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Here’s your program.
Andrew: Hey everyone. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart and the place where I interview entrepreneurs about how they built their businesses. So how does a hobbyist go on to lead an industry? Joining me is Jeff Pulver and in a moment I’ll show you why I introduced him as a hobbyist.
Jeff is the founder and chairman of Pulver.com, a pioneer in the VoIP industry, founder of Voice on the Net events, VON, co-founder of Vonage and the founder of 140conf.
Jeff, welcome to Mixergy.
Jeff: Thanks for having me today.
Andrew: So I did a search for your name going back into the ’90s and here’s a quote from you from 1996 in the New York Times. “For the past year-and-a-half, since internet telephony hit me, I haven’t picked up a HAM radio microphone. This stuff really works. No doubt there’s going to be tremendous application in this business.”
How did you discover voice over IP?
Jeff: I discovered the technology sometime late in 1993, early 1994 when I was looking at voice communication systems, originally over lands and then over the not so perfect, open internet. It wasn’t until the summer of ’95 that critical mass, in my mind, hit.
The original iPhone was introduced by a company called VocalTec in February of 1995. On that very first day that the software was available, the people who were online, about 20 percent of us for our social media identifiers, we all used our HAM radio call signs.
It was slightly awkward because we were pretending to be on the radio, using the computer, using amateur radio lingo. But it was fun. In the first day I spoke to people in all parts of the world and it felt like HAM radio all over again. Except that I was playing on the computer.
So you no longer needed to have radio propagation or a transmitter or, for that matter, an antenna. What we needed was connectivity software and a computer.
Andrew: At the time you were working at Cantor Fitzgerald, digitizing their system. Computerizing their system. True?
Jeff: At that time, I sold the company. I was an expert at [??] mathematics. I built an analytics library that worked very well with Lotus 1-2-3 and Excel and it was very disruptive to people who had traditional backend systems or these big Bloomberg terminals.
I had a team with me and so, at that time in ’95, I was VP of Information Technology at Cantor and we were building all sorts of crazy apps. Taking real-time market data information, overlaying that into the bomb markets with analytics. Providing tools for people to be more efficient and better traders.
But that was a day job. The night job was more fun. It was just a matter of days, actually, into using an iPhone that I became an ambassador of sorts on behalf of the internet to the company of VocalTec. At the very beginning, there was rumblings. When iPhone launched, VocalTec was using the IRC network, commercially, as their way to resolve the locations. Where all the various people were on the internet.
Effectively, the iPhone was really a IRC client. The people who ran IRCs and these public networks on large campuses were quite offended. Quite offended that a commercial company would come into the fold and use a sacred resource.
There was a conspiracy to ban iPhone off of IRC within three weeks of it’s initial launch. I tried reaching out to VocalTec to tell them about this but no one listened. In March of ’95, I launched my own IRC server. Private server out of my home. I had a Fractional T1 connection to the internet at the time, which cost more than my mortgage.
I proved it. I had a mailing list that I had created and I told people. I didn’t want the idiocracy of what was happening to take away a new hobby from me. I took it upon myself to go out and try launching a private IRC server network. I ultimately did that.
By April of ’95, there was an alternative network that was being set up just for people wanting to use iPhone. I kind of led that and along the way, I created a mailing list for people interested in iPhone. The traffic from the CUC [?] mailing list made no sense to be there.
Then in the summer of ’95, I created a directory for people who you’re talking to. If you meet them offline, to find things in common with. A lot of people were having trouble having conversations lasting more than a few seconds. After you say my name, my location and where are you. What do you do?
A lot of people were uncomfortable talking to strangers. Being a HAM operator, it was just natural. So I helped build a community. By September that year, it was clear I had several thousand people on this mailing list and we were thinking about what’s going on next. Somebody in September that year asked, “Is it possible to interconnect a telephone and a computer?”
Being a HAM operator, I always connected radios and computers. Radios and telephones, I should say. So I had a phone patch. I just tested it out. I connected my phone patch to my computer. It worked. Anyway, a month later I launched an international project with two people I’ve never met. One based in Jicaro, one based in Tokyo.
We launched Free World Dial Up, which was the world’s first internet telephony network. Where I encourage people, if they had an extra phone line in their homes, to set up a computer and let strangers make phone calls through their computer to people local in their area.
We got hundreds of nodes around the world setting up and this was one of the first true viral internet plays that ever happened. Free World Dial up, or FWD, launched in November 1995, and over it’s life it had several phases. It’s first one was most disruptive.
In March of ’96, sort of as a result of what we were doing, 300 phone companies in America filed a petition with the FCC asking for the sale and use of internet telephony software to be banned in America and the makers of the software to be regulated as phone companies. Which I thought was kind of funny.
Again, I had a day job but in March of ’96, hundreds of people from around the world would e-mail me saying, “What am I going to do about this petition?” I had no standing in Washington. What was I possibly going to do about this petition? I thought it was humorous.
Within ten days, I should tell you that in ’95, I coined the term VON, Voice on the Net. In March of ’96, ten days into this petition fighting, I created what was known as the Voice on the Net Coalition. 110 companies from all over the world joined in.
Next thing I know, I’m now a lobbyist. I have a virtual lobbyist organization called the internet. For nine years we kept Voice over IP unregulated in America. Today the Voice on the Net Coalition is a 501(c)(6) organization, a lobbying organization in DC. A Chairman Emeritus, I should say.
I got out of that as chairman. It got so formalized that I once was invoiced $20,000 to maintain my founding member status. I just thought that was kind of humorous. I did lobbying, well not lobbying. We did information gathering and knowledge transfer for governments, not just U.S. I worked at the time with [??] in the UK.
I was summoned by the board of the ITU and Geneva. All sorts of crazy stuff was going on back then. You just have to make everything up along the way. My background was in accounting. I just did the [??] mathematics stuff. My passion was to communicate.
What had happened to me was sort of a perfect storm of sorts. I was on a three year contract with Cantor. This is where the World Trade Center was. We were on the 32nd floor, the 104th floor, 105th floor. I was getting a life lesson in office politics. We had a matrix organization.
When you have responsibilities to get work done without the ability to delegate, it’s kind of deadly. I was not having a fun time at work. I think in ’95 is what it was. I was being paid to do absolutely nothing. They took away almost all my responsibilities. When I got there, I had 27 people working for me. At that moment in time I had no staff. I had nobody.
So I had a dichotomy because my day job was eck and my afternoon and night stuff was fun. The moment I started using internet phone, I actually brought it in to the trading floors on Wall Street. I brought VocalTec there first. I tried showing the Telecom guys who spend millions of dollars each year, “Gee. We could be using these technologies. No longer do we need dedicated T1’s from New York to Buenos Aires or New York To Milan. We can just use this thing called the internet.”
I almost got fired the first time there because somehow the senior management thought I was insinuating that we couldn’t afford the Telecom quests.
Andrew: And that’s a fireable offense to say that…
Jeff: Apparently so.
Andrew: Let me pause this story for a moment. I want to make sure that I fully understand this. When I look at your resume, lots of entrepreneurial companies that you launched.
Jeff: I had mentioned my lemonade stand.
Andrew: Yeah. It seems like it just kind of happened.
Jeff: Everything just happens. I did my first start-up when I was 16. I had software company and I had a DJ company. What’s funny is the DJ company has started back and still exists. My friends were running it all these years.
Andrew: So you were entrepreneurial back before you worked at Cantor Fitzgerald?
Jeff: I’ve only had two jobs in my life. I worked an accounting firm for three years or two-and-a-half years. And I worked at Cantor. The rest of my time, I’ve been totally unemployable.
Andrew: Why didn’t you launch a company right out of school? Why be an accountant and then go work at Cantor?
Jeff: I had a consulting company before I went to college. I had one when I had graduated. It was already there. When I worked in accounting, it was actually a client of mine. I went in a year and a half later as a manager. While I was at that company, I started another company called Spreadsheet Solutions, which was a leading provider of financial analytics to people who used Lotus 1-2-3.
