What Makes Joe Run
You say you want a revolution? Meet a 34-year old dot.com multi-millionaire who chose to spend his retirement doing high tech...on Maui.
On any given weekday—once in the morning and once in the afternoon —you can find Joe Gleason deftly navigating the shoulders of Kihei’s Piilani Highway. His $2,400 recumbent Trek R200, a sleek high-tech bike that essentially puts Gleason in a somewhat reclined position while any number of cars and 18-wheelers whiz by this close, makes for an odd site in the midst of commuter traffic. Arriving at his office at the Maui Research and Technology Center, Gleason barely has time to check overnight messages before bolting out the doors of WebNow.com toting a wireless headset, ready for some long distance calls. Sun positioned comfortably in a cloudless blue sky, a priceless view from Haleakala to Wailea stretched before him, Gleason smiles, and soaks it all in. Now, he’s ready to do business.
Want to meet a multi-millionaire? Meet Joe Gleason.
At 34, Gleason is the kind of retired dot.com millionaire the state’s embryonic high tech industry is jonesing for. Just five years ago, and all of 29, Gleason sold Quality Computers, a Michigan-based software and consulting business he formed while still a teen-ager, for a cool $7 million. In 1998, yearning for intellectual stimulation after a couple of years spent following environmental pursuits, Gleason moved to Maui hoping to, once again, become a revolutionary.
Gleason’s WebNow.com provides small businesses with the tools to design customized Web sites within hours, providing a near-instant Internet presence with multiple pages, interactive links and professional graphics. After handing users the basic electronic billboard site at no cost, WebNow.com then offers a menu of more sophisticated, but still customer-designed, fee-based options like secured e-commerce and marketing services meant to take the businesses to the next level. Not for the masses of 13- to 33-year olds eager to share online shrines dedicated to Britney Spears with the world, WebNow.com’s menu of services is designed specifically for beginning e-commerce.
“It’s all about business,” says Gleason, WebNow.com’s president, CEO and founder. “Our target audience is the one- to 20-person business operation. Personally, I think most businesses that size need a Web site right now, but don’t understand what (a site) is worth to them. I don’t think they should have to pay for them until they’re really using them.”
Though WebNow.com has a number of substantially larger business users, most of its free- and fee-based 40,000 plus users are small niche operations such as eggcarton.com (www.eggcarton.com), a company that sells egg cartons. After just two years in business, Gleason is already finding himself at a crossroads of sorts. With a handful of dot.com-hungry players interested in buying into WebNow.com, and a $30 million market valuation, Gleason is angling his little company for bigger things. But not for an IPO.
An air of “been-there-and-done-that” attitude is part of Gleason’s low-key appeal. Executives schooled on clawing one’s way up the corporate ladder rung by rung may see Gleason’s success as a fluke. They would be wise to buy themselves a clue. Like most of his dot.com peers, neither luck, an Ivy League degree, nor a good report card had anything to do with it. “I was a total troublemaker in school,” says Gleason with a grin. “Not evil trouble, but class clown trouble. My mom and dad bought me a computer knowing that I needed something to focus some energy on.” By age 17, Gleason was already working on the foundation of his first business, teaching his friends’ parents how to use their computers to run their small businesses. “I barely, barely got out of there,” Gleason says of his 1984 senior year at Grosse Point High School. “I made a deal with the teachers to teach them computers if they would tutor me.”
After graduation, Gleason sank his savings and a couple of loans—including $3,000 from his father earmarked for college—into a one-person consulting shop run out of his parents’ basement. He began tinkering with writing and publishing software. By 1990, Quality Computers had a solid reputation for developing educational software, programs, utilities and testing materials for students in kindergarten through high school, much of it developed by Gleason himself. Long removed from anyone’s basement by 1995, the company was pulling in $12 million in sales annually with a staff of 85 employees. That was when the business Gleason formed because he thought messing around with computers would be eternally cool, turned sour.
