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July 22, 2005

Startup Skills: The Nerd as Plumber

Shortly after I left AT&T to found ITXC with my wife Mary, a reporter asked “What’s the difference between being an officer at AT&T and running your own startup?”  This was a hard question because a consulting contract with AT&T was a big part of our seed funding and we then thought AT&T might end up with a substantial equity position in ITXC (didn’t happen but that’s another story).

“Well,” I said tactfully, “yesterday, when I went into the bathroom at ITXC, I could hear that the toilet was running uncontrollably.  I shook the handle to see if that would fix it but the handle flapped loosely, clearly not connected to anything inside.”

“Yes?” the reporter asked not at all sure she wanted to know.

“So,” I continued, “if I’d still been an AT&T officer, I would have used another stall.  Then I would have told my executive secretary about the problem when I went back to my office.  She would’ve called the buildings department in Basking Ridge.  They would’ve called someone in our region who would’ve called someone in Bridgewater who would’ve called someone else and, at some point, a union plumber would be dispatched to fix the problem.

“Of course, with such a long dispatch chain, the information would’ve gotten somewhat garbled resulting in the plumber going to the wrong bathroom.  The next day I might have noticed that the water was still rushing and complained to my executive secretary about that.  She would have called buildings back with a special outrage she was very good at when her officer’s orders have not been complied with.  She would have demanded that the problem not only be fixed immediately but that someone besides me inspect to see that it was done and give us a full report – which she would then throw away but that’s how she got things done.”

“And?” the reporter asked, still not engaged.

“At ITXC,” I continued, “there is no other stall and there is no other bathroom.  No executive secretary; no buildings department.  So I took the lid off the back of the tank. There was a slimy chain dangling from the handle which looked like it ought to be connected to a slimy rubber flapper that was lying askew at the bottom of the tank.  I reached into the very cold water and fumbled the end of the chain into a little eye on the flapper.  When I reseated the flapper, the water stopped flowing past it and filled the tank.  When I  pulled the handle, the toilet flushed.  But the slimy chain then detached again from the slimy flapper and the problem started all over again.

“To make a long story short, I borrowed a needle-nosed pliers from the tech assembling our global network in the next room – she was waiting to use the bathroom anyway – and pinched the end of the slimy chain firmly onto the slimy flapper.  Problem solved.”

“So at ITXC you don’t have an executive secretary?  That’s the difference?” asked the reporter.

“At a startup you’ve got to do whatever needs to get done,” I said.  But then I remembered to be tactful.  “Of course at AT&T, I wouldn’t have spent the better part of an hour being an overpaid (AT&T paid more than ITXC) and underskilled plumber.”

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