Andrew: I see.
Jeff: I had Spreadsheet Solutions. That was my software company and I sold it to Cantor as my first exit, sort of, back in the day. I had brought my team with me from Spreadsheet Solutions to Cantor, which joined the IT department at Cantor Fitzgerald. At Cantor in New York City, there are about 125 employees. 124 of them were responsible for making sure nothing changed.
I was the person responsible for trying to bring in change. At Cantor not every day was predictable but they liked days that were predictable. It was a fireable offense if you were caught putting an IP device onto the network without them knowing about it. That was absolutely fireable.
Andrew: That, I understand. Insinuating that they couldn’t afford the phone bill, that being a fireable offense.
Jeff: I was traveling extensively at the time. Well, before that, to Tokyo and to London. I knew our IP structure better than the bosses did.
Andrew: Here’s what I’m seeing. From what you said before, it seems like that mailing list you put together was a big force and that opened up all kinds of doors and opportunities in this space. Right?
Jeff: Oh, the mailing list, happened on it’s own. It was very organic. There were a lot of workers and clearly, what I stumbled upon was the concept of free. There’s no regulation in America against free. If there was, the lobbyist would have figured that out a long time ago.
I caught these people in the wrong game because people were trying to use laws that came into being long before the technology was ever invented and use those laws to prevent a future proliferation of such technology.
That’s a good sign that a market place is being disrupted. When the lawyers and lobbyists got together and tried to inflict pain on innovation.
Back to where we were in ’95. At the end of the day, it’s all about connecting, communicating and sharing, and engaging. As a HAM radio operator, these were all trades you pick up. I was first licensed in ’77, actually ’75, but active in ’77.
A lot of the things that you just take for granted. Talking on the radio forever. These are just traits you take with you. All these years later when I’m now discovering talking on the internet, I saw direct analogies. From talking on the internet to then doing phone patching and stuff. That interconnection, that made a lot of sense. Dealing with the FCC made sense because I had to do that as a Ham.
The next step would basically trying to work on the future. The trouble at Cantor we had was, there was a lot of inertia. There was a bunch of us that were highly paid. We knew that the end was near in the sense that we started out with about 12 or 14 managers on Fridays. We used to go out to lunch, trying to figure out who’s the next person to be fired.
Andrew: Forgive me, Jeff. Since I have such a limited with you, I want to make sure that I give you an opportunity to go through a narrative and maybe take us through one of these companies from beginning to end as you came up with the idea. How about we talk about the conference business. How did the conference business start?
Jeff: Just taking you right through it. So, as a rebel who was doing all sorts of silly stuff with the internet and doing Free World Dial Up and now doing public policy and stuff. In April of ’96, I got invited to an organization called Terrifica. They had a conference in London called “Dialing the Net”, which was the first international conference on internet telephony, which apparently was what I was doing.
I wasn’t invited there because I worked for Cantor. I was invited there because I did Free World Dial Up. To make it a long story short, when I got to this conference I realized how obnoxious this was that people had names on their badges. I knew everybody by their e-mail address. I realized about 70 percent of the people in that room were on my mailing list.
I came there as a person trying to understand what was happening and I saw the disruption in action. What I did was, I connected with one of the people who invited me to the conference and I decided that in September of ’96, I was going to do my own conference in America, regardless of my stature of having a day job.
As life had it, in ’95 into ’96 I had a really boring job. As a manager, we would go out on Friday’s, trying to figure out who’s the next person to be fired. We had the Fourth of July holiday and the next day I got back to work after the holiday at my day job. I made the mistake, and I offer all employees this little tip. If you have a hands-on meeting with your boss and they give out a new org chart and you don’t see your name on it. Don’t say, “Oh, shit.”
I had the kind of job where I could have lasted at least a few more months had I not pointed out that I was no longer on the org chart. As soon as the org chart came out, we’re sitting down. I screamed. The two co-managers said, “Didn’t you fire him? Didn’t you fire him?” Three hours later I was out of a job.
At the time, in July of ’96, I was kind of living on the edge because I had a young family, a mortgage, no savings. The best thing my parents ever did for me at that moment in time, was absolutely nothing. It was in July of ’96 that I made a commitment to actually promote this conference idea.
On September 10th and 11th of 1996, the first conference in the field of internet telephony, we called it “The Talking Net”. I did that and we had 200 plus people from around the world show up. On paper, within three years, a few of those companies that were started after the conference, would be multi-billion dollar companies. A few other people who came to that first conference would be, on paper, billionaires. At least for a fleeting moment in time.
Andrew: Why a conference? Why’d you do a conference instead of focusing more on Free World Dial Up?
Jeff: Free World Dial Up had already played it’s course. By June of ’96, because I was running it as project manager and I outsourced the development of it, I intuitively knew that we could actually route phone calls around the internet. I also knew that we needed real R&D to make it flawless. This was anything but flawless.
We had no quality of service. No anything. Just a working proof of concept. It actually was funny. I actually went to Safeguard Scientifics. I asked them for $50,000 to invest in Pulver.com to do my conference business. As it turned out, nobody invested. I had a $15,000 credit loan with American Express and I threw down in $15,00 in July of ’96. I went to the venues and I put down a deposits for the catering and the location.
What was kind of cool was, the first conference generated real revenue. Then I got rid of my partner and then six months later I changed the name of the conference from “The Talking Net” to “VON”. The first “VON” took place April1st to the 3rd of ’97 in San Francisco at the Ritz Carlton.
Anyway, each time I did the conference, it progressed. It got larger. I built a conference built on my own experience with attending other conferences. I was not a professional conference management company. I was professional conference goer.
Andrew: I’m sorry. Let me pause and make sure that I dig in to this and really understand. There’s a lot that you just did here. For many people this is a whole lifetime, Jeff, what you just said. I want to dig in and give it the attention that it deserves. You put together a first conference in ’96. 200 people come to the conference.
Andrew: 224. That’s amazing that you remember. How do you get 224 people to come? From what I heard, you were organizing smaller events on Long Island first and then you organized that conference.
Jeff: No. ’96. No. Long Island did not exist for anything.
Andrew: It was the mailing list. How big was your mailing list at the time?
Jeff: We had between 3 and 4,000 people on it.
Andrew: How’d you get so many people on the mailing list?
Jeff: It’s all word of mouth. All viral. Everything’s been viral. I also created The Pulver Report back in August in ’96. I sent out the first Pulver Report to 300 people. I asked people if they liked it, to forward it to, to copy it to one of their friends.
Sometime in ’99, it got to about 90,000 people.
Andrew: I see.
Jeff: Simply by just copying it.
Andrew: Encouraging them to do it. So you had this mailing list that grew virally. The mailing list helped you.
Jeff: Everything grew virally. 16 years later, I do everything virally. I don’t spend a dime on advertising or direct mail. Back then, I couldn’t afford it so it didn’t matter. All I did was put the word of mouth out that I was doing this and surprise, surprise. People flew in from around the world. I was absolutely blown away that people flew in from Europe and they flew in from across the worked to this conference. And they did.
The guy who was ultimately responsible for a $6 billion business unit at Cisco. He was at the first conference. The guys who writing Voice over IP at MCI, they were there. The folks that did, ultimately, the first Voice over IP service providers. They were over there. Some of them had stayed with me for a long time.
Anyway, for me. Each time I did a conference, I didn’t make any real money until sometime in ’98. It was sort of like roulette. I had to let it ride.
Andrew: Who was the partner that you had when you launched the conference?
Jeff: Tim Jackson. He and I didn’t get a long. He ended up about six months later starting the European version of eBay. He did OK.
Andrew: I see. So he moved on. You took over the conference on your own.
Jeff: Yeah. His ego did not allow him to be properly in the business as it was.
Andrew: What do you mean?
Jeff: Everything was brilliant.
Andrew: Every idea he had was brilliant.
Andrew: And he didn’t give room for you.
Jeff: Air and breath didn’t really exist for anyone else.
Andrew: I see. Okay.
