The only constant in a startup is growth, and WebCom grew exponentially during the 4 years it was WebCom. Recapping a little bit, when I joined WebCom it was just Chris and Thomas, shortly after came Rick. There were 3 people in the A suite and Rick was in the B suite, more employees wouldn’t fit! In late 1995 we moved from 903 Pacific to 125 Water St, the new location was a lot bigger but shared the same pains: parking. Working in downtown Santa Cruz is an exercise in patience, strategy, and luck. Sometimes all 3 are on your side and sometimes all 3 are against you!
The new location was a welcomed change from the office full of hand-me-down furniture, we got cubicles! Yes, it seems strange to be excited by cubicles, but it meant that Rick and I got nearly double the space we had before. The A suite had 2 offices, one that was a nice professional office and one that had the telephone lines and other miscellany — the latter became the break room and server room, with a cubicle partition in the middle. Thomas was the proud tenant of an 8×12 cubicle office that didn’t quite reach the ceiling. I think we had about 13 cubicle desks at that location, which lasted us until late 1997, when we were bursting at the seams.
Chris was driving this ratty silver VW Scirocco that had squeaky doors and looked like heck when I met him. When WebCom started making some money (Chris and Thomas had a 67%/33% split), Chris spent some of that money getting his Scirocco re-painted white and the doors fixed, it looked very nice after that. I remember it was Perrigo’s Auto Body, down on Washington St, that did the work. Not long after we moved into 125 Water St, Chris purchased a Volkswagen EuroVan, which had just been released in the US. Again, Chris bought a white VW.
Chris made up our most sensitive passwords based on the vehicles he and the company owned
I’m retelling these somewhat insignificant stories about cars because they played a key role in our operational security: Chris made up our most sensitive passwords based on the vehicles he and the company owned. The company owned a Mercury Sable station wagon, the mailadm password was
sable**1. Chris owned a EuroVan, the DB admin password was
eurov*5. One day I asked him if the 5 was for the number of cylinders in the engine, he looked puzzled and said “No, it’s the number of letters in the password“. The EuroVan had an Audi inline 5 engine.
New Location and New Logo
As 1997 was coming to a close, WebCom was again looking for a new location (that pesky exponential growth I was talking about). Chris found a space for lease in mid-town, next to a bunch of car repair businesses and across the freeway from the hospital. The property was owned by an electrician named Wayne, he was a nice guy and was excited to have us as a new tenant, but the suite needed a lot of work. Chris thought the new location was especially apropos because it was the former residence of Mission Printers — an ink and paper printing company being supplanted by a Web Hosting company. Our new kitchen space used to be the room where they housed the printer, the walls were covered in ink and it was a complete mess.
Not long after moving into the new location we hired a marketing person, and that hire came with a slew of changes, the most visible being a new logo. The original WebCom logo was entitled Earthrise Over The Web, this new logo was supposed to evoke a worldwide communication feeling, however most people just saw is as The Atomic Marble, the way the logo was animated didn’t help matters. The new logo took some getting used to, but it became the symbol of our company and lasted for a good while.
There came a time when the food bill was exceeded by the alcohol bill, that’s when the CFO said something.
Around the time we got the new logo, the marketing folks wanted to print up some T-shirts to evangelize our brand. I recall that we printed up quite a few and send them to customers, but staff also received a number of the garments. We would don our T-shirt when attending company sponsored outings, such as a sailing trip on the bay (I got sea-sick) and a trip to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. As time went on we became friendlier, looser, and had more fun. We used to do birthday lunches in the first few years, but by the time the 3rd year rolled around we had too few months and too many people (that pesky exponential growth). So birthday lunches once a month became regular outings instead of specific birthday celebrations. The monthly lunches were covered by the company — including alcohol. There came a time when the food bill was exceeded by the alcohol bill, that’s when the CFO said something.