In the midst of Quality Computer’s best year ever, a copyright infringement lawsuit was filed against the company by the publisher of a software program that Quality Computers had obtained through a recent acquisition. Though Gleason would eventually prevail and recoup nearly $650,000 in legal expenses, a full year spent preparing for his court date left him spent, both physically and emotionally.
“I had taken the business to the point where it wasn’t fun, and I needed a break,” recalls Gleason. “I had been in it for 12 years, and what happened was just too much.” Gleason accepted a $7 million offer from ScanTron Corporation, an educational software company, to acquire his majority stake in Quality Computers. Not yet 30, Gleason found himself newly rich and free of responsibilities.
By all accounts retired, Gleason ensconced himself in a newly purchased home on the shores of Canada’s Lake Huron, not far from a number of large hog farms. The owner and pilot of an ultra-light aircraft, Gleason was appalled to find that area farmers were dumping large amounts of wastes tainted with antibiotics and growth-inducing hormones into the lake. Angered, he took to researching and publishing an informational newsletter detailing the problem and its potential consequences, which he sent to 14,000 lakeshore residents. Gleason would spend the next two years fighting a passionate, though losing, battle with players in the area’s largest industry.
“It was akin to some haole coming here and telling cane farmers that they were doing everything all wrong,” says Gleason. “No one dared to step on board to help me. It was more than full time. It was serious. And it was getting too personal.” More than that, Gleason found himself in need of intellectual stimulation of the non-porcine variety. “That was when I came to Maui on vacation, met some really wonderful people and found the Tech Park.”
By January 1998, Gleason had racked up frequent flyer miles on several Valley Isle sojourns, each visit longer than the last. Though still financially secure, he could scarcely envision himself sitting on a white sand beach counting his money. “If I had taken the money, left it in the bank and bought real estate here, I would be a hell of a lot better off than where I am today,” laughs Gleason. Instead, he formed a new company on Maui, choosing the island based on quality of life and the high-tech ready environs of the Maui Research and Technology Center.
WebNow.com began with a simple idea, rooted in Gleason’s struggle to find a Web designer for several business options he was mulling.
“I wanted a service that would really make users feel like they had their own personal team of Web designers offering a plate to them and saying, ‘Choose from this great list of options that we’ve assembled for you,'”says Gleason. Gleason launched the company and Web site in July 1998 after several months of self-financed research and construction. He estimates that he has spent more than $1.2 million of his savings on the venture, which only began billing users for fee-based services in March.
“It sounds insane. It is insane. But billing our customers hasn’t been a priority as much as getting all our features in place before we presented them with a bill,” says Gleason. “We can survive even if 100 percent of our customers use the site for free.” Don’t call it the voodoo economics of Web design. Companies that provide both the free and fee-based services utilized by WebNow.com through partnerships, kick a commission Gleason’s way every time one of his customers use that service. “It’s a whole new (business) model,” says Gleason. “A model that will continue to evolve.” Gleason declined to reveal WebNow.com’s revenue, or percentage of fee-based users, citing competitive concerns.
Partnerships with close to 70 organizations that provide online business services to thousands of small business customers nationwide allow him to co-brand and market WebNow.com on their sites as a business tool. One of these, New England Business Service (www.NEBS.com) is responsible for 40 percent of WebNow.com’s user volume. Gleason is hopeful that similar partnerships currently being structured will take WebNow.com to a half-million users (signing on at the rate of 1,000 a day) by year’s end. Numbers that are difficult to hide from a stock market still swarming with high-tech hungry investors.
“There’s no good reason to do it at this point,” smiles Gleason at the thought of an IPO. “It sounds really pretty to go public, but there’s all kinds of distractions that get put in the way.” Instead, he seems to relish finding himself, once again, in the driver’s seat of a smallish high-tech business with big-time dreams. Of any plans post-IPO, Gleason will only say, “I’ll do whatever I find fun and good.” But can he rest?
Well, he admits to still having a bone to pick with some Canadian pig farmers.