Jeff: But that’s okay. We got past that. “The Talking Net” was an interesting conference because it was the first one in America. We looked at regulatory, we looked at video and voice on the internet. It was a fairly fun, one-track, two-day conference to do.
Andrew: What did you do right and what did you do wrong in that first conference as a novice?
Jeff: If I made mistakes, I don’t know what they were. The only thing I really made a mistake about was conceding to letting people actually print out or do the print out PowerPoints. I’ve never been a fan of PowerPoints. I never allow it anymore at my events. Back then, I spent about 25 hours of my own time binding books.
Andrew: Oh, because they all printed out their PowerPoint and they all wanted every guest to have their PowerPoint?
Jeff: Right. So I had to collate and bind and rebind. That was a pain in the ass.
Andrew: What did you do right in the first one?
Jeff: I’m sorry.
Andrew: What did you do right the first time out?
Jeff: Being true to who we were and being directly accessible was the difference in everything. We had hands-on experience directly. I knew everyone’s name because I processed the registrations by hand. I had no one in my [??] I couldn’t even process credit cards until about five weeks before the conference.
You operate big and you be as small as you want to be, but you operate as big as you can be.
Andrew: So you grow this thing a little at a time.
Jeff: A year and a half, we’re doing three or four million dollars an event.
Andrew: How did you get that big? How did you get to so much revenue?
Jeff: Money was waiting for me to take it from them. The more I charged, the more people came. By the year 2000, I did $18 million that year, top line. My EBITDA was pretty good. The conference business, when it works, is one of the most highly profitable businesses that are legal.
Andrew: You’re a guy whose made it work consistently. I want to learn how. One thing you told me, is charge more. The more you charge, you’re saying, the more people are willing to come. Why?
Jeff: Yeah. It’s a credibility thing. In particular in Telecom because it’s not their money. It’s the company’s money. So you take as much as you can.
Andrew: What was the word you used? Particularly in teletown?
Jeff: Telecom. It’s Telecom.
Andrew: Oh. Telecom. Right. Because in Telecom, it’s all people . . . what else is it about?
Jeff: It’ not individual money. It’s really corporate money.
Jeff: So when it’s corporate money, you can take as much as you want. When you have people that are competing against each other, somebody wants to always outspend somebody else for sponsorships and for visibility and stuff. I learned about marketing promotional opportunities after I sold the company the first time.
Anyway, quickly, with the first conference. That netted us $143,000. Grossed whatever. Within a very short period of time, we had 500 people coming, then 800 people, then 1100, then 1800, then 4000. It was pretty surreal the way that everything grew. But it was very organic at the time. And very real.
We had the pioneers. I focused really on engineering. I threw people off the stage if they pitched. I threw big people who had big budgets. I didn’t really care if you had. . .
Andrew: How did you do it? Can you give me an example of how you threw somebody off the stage? That’s a pretty tough thing to do.
Jeff: Unfortunately, in Washington DC, at the Reagan Center, which had just opened up. Fall of ’98 “VON” was in Reagan. IBM, in 1998, had announced the big support for internet telephony. I thought it was terrific that they announced their support. They even came in as a sponsor of my conference. The guy that was ahead of their Telecom business unit, which was a $6 billion unit , he was one of our speakers.
I believed in keynotes. I believed in what I called industry perspectives. I gave people anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes to share their perspective on where things were. I was always interested in what they were passionate about, how they saw the market moving, and how they were going to have a place in that marketplace.
When this guy started talking, his Power Point was the features and benefits of being an IMB customer. I quickly ran to his handler and I said, “Is it one slide or what’s going on?” The guy said, “Oh, he’s just getting started.”
Within about five minutes of his talk, I stopped him. He was bigger and taller than me. I did get a round of applause but IMB didn’t do much business with me for ten years.
Andrew: I see.
Jeff: I did it anyway because there was some level of integrity there. I was really looking for people to share their vision and not tell me why you wanted me as a customer. Had IBM come in back and shared with us why they entered the marketplace. And they would have shared their vision in terms of how things were evolving and how they saw themselves in the marketplace. How they could work with us and build markets, that would have been pretty cool.
But to sit there in front of my audience, as a captive audience, and just pitch us a ‘why we should do business with IBM’, fuck them.
Andrew: How big did you get as far as revenue?
Jeff: I got four to five million dollars per event.
Andrew: And you were doing one event a year?
Jeff: No. I did two events a year in the United States. Plus I did an European event. Then in it’s second life, we did events around the world. We did about ten countries.
Andrew: So what was the high revenue before you sold it?
Jeff: I think 18 was probably. . . I think 2000 was the highest revenue. The EBITDA was around $7 million or so. What happened with me, quickly. Things were going very well in three and a half years. I got fired in July of ’96 and in the winter of 2000 I had a premonition that something was going to happen. Something bad was going to happen. I wasn’t sure what. I wasn’t sure when. I knew I had to sell my business.
It took about eight months or so to find a buyer. In July and August we were still negotiating. On September 10th, 2001 I was in Atlanta and plus I was starting on September 11th, 2001. The deal closed to sell my business to the guys at [??] Condex.
Jeff: [phone ringing] There’s a phone ringing.
Andrew: We talked about that. How the phone was going to keep ringing this interview.
Jeff: Sorry about that. Yes. The deal closed. I sold my business on September 10th, 2001. On paper, for $57 million.
Andrew: $57 million the day before the planes crashed into your old office?
Jeff: Right. Afterwards, if you’re in the destination-based events, people don’t go on airplanes. They don’t come to your conference.
Jeff: That deal got written down to only $40 million. We had September 10th the deal closed. September 11th happened the next day. My birthday was September 12th. It was a very strange three days of my life because by September 12th, 2001, not only was I doing VON, but I had about 12 other businesses operating out of office space. From a record label to a production company to some other companies.
I had started the company that became Vonage in ’98. For 17 months I was quite depressed. When the company I sold my business to filed for bankruptcy, I bought my company back.
Andrew: Let me pause it again. I got to hold that out as tease for the audience and I want to make sure I understand this. First of all, you’re a guy that told me you had to feed your family and you were struggling for a while there. When you launched a business, you had to take $15,000 out on your American Express to fund your business because nobody else wanted to fund it.
Then you suddenly take me to $8 million, $7 million a year. $18 million in revenue. Tell me about that first million that you put in the bank after launching this on a big risk and taking a big shot on yourself. What did that feel like, the first time that you brought in that million?
Jeff: I never noticed it.
Andrew: You never noticed it?
Andrew: Why not?
Jeff: I just didn’t. I noticed it afterwards but at first it was . . .
Andrew: When did you notice?
Jeff: By 2000 or so, because really I was living very close to the edge. While the revenue was coming in, I was really playing roulette. I was constantly letting everything run. I kept everything on the table. ’96, I had to reinvest in an infrastructure and people to help build a company.
In ’97, same thing. I was rebuilding and virgin people. ’98, we started investing in other companies. ’98 was when I started MinEx, which was a minutes exchange. Which ultimately became Vonage. What I was doing in ’98, going forward, was I used to invest in start-ups that came to my conferences. I loaned out a lot of money.
I took my profits and I reinvested those profits into the start-ups that were supporting my companies.
Andrew: I see.
Jeff: I never really saw a lot of that money because it became investments in others and for me it was really a matter of showing support and love and compassion and passion for stuff. I actually did have my own program back then.
I was fortunate enough to have Intel and Microsoft as sponsors. But if you, a start-up, want to come in and have a huge booth and a huge presence, I had a concept where I would take your equity as cash. You may think that’s obnoxious that I’m asking for a quarter percent of your company. The thing is, I only see that cash if you have an exit.
If you don’t have an exit, I still pay tax on that and I never see a return. I was cutting deals with a bunch of companies who were coming to my conferences. Offering the opportunity, I should say, to pay with equity. Most chose not to. Only a few did.
Andrew: How did the equity play out? How did you do with all those investments?
Jeff: One company, actually recently another one did, but while “VON” was going on just one company was acquired. I lost everybody else.
