David Dorman’s arrival at PointCast was a defining moment in its brief history. Just 21 months earlier, the company had broadcast its first live content over the Internet. The new service wasn’t just a success; it was a sensation. PointCast turned idle PC screens into colorful receivers of news and information. The PointCast Network looked like an entirely new medium. The medium went by several names: Webcasting, push technology. Call it what you will, PointCast was at the center. And Dorman – one of the most respected executives in America, a serious candidate to become the CEO-savior of Apple Computer – had left a huge company to join an outfit with 260 employees.
The seeds of Dorman’s arrival had been sown months earlier, when PointCast’s founders and directors made the decision of a lifetime. They turned down a buyout offer from Rupert Murdoch and renewed their commitment to the dream of becoming a great stand-alone enterprise, a public company. “This is my opportunity to be part of something entrepreneurial,” Dorman, 54, said during his speech. “I am interested in running a pure growth company. My job is to build a successful, highly forward-looking organization.”
PointCast was, in many respects, yet another in a long line of entrepreneurial fairy tales set in Silicon Valley. The company was founded in July 1992 by Chris and Greg Hassett. Chris, who had just turned 30, was the visionary. He had a born-to-be-wild flair. He rode a Harley; he drove race cars. Greg, then 26, was the hacker. Like Chris, he had worked at Digital Equipment Corp. for several years. Earlier, in his teens, he’d written and sold computer games for the Apple II.
Their original company had a different name (PED Software) and mission (creating personalized newspapers for online services). But as the market changed and as the Net evolved, so did their company’s business model – and its name. PointCast attracted $12 million from three of the Valley’s best-known venture-capital firms. It launched its Internet-based network. All roads led to an IPO. Then Murdoch called.
“It caught me off guard,” says Charles Geschke, 58, cofounder and president of Adobe Systems, and a PointCast board member. “But it validated PointCast as a media company.”
It also turned a lot of heads. Rumors valued the offer at between $350 and $450 million worth of stock in News Corp., Murdoch’s media company. Valley insiders chose up sides. Some argued that PointCast could become the Net’s next great brand, following Yahoo! and Amazon.com – so why sell out? But what about the risks? The president of a hugely successful software company called the offer “a window of opportunity for PointCast to grow and deliver – or risk being obliterated by Microsoft.”
The opinions that mattered most were those of PointCast’s management team and directors. All along, the company’s leaders had been telling anyone who would listen that PointCast was built to pioneer on the Net – and to stand alone as a company. Murdoch’s deep pockets and global reach offered strategic benefits. But at what cost?
“It would mean yielding control,” says Greg Hassett, PointCast’s vice president of engineering and its chief technical officer. “Back then, we were getting – we still are getting – lots of calls from big companies. They would end the conversation with, ‘Why don’t we just merge?’ We don’t want to be some acquisition of the month.”
On June 2, 1997, PointCast made its choice. It decided to stay the course and to reaffirm its corporate independence. The price of that commitment was the company’s cofounder and visionary. Chris Hassett gave up his position as CEO, relinquished all management duties, accepted the title of chairman – and promptly exiled himself to New York City.
It wasn’t the first time that a founder had sacrificed himself for the company he had built. But that doesn’t make the episode any less poignant. Hassett was on the verge of worldwide visibility – the next in line to join Net celebrities like Netscape’s Marc Andreessen and Marimba’s Kim Polese. Today he is a virtual nonentity. “Chris’s experience had been with a small organization,” Geschke says. “Now we were talking about a different level of experience – about long-term prospects, rather than a quick return. We had talked about this before.”
Hassett’s departure meant that PointCast had to find a new leader, someone with the standing that Chris Hassett lacked. After nearly five months, the search led to Dave Dorman.
“It was amazing how traditional most of the media guys were,” says Jaleh Bisharat, 38, PointCast’s senior vice president for marketing. “The interviewing process taught us a lot about ourselves. Dave was so intellectually superior to the other candidates. He has the experience to take us from an entrepreneurial company to an ongoing business.”
Dorman immediately put his experience on display. Near the end of his get-acquainted speech, he conjured up an intriguing scenario. “Wouldn’t it be fabulous,” he asked, pausing for effect, “if we could create our own paranoia in the world? One huge company wants us. The other doesn’t want that company to have us. This could really benefit us.”
On Monday, October 27, 1997 – 72 hours after Dorman’s arrival was announced – the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped by 554 points. It was horrible news for most companies but great news for PointCast. The market drop underscored the unique value of this new medium: More than 500,000 people viewed PointCast each day that week.
