Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Tim Mueller and the Bus Rider Who Believed

"Goals are good, but only if they're always revised upward."
--Tim Mueller


It was appropriate that Tim Mueller yesterday came to Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra, to deliver a "lecture" that was anything but that. Instead, Cleveland's Chief Development Officer used the occasion of an annual Case Engineering School event to metaphorically (if not actually) loosen his tie, and talk from the heart about how he's orchestrating a seemingly impossible change in approach from a public office, making Cleveland City Hall run more like a business catering to the public and less like the insane asylum it has always been, especially during the 12-year reign of terror during the Mike White years.

The setting helped: an intimate, stately auditorium in the recently rehabbed Severance Hall, in the heart of Cleveland's Intellectual Belt. And the event was tied to something especially dear to his heart: awarding money to a start-up company. As always, his signature vision and inexhaustible energy were on display, but those aren't the only ingredients that set him apart and increasingly make him easily one of the most interesting and influential Clevelanders. The recently turned-40-cashed-out-millionaire Internet entrepreneur who insisted on going back to work even though he doesn't have to does tend to grab people's attention.

Think of him as Cleveland's equivalent of Dallas cashed-out wild man Mark Cuban, who was savvy enough to grab the brass ring at just the right moment, the very top of the market, and sell his Broadcast.com for billions to Yahoo just as most of that value floated away like so much raw sewage. Only Mueller didn't buy an NBA franchise (he might have if he could) but went into the real lion's den, public office, where the Republican-leaning (to some people's horror, and utterly against the grain of Cleveland politics) guy who's an enthusiast for everyone making money gets to gently poke fun at people's horror over, say, developers who cut deals expecting to make a profit (in one of his very first interviews in office, he gently teased WCPN's reigning earnest lefty, Ichabod Crain lookalike David C. Barnett, about that very thing, but in such a mild way that Barnett probably never even noticed he was the butt of the joke).

Anyway, because he sold it at just the right moment, Mueller's Vantage One has become a kind of entrepreneurial JFK or Lady Di, seemingly forever frozen in time (as the site literally is, thanks to the incomparable Wayback Machine that gave you that archived link) with all its youthful beauty, vigor and innocence left intact as a stark memory, unsullied by the otherwise humbling aging process that affects all mere mortals, both people and organizations. Vantage One never had to really grapple with the three-year downturn--a depression, really--in the web market. It was never forced to become a truly grown-up company run by adults who think only about dollars (don't get me wrong, these guys thought plenty about dollars, but about other things, too) and not at all about energy or spirit or corporate culture.

Tim had a partner, Dan Rose, the salesman of the pair, but everyone who knew the partners and their history understood that Tim was the real emotional and spiritual center (with more than half the equity, to boot), the true founder of the company and the guy who was irreplaceable. He was the ringleader and the architect, working nonstop for a decade to build Cleveland's leading web development house, which was forever remodeling and adding space in the elegantly aging, never dowdy Caxton Building (which had the pleasingly appropriate historic role as home to much of Cleveland's old-line graphic arts industries since the turn of the century. As the company prospered, eventually their landlord, Charlie Bolton (no mean entrepreneur himself) handed over the keys to a priceless perch: the top floor, with a block-long row of windows overlooking the new Jacobs Field just as the Tribe (an early Vantage One client) was becoming a perennial contender and a national story. It was the perfect place from which to launch a Cleveland mini-revolution of cool.

As the '90s bubble roared along, fueled by the web and smart young guys with vision like Tim (who always invested in getting their story told to the media, which was never hard, especially because they came out of the media themselves, but which was ultimately responsible for getting them on the map with investors), it was only time before they'd have options. I think he always at least dimly understood that. I remember once, when I was standing at a urinal next to Mueller talking about a business owner who had cashed out for millions, Manco's Jack Kahl to be precise, how he marveled over the prospect of those kinds of numbers. "Imagine having a million dollars in the bank, with all those zeroes," he said, almost to himself.

And sure enough, a rollup operation out of Virginia, bankrolled by a fund from Chicago, soon stepped in, with far more dollars than brains, and made Tim and his partner an offer they couldn't refuse, at the top of the market. They took it, and the new owners, quickly learning the lay of the land, eased out his partner while giving Tim a larger, national stage upon which to work his e-commerce magic.

But eventually he found what lots of others before him learned: that it's no fun working for new owners who are running what once was your baby. So he took a breather for several months, while he got married, started a family and built a house in Pennsylvania.

And then Jane Campbell came calling. They had lots of mutual friends who suggested they meet. Eventually, she offered him the unique post of entrepreneur-in-residence, where he began trying to open the deadly city bureucracy to a customer service approach. In the first few months on the job, Mueller bordered on impolitic as he frankly described how difficult it was to open these old carotid municipal arteries to newer ways of doing business. As a community, Cleveland all but missed the entire decade of the '90s and all the wind that might have put at its back if only it had done some things differently, he has observed.

And now, as a tail-end Boomer with plentiful energy, money, connections and smarts, plus a City Hall megaphone and a budget to go with it, he's in a position to make some of those things happen, however belatedly. As his giant portfolio calls for him to be the point person on everything from luring new businesses to town to negotiating with developers, Mueller now wears the political armor of his position, always with the tie on and the wingtips buffed, always exquisitely aware of what's on the record and what's off. But his less-controlled entrepreneurial roots also peak through, sometimes more than others. Yesterday, while he of course talked much about where the city is headed, focusing on his current duties, he also looked back more than he generally does in public.

After all this time, I thought I had heard all the important stories from Vantage One, about the pre-pitch diapers sent to a prospect ("because we're going to give you some ideas that will make you pee your pants") and the surprise trips to exotic locales for lucky employees. About the nerf ball free-throw-shooting contests for $10,000 with the guys whose company they were about to buy and the early guitar-strumming troubadoring with Apple Computer.
But yesterday he told a telling, moving story I'd never heard, about a small but crucial early victory for Vantage One, born of nothing but simple confidence of success--only this wasn't his confidence but the confidence he had somehow inspired in an early employee.

It seems that one of his first employees, still riding a crosstown bus to and from work each day while the company was still located at Mueller's place in Lakewood, boldly decided to go out on a limb and buy a car. He was anxious on her behalf: what if the company didn't make it, and she couldn't pay her loan?
As he recounted it, her response was simple and calming: Relax, she told her boss, for once turning the tables. I know we're going to be successful.

Might there perhaps be some parallels there for Cleveland's current crisis of confidence? After all, as another wealthy, zestful political guy once famously put it: "All we have to fear is fear itself."

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