Andrew: And how did you do with that one company that was acquired?
Jeff: I got two-and-a-half times on my money.
Andrew: So that’s it. It doesn’t compensate for all the other ones you took a shot with.
Jeff: At the same time, it showed that I was actually taking a chance. If people hear about it, they think, “Gee. It’s kind of cool [?] if you can take your currency and use it as cash.” I thought that was cool.
Anyway, while the “VON” was going on and I was building these things organically. Again, I had no training. I made everything up. I didn’t come from the Telecom industry. I didn’t come from the conference business. In the end, I’ve done over 40 start-ups, all nestled in between. Some are fairly public, a lot of them are very not.
Andrew: And these were start-ups that you personally were launching while you were running the conference?
Jeff: Yeah. Everything. In real life, I was juggling about six or seven balls in the air at the same time. You see, by running Free World Dial Up, that gave me a platform. I could look over the state of Voice over IP with no bullshit. Nobody could tell me what was good. What wasn’t good. I actually understood the state of the art of the technology. I understood what was going on.
By doing the public policy work with the VON Coalition, I understood what the government was thinking. No one could actually lie to me about that. By doing the conferences, I now had a venue where, if I wanted to be a disruptor, I was disrupting the marketplace. Bringing the marketplace to me, using the public policy work that I was doing to get the attention of the lobbyists. To get the attention of the Telco’s. To get the attention of the legislators. I used the conferences, also, as a way to get a hold of the vendors.
It turns out that the space that I was actually operating in wasn’t Telecom. I was on fringe. The place where the computer industry and the communication industry met. It was not Telecom, even though it was the Telecom people who came to the conference.
When the dot com crash happened, did not affect us. When the Telecom crash happened, it did not affect us. The only thing that had a negative effect was when people did not want to go on airplanes for a few months.
Andrew: OK. So you sell your company you say for $56 million, $40 million in the bank.
Jeff: It ended up only being 40, but yeah.
Andrew: Why did it end up being less?
Jeff: Because I had negotiated really hard for this but I sold you a upside. I believed that my business was going to grow bigger and bigger so I negotiated an upside for next three years in my business, based on hitting certain EBITDA goals.
Once 9-11 hit, I realized there’s no way it’s going to happen. For tax purposes, we restructured it so that it was better for both sides.
Andrew: Let me do this. I want to have at least one happy moment. I want to make sure we have that clarity here on this moment. You signed the agreement. Take me to the day when you signed it. What did it feel like when you were basically putting tens of millions of dollars in the bank?
Jeff: I was numb.
Jeff: Again, I went back to Safeguard Scientifics and said, “What idiots.” They won’t give me $500,000 and I started this business with $15,000.
Andrew: The satisfaction of showing that they were wrong felt good. Or that you were right.
Jeff: Actually, at that point, it really didn’t. . . I felt that. I was thinking about that for a long time. The thing is, that’s why I decided to start doing investing in other people. It was even before my exit but I decided to be the person that people could come to help them out and believe in them when no one else would.
Andrew: Did you have a moment of feeling, “I, Jeff Pulver, a guy from nowhere, did this great thing and, whew, I landed.”
Andrew: No, you don’t.
Jeff: It didn’t matter.
Andrew: Do you ever feel that way? Do you ever feel excited?
Andrew: Do you ever look out at the audience who comes to your event and say, “I did this. I’m a guy who has no experience here.”
Jeff: Trust me. People coming to the 140 conferences have no idea what I do now. They have no idea about Vonage. They have no idea about that exit. It’s no.
Andrew: Forget about them. Just the satisfaction of the moment of knowing this was an idea in your head and now, here it is, I’m touching it, it’s successful, it worked. No?
Jeff: Life is a continuum. You just have to make sure you’re on the right side of the continuum. Otherwise, nothing matters.
Andrew: OK. I had fun. My way of having fun is sharing fun with others. It’s not like I said, “Gee. Fuck the world. I did something amazing.” It’s like, no. At that point, before I even knew the exit, I was really philanthropic and stuff.
[??] mates of certain luxury goals were out of control. There was lots of turmoil going on. Being successful, on one line, it’s always a ying and a yang. You don’t necessarily know where the yang’s going to come from.
If you go back to fall of ’96, the thing is, I was living on the edge. I had nobody. What really changed for me is that was the moment in time when I basically started believing in me. I didn’t need anyone else around me ’cause I realized that, if I believe in myself, that’s all that mattered.
I didn’t need a job anymore. Failure was never an option because I just made stuff happen.
Andrew: Show me an opportunity where maybe other people might have given up because, for them, failure was an option and for you it wasn’t and you found a solution.
Jeff: The first conference that I did. It’s inconceivable, that if you have a mortgage, a [??] and stuff. That you’re just going to magically get 224 people to appear at your doorstep and listen to what you have to say.
Andrew: What did you do in that situation that other people wouldn’t have done? They might have launched a conference and not done what you did.
Andrew: There we go. Did my video freeze on you?
Jeff: Yes. Yes.
Andrew: Is it coming now?
Jeff: Yes. Anyway, the whole thing.
Andrew: The whole thing. But you did something to bring the 240 odd some people, I still can’t remember the number.
Jeff: I shared an opinion. I was open. Back in ’96, I did everything for free. People told me that I should charge money for my newsletter. Charge money for access to the information. I said, “No. You can not compete with free.”
I provided open access, if you will. I was freely available and I shared information. If people e-mailed me a question, I answered it.
Andrew: I see.
Jeff: I even published a book. The “Internet Telephony Tool-Kit” was written while I was under the duress of working on my first conference. That came in September of ’96. That was published by Wiley. It sort of documented the history of Free World Dial Up, the vision for internet telephony, and looked at a whole bunch of products that no longer exist today.
Andrew: So you’re saying, you delivered an opinion and got an audience to surround you and with that, that’s why you were able to succeed and why someone else who might be a little bit sheepish, a little bit quiet. . .
Jeff: I think it comes to vulnerability. I think it comes to accessibility. I think it comes from just being open, just being available. Really, it’s believing. I believe the best gift you could ever give someone is to believe in them and tell them so.
I believe that the next person you meet could change your life. I’ve learned that being lucky is OK. You never have to apologize for being lucky. I believe in gratuitous acts of kindness. I believe in sharing the fun. I believe in being there for other people so you can help them out. I do all of this.
Andrew: Let’s continue the narrative and see how this plays out. You sell the company, you have all these start-ups that you’re building, that you’re launching, You said at that point you got depressed.
Jeff: No. What happened was is that only seven people came with me when I sold the company. I had a staff of like 50 from all these other ventures that I was doing that parallel. I pissed away a few million dollars because I refused to fire people.
Ultimately, one mistake that I probably made was, I should have fired everybody after the deal closed and only focus on the people that came with me for the conference because I kept their lives in turmoil for 18 months. It was very hard because they all knew the end was near.
Andrew: What were they doing?
Jeff: They were doing different things. I had a record label. I had a recording studio. I had a production company. I had, oh gosh, I had a few start-ups that were. . . It’s hard to explain now what they were doing but it made sense to me back then.
It was like my own mini-idea labs. If I had an idea, I would fund it myself. I didn’t need to go to venture money. Then I would find a team of people and let them do stuff. We actually got a few companies started. There’s a company now that I’m chairman of. It’s called Vivox. That was born through Free World Dial Up.
That company was originally called Libertel. In 2005, Grand Banks and Keenan [?] invested $6 million. Today, they’re a leader in the host of voice services world. They’re in the massive, multiplayer online gaming. The MMOG world, in virtual worlds, they are the leader. They have millions and millions of people who use their platform every year.
Andrew: If I understand you right. You sell the company, things are good, but you keep on all these small companies. You keep them going even though you know that you’re going to be too distracted to run them. Eventually, you have to close them up and let go of the people who are there. Unfortunately, a few million dollars too late but you still do it. You get past the feeling of exhaustion or depression or whatever you want to call it from doing that. What do you do next?
Jeff: I buy back my company. I buy back the conference.