“It was incredibly profound,” says Lisa Gerould, 37, director of strategic marketing. “We were delivering time-sensitive information. The question was, ‘How do we capitalize on it?”‘
That question applies to more than just a one-day event on Wall Street. These days, big ideas and little companies are flying around Silicon Valley like loose atoms. Last year, an average of 15 companies in the Valley received new infusions of venture capital each month. Lots of those companies were built around the Internet – and more than a few of them were targeting PointCast’s market. And the market itself keeps changing. A Webcasting service built around general-interest news – stock prices, movie reviews, weather reports – already feels passe. PointCast aspires to become a full-blown media company, with mission-critical information targeted to specific constituencies. Its products include the PointCast Business Network, the PointCast College Network, and the PointCast Intranet Broadcast Solution to “push” corporate data.
“It is an unfolding drama,” says Gerould. “We need to be the protagonist, the lead player.”
Which is what makes life at PointCast so exhilarating – and so nerve-wracking. Forget money. What really matters, Gerould insists, is being part of a successful enterprise that’s contributing to the culture – that’s reaching out to people respectfully, enabling them to use their time more productively. At least that’s what she tells her parents and her husband, an engineer and lawyer who has been through a startup as well. It’s also what she tells herself.
Gerould, a Smith College graduate who majored in English literature, with a concentration in feminist poetry, cares deeply about the social impact of her work. She is also a working mother – as are her boss, Jaleh Bisharat, and her colleague, Anna Zornosa, senior vice president for sales and affiliate development. Their children are young. Their time is precious. And they’re passionate about PointCast because they think the company can help people like them.
“What you know defines how you succeed,” says Bisharat. “That creates pressure on people. We offer tools to relieve that pressure. We help people cope.”
The trouble with such a grand mission is that it’s so difficult to realize – and so easy to violate. Bisharat worked with PointCast board member Kevin Harvey at Claris Corp., a promising software company that was spun out of Apple Computer. But just as Claris was taking flight, Apple brought it back into the corporate nest.
Then Bisharat became VP of marketing for Approach Software Corp., a startup that developed graphical-database systems. One day early in her tenure, two limos converged on Approach headquarters. Out of one stepped Jim Manzi, CEO of Lotus Development. Out of the other stepped John Landry, Lotus’s chief technical officer. With mind-boggling speed, Approach became part of Lotus.
“The only way it was going to work was if we totally embraced the acquiring company,” says Bisharat. “That’s hard when you’ve built a company to be independent. We did a lot of staff counseling.”
Even the freedom trail has some dangerous turns. Both Bisharat and Anna Zornosa, who helped run day-to-day operations during the search for a new CEO, acknowledge PointCast’s mistakes. Its early Webcasts clogged too many corporate networks. Its content focused too much on consumer interests and too little on business needs. In a strange way, though, Bisharat and Zornosa savor those early mistakes – the enduring impact of their learn-as-you-go insights, the “aha moments” that come with life on your own.
Zornosa, 39, joined PointCast in November 1995, after a meteoric rise in the conventional publishing business. Her tenure with the company has been more intense than any other period in her life. In two years, she’s experienced the challenges of corporate birth, corporate redefinition, and corporate survival. “If you get acquired now,” she says, “you live with the knowledge that you couldn’t achieve your own destiny. Someone else may be able to buy you and help you. But they’ll never understand the value of pure grit.”
That word – “grit” – aptly evokes life inside PointCast today. Gerould, Bisharat, and Zornosa still speak with unabashed awe about what they hope to achieve with their company. But the dream has given way to determination. There is a brand to build. There is the IPO to pursue. There is more tenacity to be summoned – to keep the company growing and to meet investor demands after the IPO.
Cofounder Greg Hassett, who stayed on after his brother went into exile, feels Chris’s absence: “Chris is gone. Sometimes I envy him. He has time to fly higher. He’s free from day-to-day responsibilities. He’s on to two or three other new thoughts.”
And the founder who stayed behind? “There’s just too much to do to get emotionally attached,” Greg says. “We’ve got to keep our eye on the ball. Personally, I’ve experienced great growth. I’ve learned management skills. I’ve learned self-confidence. I believe there’s not a lot I can’t do.”
Which sounds a lot like Jaleh Bisharat’s attitude. She still loves PointCast. But her love seems more dutiful than romantic. “We absolutely have to define our targets,” she declares. “We have to deliver unobtrusive products, and we have to build our brand into something durable. PointCast has defined Internet broadcasting. But we need to be humble about what’s left to do. The appeal of staying independent is that this is ours to lose. I want to be around to see how it all comes together.”
Pat Dillon email@example.com wrote the cover story “Money Changes Everything” for the June:July 1997 issue of Fast Company. His new book, “Lost at Sea: An American Tragedy,” is a nonfiction account of the nation’s worst modern fishing disaster. it will be published early this summer by The Dial Press.