if there’s one silver lining, it’s that the people came together and work as a community.

There was a little bit of looting, but apparently very little. If there’s a Hell, any looters are going straight to it! Can you imagine? One resident wrote scripture on his house to dissuade looters. Another wrote that anyone looting would be shot. The Texas construction guys said they liked the latter 🙂

One thing I noticed that’s interesting is that, given the circumstances, you’re freed from usual requirements of civility (like caring about your clothes or obeying all traffic rules), yet everyone is reasonably civilized. Some layers of expectations disappear, but there’s no mayhem.

If you can do such a thing, you should!

It’s good for you, good for the community, and good for the whole country!

I’m very glad to hear that others may do such things after hearing about this.

Fun Stuff & Business History



I co-founded Parallax in 1987 with my best friend. We were both fresh out of high school. We grew from a bedroom operation to a $3M/yr business.

I learned a TON at Parallax! We strugged for several years to find a market we fit, but once we did, were were able to "pivot" (today's term!) into that market and then execute on manufacturing, marketing, and distribution. We didn't even know the term "VC", so we *had* to make money! We took $20K from friends & family and had day jobs to bootstrap those early years.

As I left Parallax in Winter 1996, Radio Shack started carrying our BASIC Stamp computer.

I spent a few years trying to make money in the mobile-messaging space. Unfortunately, I learned lessons about how to spend all of my cash chasing a market that simply was not yet developed enough. I wish I had known about VC :-)! I closed up shop and put up a notice saying "goodbye" to my customers.

Which led to a San Francisco VC-funded startup in 1998. They were in the mobile-messaging space and were on the normal VC route as everyone else back then. Unfortunately, it didn't end pretty, but my friends and I learned a lot through the CEO, who was nice enough to tell us how things worked with his Board, the investors, etc.

I got laid off along with most other tech folks in SF in 2000. What does one do at a time like that? Start Quality Humans, Inc. as a way to offer my programming services to clients. QHI grew to employ 8 guys working around the USA.

My friend and QHI consultant, Tom Mornini, saw Ruby on Rails coming over the horizon, so we started offering Rails consulting. Within a few months, Tom noticed that Rails clients didn't want to worry about details; they just wanted to deploy their apps.

That led me to co-found Engine Yard in 2006 with Tom, Ezra Zygmuntowicz, and Jayson Vantuyl. We built a great business and then took VC after a year from Amazon, Benchmark, New Enterprise Associates, and others. I served as CEO until Jan, 2009, when we started building an executive team who can take EY up a few more notches.

I reflected on major pain points we experienced at EY, and recurring billing was one of them. That led me to Chargify.

In Chargify, I joined great folks from Grasshopper. It's been very cool working with the team as we grow Chargify in 2011.