Andrew: How much did you but it back for?
Jeff: Approximately $5 million.
Andrew: You sell for 40, you buy it back for five. Why?
Jeff: Then I built it up again and it took two years. I got my revenue from close to zero . . . when I picked it up in 2003, the 2002 EBITDA was not even a million bucks. By 2006, it already back up to $7 million again.
Andrew: Do you talk about these numbers public ally because I’ve heard, in preparation for this interview, I’ve talked to people about your background. There’s been speculation but no one’s actually had the numbers. Here you are, just handing them out. Do you talk about them publicly?
Andrew: No. You’re doing an act of kindness by coming to Mixergy and being open on. . .
Jeff: People that find these numbers. The EBITDA is what the EBITDA was. Part of the magic of what I did is, it was a three-ring circus in the sense that I had, I was active. Not just doing the conference. You was actually engaged in the industry.
I was pioneering technologies and services and pushing the limits on what was possible and probable. I was sharing the vision, too. It wasn’t like, “Gee. Come to my concrete show ’cause I can bring people from the concrete industry together.” It was really the convention for disruptors.
I started a bunch of companies. The elements of those companies were around. I also contributed a lot to the vernacular. I didn’t take credit for a lot of the terms that I introduced into the Voice over IP industry or the Telecom industry but ‘purple minutes’ exist because it’s on Wikipedia now from 2002.
I always was there trying to share the idea that with the advent of internet IP-based communications, we could do so much more than was ever practical or possible with traditional Telecom minutes.
Andrew: You sold it to a professional conference organizing company. They weren’t able to keep it going the way that you were.
Jeff: Well, no. They had no soul. Their real problem was 9-11.
Andrew: So if not for 9-11, they would have done okay?
Jeff: Yeah. I think so. I really do.
Andrew: So they should have hung on to it?
Jeff: They couldn’t keep Condex alive so we were not. . .
Andrew: I see. So then you come in and you take this thing that’s flailing. You patch it up and you get it back up into flight. You’re saying that part of it is that you had a voice in the industry and you had a. . .
Jeff: I still do.
Andrew: You still do. No question. What else is it about you that enabled you to take this thing and get it back up?
Jeff: I run them in a dictatorship. [?]
Andrew: And how does that play itself out at a conference?
Jeff: As long as things are done my way, it’s okay.
Andrew: What kinds of things do you insist on?
Jeff: I insist on having parties. For the ten years that I ran VON, I had this strange concept that I brought competitors to the fight with each other over technology decisions were platforms during the day but would dance together at night.
Over the years, as artists, I had Counting Crows, Goo-Goo Dolls, Train, Lifehouse, Third Eye Blind, Smash Mouth, Liz Phair, Huey Lewis. I spent millions of dollars in parties.
I didn’t spend any money really in marketing but I spent a lot of money in parties. I found that if I shared a good experience with people, people would come. That was where the fun was for me. It was in the energy of sharing a great experience with people. That was the driver for me. To actually share the fun.
Andrew: What was the name of the company that was running it?
Jeff: There were so many different companies. Originally, it was VON-something. They were all VON events, VON this, or VON that. Then it became Key 3 Media when I was sold to Key 3 Media. Then afterwards, it was a company called Pulver Media.
Andrew: Pulver Media you said?
Andrew: Why did you leave? It’s been four years. Why did you leave Pulver Media?
Jeff: It left me.
Andrew: What happened? Can you talk about it?
Andrew: Okay. Why not? Personal reasons, legal reasons.
Jeff: Legal reasons. I don’t know. I really don’t know. The first time out, I sold the company and I had 100 percent equity. The second time, I actually acquiesced and allowed management buyout to happen. I went from being an active CEO of the company to non-executive chairman.
I actually have no idea how they fucked things up and managed within nine months of their transaction to lose the funding that they did.
Andrew: You say you sold it and then . . .
Jeff: In other words, I sold my business on September 10th, 2011 to Key 3 Media. Sometime in 2003, I reacquired the assets. I built them up again. In 2006, 2007 I started looking for another buyer. Ultimately, for reasons which I don’t even remember, I opted to allow the management of the company to buy me out.
They found the company which financed the buyout. There was a lack of respect or a lack of confidence in the new management. Not me, because I wasn’t involved in day-to-day operations. But the company which was formed to buy me out and to continue run the business, also Pulver Media, it didn’t work out.
In March of 2008, the company that financed that transaction pulled the plug on whatever money was in the bank and they bankrupt the operation. Of course, they took the money out.
Andrew: Did you get paid anything in the management buyout?
Jeff: I got stuff, sure.
Andrew: Okay. You took money out before then, too, from the profits. Right?
Jeff: When the company was 100 percent mine, it’s like a candy store.
Andrew: I see. Now, I won’t push this but I’m just curious. There’s no legal reasons for you not to talk about it. Is it personal reasons? Is it you just don’t want to get into an argument with the people there?
Jeff: What people? There’s no argument. I have no idea what happened. I just don’t know. I’m dumbfounded by it. It’s taken me three years to get over my depression. I have not a fucking clue what happened. I really do not know. It’s totally mind-boggling to me how, in a very short period of time, the world had changed so much.
Granted, the economic condition in 2008 really were horrible. Things did turn bad. For this conference business, things turned really bad. I could say that nobody listened to me, to my content suggestions for the conferences that I was advising on. I don’t know what really happened because I don’t have access to the information. It’s all speculation.
What really happened from July of 2007 through March of 2008, I’ll never know. Even if I was writing a script or a movie of a conspiracy against me, I still would not know what to write. I have no clue what really happened.
Andrew: Did you save up money from both sales, at least, in the profitable years?
Jeff: Not exactly.
Andrew: Where did it go? Where were you investing?
Jeff: I was investing in start-ups. Let’s just say that a relative was invested in luxury goods.
Andrew: Oh, I see. Okay. Is the relative still a part of the nuclear family?
Jeff: For a moment. But yeah, for sure. Still, it’s just that real life hits reality and it bites. If you ever read stories about how a musician had $57 million and ended up with nothing. I can relate.
Andrew: When we hear that about musicians, we don’t consider ourselves musicians. As business people, we don’t talk about it that much. What do you feel comfortable saying about it?
Jeff: That life has cycles. For me, the old Jeff benefited the new Jeff in several ways. I happened to invest in over 150 companies since 1997. A few of them I own. I also invested in a small company called Twitter and FourSquare.
I started in 2005, doing what I call micro-investing, where I put just a teeny amount of money in a company. Even if the company would need millions of dollars, ultimately. I would provide the minimum amount of capital needed to get the company to become themselves.
I have an amazing record. Over a third, almost half but at least a third of the companies I invested into either got Angel rounds or venture rounds. A lot of them survived.
Andrew: So is 90 percent of your net worth, essentially, invested in start-ups or luxury goods?
Jeff: I don’t consider any luxury goods a part of my net worth. In terms of worth, I don’t know. I have properties and stuff. How many homes can we live in at once? I have properties and I have lots of other fashionable items.
Really, what you have at the end of the day is your soul. At the end of the day what’ll you’ve is you, as a person. The experiences that you take with you that you can share with others and that you bring to the table each and every day. And not what you play it forward with.
The money comes and goes. When I have money, I share it. When I don’t have it, I want more. I’ve been very lucky, that while it is cyclical, I’m not worried about not having money. It’s never an issue with me.
Andrew: Yeah. I can’t imagine it would be. Considering the reputation, considering what you’re able to build from scratch. One of the latest things you’ve built from scratch is a conference called 140Conf.
Jeff: Yes, which is really a fun place for me. It’s actually, in some ways, a poor person’s TED conference. Although, I didn’t know that at the time because I didn’t know what TED was. The conferences that I now produce are really about life, about humanity, about really how the real-time web with the internet itself has changed the way we work and live. The disruption, the intermediation that takes place.
At every conference, I provide a stage for people you’ve never heard of, to share their stories. Some people you would have heard of, I really look at it from business perspective. But also, a deeply personal one. We look at it from metaphysical all the way to the. . . It’s just incredible.