There is something about getting business cards that makes you feel official, I wasn’t immune to that feeling when I was at WebCom. In 1997 I was 19 years old and I’d made it to the System Software Engineer role. When Chris offered me this role he took me to lunch and said he wanted to give me 2% of his company, with 0.5% vested immediately. I was young and foolish and viewed the un-vested options as indentured servitude — I felt he was trying to give me shares in lieu of compensation, but forcing me to stay with the company for another 3 years. Well, that whole meeting ended in argument and Chris gave me the 0.5% and the salary, but kept the shares — I regretted this but learned a lot from it. Later when the sale of WebCom was being negotiated, Chris gifted me another 0.5%, to make my ownership of the company 1%.
Looking at my business card above brings me full circle with something prompted me to write these blog entries: Web.Com
The company Web.Com wasn’t born like WebCom, it wasn’t bootstrapped, they didn’t build anything, they are very much like Verio was — a roll-up. The term roll-up is an industry term to describe a company that exists by subsuming the customers of other companies, dissolving those cultures and brands in the process, akin to the Borg of Star Trek. Verio was a roll-up and purchased WebCom with the understanding that we’d remain whole. That lasted for 14 whole months, then they put a moratorium on new accounts. The last site count on Archive.org puts WebCom at around 52,000 domains at the end of 1999, I know the figure was around 70,000 in early 2000. We posted our best numbers in 2000, in spite of the moratorium we had $4,234,027 in revenue. This wasn’t enough to deter the management at Verio and we were left to die on the vine.
Sometime around 2006 or 2007 the company Web.Com petitioned to have the WebCom trademarks canceled so they could have them. I was told that Verio spent about $100k defending the petition — Web.Com claimed that Verio was no longer doing business as WebCom and therefore the trademarks were invalid, however Verio was still bringing in meager revenue under the WebCom name. By 2008 Verio decided to forcibly migrate the remaining customers and shutdown the platform.
RIF, not RIFF
Before finishing the Web.Com story, I feel it’s important to acknowledge the hard working people that made WebCom. I’ve talked about Chris and Thomas, and myself, but there were over 30 employees at WebCom ( that exponential growth stopped at 25 ), many of who didn’t get to stick around for long. In 2001, a little over year after NTT bought Verio (business minded readers with stock options might know why), there was a huge RIF that affected a large part of our staff (about half as I recall). I remember getting the spreadsheet and locking employee’s accounts while they were in the All-Hands meeting. Less than a year later there was another RIF, except I was in the conference room and not at my desk. That first RIF was a “see you later”, the second RIF was all about winding down operations. I don’t recall if everyone stuck around until the office was closed, but I think they did. There were a lot of killer deals to be had on anything office related. Those who wrote checks never had them cashed, I felt like a chump for giving them cash. I expected to be laid off in 2002 with everyone else, however the 2 remaining WebCommies (Jorma and Scott), told the management there was no way they could run the system without me. I was rehired into the Verio SME Ops Development Group helmed by James Nardi. Once the office was closed I became a home-office employee during a time when companies hadn’t figured out how to do home-office employees. I worked under James with a team that developed the Sentinel monitoring system. I was responsible for an agent that monitored services in data-centers, then fed that monitoring data back to an SQL database for the monitoring engine to process. Shortly after deploying the probe in a test environment there was more management upheaval: James was unceremoniously RIFfed with the rest of Hiway management that remained. This set our group down a path of uncertain goals and a sequence of manager after manager. The probe never got integrated into Sentinel and was left dormant on a datacenter server for 5 years, like an abandoned Skynet stronghold.
Back to the Web.Com story — Verio prevailed in defending the trademark and then unceremoniously shutdown WebCom, really and truly invalidating their trademark. A couple years after WebCom shutdown, NTT decided to stem the bleeding by splitting Verio into Good and Bad parts, peddling the Bad part on the open market. Verio became a freestanding company once again, out from under the corporate umbrella of NTT and without the deep pockets of the Japanese government. In 2012 Verio sold the WebCom trademark to Web.Com so they could finally have protection for a name they didn’t create and don’t use. Web.Com has subsequently mortgaged the trademark several times, with Morgan Stanley being the current lienholder. Perhaps it’s possible the WebCom trademark will be up for grabs at an asset auction in the future…