You can't build a great company without great people.
Which explains why Rob Lilleness was a wanted man. Last year, Lilleness was an MBA student at Harvard. He'd worked at Ernst & Young in Zurich, at a biotech startup in Seattle, and at Microsoft, where he was a product manager for the Windows NT Server. He was instrumental in making that product a major force in a market that Microsoft had not previously been able to crack.
Lots of companies courted him with attractive offers. But Lilleness narrowed his list of finalists to three software outfits: Microsoft, SAP, and Trilogy. Microsoft and SAP were both secure, well-established companies. Trilogy, less secure and not so well established, held out the prospect of an intriguing gamble.
Lilleness describes himself as a "very loyal person." Maybe that's why receiving three dream offers made him so miserable. He agonized for months. He visited Memorial Church in Harvard Yard and prayed for three signs. Over the course of the school year, he got them: First, he was assigned a gym-locker key with the number 512 (the Austin area code); second, a restaurant served him a dessert called the Trilogy; finally, he came across a quote from the Bible that reminded him of Trilogy.
Those signs still weren't enough. So Trilogy kept after him. Recruiter Stephanie Shannon, 28, sent him a silver Tiffany pen with a note: "Signing your offer just got easier." Joe Liemandt arranged for Lilleness to meet him at an airport. Lilleness assumed that Trilogy's CEO was passing through. Not so: He had flown up to see Lilleness. The two hung out in an airport lounge for hours — drinking soda, eating junk food, and talking shop.
The folks at Microsoft hadn't given up either. "It's time to come home," they said. Then they flew him to Seattle, where he had grown up and where he still has family and friends. He called the people at Trilogy and broke the news: He hadn't accepted Microsoft's offer, but he was leaning in that direction.
Upon returning to his mother's house after a long day with Microsoft, he found a box waiting for him. Inside was copy of Microsoft's Windows NT and a note that read, "Built in 1997." There was also a second box — with Legos inside — and a second note: "Come build your own in 1998."
Lilleness started at Trilogy last August.
A version of this article appeared in the January 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.