The stories, the passion, the heart, the energy that you feel. I do those conferences because being on that stage when the energy in the room is warm, it’s amazing. You can’t buy it. When it feels good, it’s just the best high possible.
Andrew: 140Conf started out as a Twitter conference and evolved into what it is today.
Jeff: Well, actually, no, no, no. It started out as an event. Well, OK. In February of 2009, even though I was a Twitter investor, I was slightly skeptical. I was very pissed off with this Ashton Kutcher, CNN rush to a million followers. I thought it was total bullshit.
We had just experienced the YouTube presidency and I knew that Obama knew via YouTube. I was really looking to figure out what the effects of Twitter as a platform were on things like the media and advertising and politics. Really, where things were going to go in the world of celebrity.
So that’s what my first core attendance were to the conference. So Twitter was that platform that was an accelerant that was disrupting things. It turns out that Twitter was disrupting 50 other industries at the same time but nobody noticed it. Then the week before my first conference, Twitter was on the cover of TIME Magazine. The Sunday before the Tuesday of the conference, the Iranian elections happened.
People started to understand what happens when people could freely share their experiences on YouTube and Twitter. All of a sudden, you can not repress life. Wyclef Jean comes to my conference dressed in green to show solidarity with the Iranian people.
It just brought things to a much, much higher level. The conference really have become a platform where we do explore life. I’m keeping the legacy of the name, “140 Conference”, because it’s a short-form conference.
The VON conference, while I made a lot of money from them, in the end I didn’t like the format I created. They became so big that we would have pre-conferences on Mondays. During Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday during breakout. . . I could literally see you Monday afternoon. Say I’ll see you during the week and then never see you again.
Ultimately, I had so many breakout sessions that I never saw my friends. I swore to myself, if I ever did a conference again, I want to do a new format where we have a shared, common experience.
I do my events inside of theaters. That’s why I call us characters, too. I figure if you put us up on stage, and plus, who doesn’t want to be on Broadway? Who doesn’t want to be on the stage? Everyone’s a character, whether you’re attending the conference or you’re speaking out, sharing a perspective. Sessions are short. Ten minutes.
Why in the world would I do a session that lasts an hour and 20 minutes, if the average attention span is 11 minutes? I never got that. If you’re invited to talk at my conference, you’re going to talk between nine and eleven minutes. Usually, it’s ten minute talks. Panels are 10, 15, 20 minutes.
Whether you’re flying in from Sydney, Australia, London, Toronto, Tel Aviv, ten minutes.
Andrew: What about the price? You’re now not chagrin corporations that have endless money.
Jeff: I need to raise the prices. I actually screwed myself on this one. I fucked up. In 2009, when I was doing the conferences, I actually priced the first “140 Conference”, I priced as $895 conference to a $1,195 conference.
I got reamed by all these people in social media. So many people were attacking me in the traditional prices. Like, “Why was it so expensive?” I used to charge $2,000 a ticket! How do I get $4 million of revenue from a VON conference? If you get enough people paying $2,000 or $2,500 a ticket it adds up quite quickly.
In 2009, I kept on lowering, lowering, lowering my price and then in December of 2009, I read a blog post that Fred Wilson wrote about why he attends certain conferences and not others. From what I read from him, I got this idea to be fair and to encourage people from the fringe.
Instead of charging $895, my experiment for 2010 was to charge $140 a conference. It turns out that my EBITDA at $140 a person, ain’t that much. But 2010, a lot of people didn’t have jobs and a lot of people needed a break. I decided to go with a price that was hopefully affordable for everybody. Or, at least, if they needed a scholarship, I’d give them a scholarship.
Otherwise, pay the price. Today, for example, I still have an early bird price of $100. $50 a day for two days. The thing is, I have world class speakers. People who speak at TED, people that are whatever. They’re coming and speaking at this conference. It makes no sense to me, actually, to charge $100.
I don’t feel like I get respect. It’s like pay $1,000. Add a zero. It’s OK.
Andrew: How do you get to a place with this conference where companies need to send their people and don’t mind spending $1,000 or more?
Jeff: I think, if the economy gets better, or at least stays where it is, I’m there. The thing is, we actually do explore life. We do explore brands. I have a one-off conference called “Brands Conference”, where I look at the humanization of brands. The entire experience of having someone online represent you means that you, as a brand, are now human. You can no longer hide behind your logos. You can no loner hide behind your press releases. You now have a human being interacting with your customers.
There’s a back channel that exists now that you can’t ignore. There’s a lot do real substantial stuff that’s happened and observations that are going on in the evolution of social web.
I might add that right now I’m actually fundraising for a new start-up.
Andrew: What’s the new start-up?
Jeff: This I can’t talk about. Just because I’m fundraising for it. It’s an idea I first had in ’97. It sort of takes advantage of my knowledge from Voice Over IP and the promise of IP communications. And my observations of the evolutions of the social web.
It’s conceivable that if I get funded for this, I might launch a new conference focusing on something very similar because you know that playbook already.
Andrew: Have them feed off each other.
Jeff: It does. In the preceding years, when I wasn’t doing “140 Conferences” after VON went away, I actually hosted breakfasts. I host breakfasts in different cities around the world. In 2008, I hosted 35 breakfasts in 18 cities around the world.
I found ways to use social techniques. I actually used labels. I call it real-time social networking. Where, on one label you put your name and a one-line personal tagline. I then give people another blank label and then small labels.
When you’re talking to somebody, you have to listen for a keyword. When the person says a certain keyword, you write it down and then you actually put it on the person’s chest. On the other label. Now it becomes a tag cloud.
It was a very, very effective way to get people who don’t know each other to connect and share in a very personal way. When that gets boring, I give people Post-It notes. They can use it as a wall.
Andrew: To bring it to life.
Jeff: I played around with that for awhile. I found that to work, too. Vie been experimenting with different ways for people to listen, to connect, to share, to engage with people for a long time.
Andrew: [??] guy because you travel a whole lot.
Jeff: Until I pneumonia. Now, for the last five weeks, I’ve almost been one place. I’m in two places. I was resting in Tel Aviv and now I’m back, recovering in New York. I’m very happy . For the past hour, I have not coughed.
Andrew: I see that.
Jeff: This was only five days ago, no, six days ago, I failed a breathing test. I’m on a new set of course of drugs and it’s wonderful. Now I have no pain and I can breathe freely.
What’s funny is, I’m always reminded, that the most depressed I was were those 17 months after I sold VON. You’re so right. You’d think you’d say, “I got the world. I did something amazing.”
My father, who died in ’98, I know he would have been proud of me. I keep on playing back the time. It was when I was the most happiest, I got the most depressed. It doesn’t make any logical sense, why I would be so depressed.
I felt the pain of having to fire people and I didn’t like that and I’d been betrayed. The whole trouble with Pulver Media, I don’t know the truth. There was definitely a layer of betrayal and the trouble is I have relatives involved and so-called friends involved. I’ll never know what happened.
After that all went down, someone who was working for me for a long time betrayed me another time. I’ve learned to be fiercely independent.
Andrew: What do you mean? How were you betrayed?
Jeff: If someone steals from you, you’re betrayed. If someone lies to you, you’re betrayed. If someone gainfully and meaningfully steals from you, you’re betrayed. Then, it’s really hard. Then when you have personal relationships with people and they stop believing in you and they suggest that maybe you should get a job. I mean, that’s the punch line, by the way.
If you’re ever in New York City at Caroline’s and you’re trying to entertain 500 entrepreneurs. You ask these entrepreneurs, “What is the worst thing ,as entrepreneurs, somebody could tell you? It’s not that your idea sucks. It’s not like a bad start-up, a bad business plan.” By the way, I don’t believe in business plans. No, no. It’s, “Get a job.”
Andrew: Yeah. There’s one friend of mine who said something like that, that still stings. I was just out of college and I was telling him about this idea for a company and I was all excited and he goes, “You know, companies would kill for that kind of enthusiasm. You could probably get a job.” He was saying that like I was starting a company because I didn’t have confidence in myself that I could get a job.
Andrew: Or I couldn’t get a job.
Jeff: That’s right. When a loved one tells you that, it’s over. It’s a real thing. I just wanted to mention to you, though. Business plans, I’ve never invested in any business knowingly because it had a business plan.
If you look at people’s lives. You look at company’s lives. People who are successful, they find their successes. You go to college. I went for accounting because I was lazy. Ultimately, that’s not what I practiced.
Every successful company in the world is not successful in what they started out starting to do. They gave themselves a course of action to find their success.
Andrew: What’s the happiest you’ve been? I thought it was going to be that day when you sold and everything was good. You told me it was one of the saddest, one of the most depressing.
Jeff: Well. Certainly in the next 24 hours, it was incredibly depressing. I really wanted to do that press conference and plus I was psyched to be there to feel that moment and that moment was never given to me.
Andrew: Oh. Because of the World Trade Center.
Andrew: So you said you made the deal on the 10th. We obviously know what happened September 11th. What happened September 12th? You said it and I couldn’t catch it earlier.
Jeff: Oh. It was my birthday.
Jeff: It was my birthday.
Andrew: Oh. I see. And then you had your birthday with September 11th in the background. Yeah, I see.
Jeff: It was a really screwed up three days of my life. I actually was trapped in Atlanta until that Friday. The new CEO of Condex was supposed to fly me home on his private jet and that never happened. It was just screwy.
So I never had that press conference. I was looking forward to that euphoria on it. I was looking to smile and to say, “I did it”, and say, “This is terrific.” I never had that moment. Maybe that’s partly why I was so depressed.
Anyway, so, I’ve learned to be independent. I’ve learned to just believe in myself and to do stuff. And follow my own path.
Andrew: There were a lot of people around you, though, and you keep saying independent.
Jeff: No. I have nobody. Nobody. There’s nobody. I have no staff. I run conferences all by myself.
Andrew: Well, no. There’s no staff?
Jeff: Zero! Just me.
Jeff: No one can disappoint me now.
Andrew: Because you’ve been disappointed so much that you can’t work with other people?
Jeff: Let’s just say, I appreciate the people who worked for me in the past that took on certain roles where I thought it was a part-time job but I paid them a full-time salary. I was mostly right about it. I am suffering right now because I don’t have any full-time sales people to sell sponsorships for me, which I would love to have.
I have a couple friends of mine that are working for me quasi part-time, but really it’s at will and they’re helping out. On the day of the events, that I have events, I’m very fortunate to have some great friends that come in and do their stuff. I have someone who helps run operations on-site. We do have a lot of volunteers to come in and do stuff.
Except for the week when the event’s taking place, the few days leading up to it, because we do have volunteers to do badging and all the stuff that makes me look good. If it’s a nine month process to work on the “140 Conference”, for eight months and two weeks, it’s me.
I’m the one who’s directly connecting to all the speakers. I’ve been a DJ my whole life, as much as I’ve been a HAM operator my whole life. When I do the “140 Conferences” I act like the human DJ. I sort of mix the people’s voices. I try to set the mood. I try to blend everything. I’m doing that all myself.
I sleep, I dream about this, and I wake up and I know what to do. I’m the one who deals with the website. I’m the one to process registration. I’m the person who’s answering the support calls. I’m the one who’s doing all the nitty-gritty stuff, which I used to have other staff to do. Mostly because I can’t afford to hire anybody because the economics are not there.
The buzz is there. The vision, the good stuff is all there. The money ain’t there. If I could afford to hire people, I would hire some great people. I just don’t have that luxury right now.
Andrew: Not at $150 a ticket or $140 a ticket.
Jeff: It truly is a $1000 to $2000 ticket conference. The experiences that you get out of it.
Andrew: You had Tony Robbins speak at one of your events, didn’t you?
Jeff: That was the guys who did the Twitter conference.
Andrew: Oh. OK. I thought I heard that Tony Robbins spoke.
Jeff: No. He spoke at their event in California. I think he spoke for an hour. He looked like a fun guy. That was the one thing, though. The whole advent of the social web does intermediate us from people’s publicist. You get to know people’s energy.
I got to know Deepak Chopra. Deepak’s speaking at the 140 via Skype. He’s going to be in Toronto and I’m talking to him right now about doing a start-up with him.
Andrew: Do you pay to have any of your speakers speak?
Andrew: No. You don’t.
Jeff: The only person in the history of Jeff Pulver, who I ever paid to speak, was a guy who does Dilbert. Scott Adams. At the first VON in California I paid him like $15,000. I did to have him speak. I’ve never, ever, ever. I’ve over time, covered people’s travel cost if they came from government agencies. Or they truly were amazing people and they couldn’t afford to come.
I’m fortunate now to have companies like Virgin America and Doubletree Hotel as sponsors. So we actually get plane tickets and hotel rooms and I’m able sometime to help others come and use those resources. If I had to pay people to come to the conferences and speak, I truly, truly would be a crazy person. I would be out of business.
Andrew: What does it cost to get a Tony Robbins to come? What are other people paying?
Jeff: I have no idea. It could cost someone $40,000 for a Jeff Pulver to go to their events, so.
Andrew: That’s what you charge to go to an event?
Jeff: Depends. If it’s a corporate event and they ask me, yes. If it’s a friend, I talk for free.
Jeff: It’s all about [??] Although the last time I got paid $40,000, actually, $15,000 went to the speaker
that booked me and $25,000 remaining went to
Andrew: Went to where? I’m sorry.
Jeff: Boston Children’s Hospital.
Andrew: Gotcha. OK.
Jeff: I just did a straight donation. I’ll be more than happy to use myself as a way to leverage, to raise money for others. I do like doing social, good things. I like [inaudible] so I don’t make sense in the sense that the business model I run my life by doesn’t necessarily compute.
I do things to help others. I do things for social good. I do things that, hopefully, help me but I don’t always put myself first. It’s hard when people take advantage of me. I get really pissy sometimes. When I know someone’s taking advantage of me and they do it with a smile, it just irritates.
Andrew: Do you feel that people take advantage of you because you seem like such a nice guy who’s willing to do anything for anyone?
Jeff: No, no, no. Those are cool. Most of those people, they don’t. It’s the people who serendipitously do stuff, and this hasn’t happened now for two years. For almost ten years in a row in the spring time, I can’t tell you how many college students, undergraduate and graduate students, came to me, trying to get me to write their term paper on Telecom for them. It was really funny.
I get like a narrative of 10 to 15 questions. Please answer these questions.
Andrew: Oh. I know what you mean. Right! Where they send you their homework in question form and they want, ah, yes!
Jeff: The first time I fell for it or whatever and I was like, “This is so cool.” And I just noticed. One of my shiny moments that I have to tell you was, in November 2004, I guess it was. Stanford Business School did a case study on me. On Free World Dial Up. That was awesome. That was awesome.
Andrew: That was one of the happy moments.
Jeff: I guess it was 2004, when the Pulver Report came out. That was one of the biggest things I ever did, I think. I woke up one day. ‘Cause in ’96, if you remember, at the very beginning of this [??], I mentioned that the 300 phone companies got together and filed a petition with the FCC asking for telephony/internet software to be banned.
Jeff: In 2003, I had a premonition. Like, I have these premonitions. That if I didn’t do something, that Voice over IP in America would forever be screwed up because we were coming out of the dot com crash, out of the effects of 9-11 and everything else.
I wanted to preserve broadband for entrepreneurs. I wanted to make it as a green field opportunity for people to be innovative. I filed the petition myself. I filed the petition at the FCC asking for regulatory clarity that voice communication that starts on the broadband internet that doesn’t touch the Legacy Phone Network, that ends up on the broadband network, for it to be not regulated as Telecom.
I could tell you that in one year’s passage of time, the FCC in a three-and-a-half to a one-and-a-half ruling, February 2004, issue was now known as the Pulver Order. It was the first positive regulatory ruling in the worked for Voice over IP.
Andrew: I saw that. I didn’t even get a chance to talk to you about that in the interview and I’ll tell you, frankly, why. I don’t understand the industry well enough to do that. I could understand how an entrepreneur builds a conference business. But if I do a search for your name, the way that I did.
Here’s the way I Googled you. I searched for your name, site, colon, NYTimes.com. All I kept seeing was, “Jeff Pulver says.” And anyone who searches will see what I mean. They quoted you over and over. I couldn’t follow the whole industry well enough to. . .
Jeff: I’ve had to make all this up. You understand? I have no background in any of this.
Andrew: I don’t know how but you. . .
Jeff: I make all this up.
Andrew: But you’re the guy they go to as the expert in this space.
Andrew: [laughs] Well, it’s incredible to get to talk to you, here. I hope to get to see you again in person. The problem is, when I see you in person, you’re surrounded by so many people. I was living in L.A. when you did a meet up over there and it was just flooded with people.
Jeff: That was fun. The energy, but again, the one thing that I also do is I do fire my gut and this is sort of metaphysical but I can tell you things. I meet people, total strangers sometimes, and I can tell you things about people I’ve never met for reason I don’t understand.
Andrew: What can you tell me about me?
Jeff: I really need face-to-face. After listening to you ask a few questions, it’s not fair. I actually know things because I’ve interacted with you, not because I’m standing right next to you.
Andrew: I see. You know. Based on interaction, what do you say? What do you see?
Jeff: That you’re fairly flexible. You’re highly intuitive. You’re really smart. You’re resourceful but you try to follow a structure. You’re trying to, for some reason, put things. . . You like putting things in boxes, even though they don’t belong in boxes. You try to create a frame for us so that others can understand where we came from or what we did, even if at the moment in time, we are not being framed. Or we are not being understood.
If anything, you’re providing a lens for other people to see us through and you’re trying to actually find that lens every time you interview somebody so they can understand the context within the context in the conversation and they can better appreciate the story that you’re trying to share.
What you’re really engaging in is next generation story-telling. You’re trying, basically, to provide a platform for people to capture moments of their lives. Share their stories and to be meaningful and to be properly understood.
If someone starts coming across as a babbling fool that can’t be understood. You provide a platform for a level of understanding, comprehension and appreciation, otherwise, a true genuineness to whatever it is you’re trying to do.
Andrew: Now I see why people really love you. To be summed up like that, that feels great. I feel like, I don’t know if you know who I am now, based on that but you know the kind of person that I’d like to be.
Jeff: I think you’re awesome. I think what you’re trying to do is great. I encourage you to do more of it. I had my own internet TV show for a couple of years. I loved it. It was just, I don’t like being structured and having to be locked into stuff. It screws up if you’re not regularly producing stuff live. It’s hard to . . . but I did have for, like, seven years, Pulver Radio.
We were, I wish we lasted three more years, because I was one of the first internet radio rock stations and that I loved. I love radio. I think what you’re doing is terrific. I would do more of it. I don’t really have answers to why we fail.
It’s funny. It haunts me. I lose sleep on this, even today. The only thing I could think of, is people screwed me over. It’s not sour grapes. I think it’s reality. Maybe, just life sucks sometimes and maybe you just have to deal with it. Maybe that’s another life lesson. I don’t think anything’s trivial. I think everything matters and I think people matter.
The thing we sometimes forget is that we all have feelings and we’re all people. The line about, “It’s not personal, it’s business.” Well, it’s always personal. That’s the big lie. It’s always personal and you can’t hide behind stuff.
Andrew: When you say that people screwed you and you’re feeling that. Do you feel a sense of anger at yourself or a sense of revenge or a need to get revenge on them?
Jeff: I can’t get revenge on people. Life gets revenge to people. They die eventually. It’s not my control. I don’t need any revenge on people.
Andrew: You’re just upset at yourself for having let it happen?
Jeff: I don’t want o let it happen again, knowingly. If anything, I can’t go back in time and fix stuff.
Andrew: Do you feel comfortable talking about anyone of these situations, ’cause right now it sounds a little mysterious and a little hard to grasp?
Jeff: What? The fact that I could allow my life to be out of bounds?
Andrew: Yeah. Do you have an example of how it happened or one example of where it happened?
Jeff: It happened a lot. I outsourced, I joke about it but you can’t outsource your life. You have to take responsibility. Whether you’re the CEO of a big company, you’re always the CEO of your life and you can’t let anyone else run it for you. You got to do it yourself. Certain core things you have to be responsible for.
I never really took my banking statements seriously. I never really knew how much money I had in the bank. I never really looked at money closely until I didn’t have any, until it was rare to find it. I trusted people and if I asked someone to do something, I trusted them to do it. When they didn’t do it, it would be annoying.
Anyway, then I had people that were close friends or people that I took care of over the years or people who did well by me. I just assumed, for no apparent reason, that they would do go by me if I did good by them. That happened.
But 2007 and 2008, was a hard time in my life. I was living in two or three worlds in my mind. I was doing a start-up at the time, same time as VON. I was doing Network 2, which is my internet TV staff. I invested millions of dollars in that. I was on the verge of getting funded and the funding just never happened.
When the funding didn’t happen it was just like the dominoes falling apart because I knew I was no longer going to be doing the VON conferences for one reason or another. I had this intuition, right. It wasn’t that the business was going bad. I just knew I was doing something different. I was winding myself up to do that different thing.
The reality came around me and I was no longer able to do what I wanted to do and I couldn’t do the other thing. It just, it became life lessons. The reason I ended up hosting breakfasts around the world, I was fighting lying on the couch.
Newton said, “If things in motion stay in motion”, I realized back then that sometime you have to put yourself in motion. Because for me, I was watching so many reruns of TNT, “Law & Order” and stuff that I used to know the dialogue. I had to get myself off the couch. I’ve been office less now since 2008.
I’m not the kind of guy to go to a Starbux and work out of my laptop in a Starbux. I don’t feel comfortable there. I miss the interaction with smart people to do stuff. I need the interaction, that different level. For me, the challenge is just understanding that. You have to be fearless and you have to be independent. You have to follow your gut.
Most people have conflicts between their gut, their heart and their head. A lot of people who try to be rational, don’t listen to their gut tells them or what the heart tells them. They just think too much. And there’s other people who are just overly emotional.
It’s when you can listen to yourself and act on yourself. I’ve never been failed by my gut. I haven’t always been able to act on it but I do it as often as I can ’cause I know at the end of the day, I have to be responsible to me. That’s a hard lesson for entrepreneurs.
The whole stuff about believing in yourself. That’s mushy bullshit. No. It’s true. If you’re starting out as an entrepreneur, finding someone who believes in you as much as you believe in yourself, that’s awesome. Being able to be with people that will not knock you down, but bring you up. That’s good, too.
It turns out, though, every once in a while, you have to rebuild your buddy list.
Andrew: Improve your buddy list.
Jeff: You have people around you who will either say ‘no’ to you all the time or say ‘yes’ to you all the time. You got to find people that are just not like that. You have to find new friends at times. You have to find folks that are going to be there for you for the reasons that are not necessarily so intuitively obvious.
Andrew: Do you have someone like that right now? A close confidant?
Jeff: It’s like, I have no staff for the “140 Conferences” but I have a couple of friends that are busting their asses for me. I don’t pay them to be my friends. If we make money, they make money, too. Yeah. It’s different though. I’ve become more dependant on me as time goes on.
It’s crazy. I work sometimes 110 to 120 hours a week on my conferences.
Andrew: I can imagine. Actually, I would have imagined that based on what I saw and you had a team. That you spent 100 plus hours with a team.
Jeff: No. When I did the VON Conferences, I used to get so bored. I actually worked on it about four times a year. I had so much free time. That’s why I could do s o many other things. Once I had the vision for how I wanted the conference to go down, other people made it happen for me.
Here, I’m a little more hands-on. I’m not against, by the way, teams. I think teams are great things to have. I think if you could outsource and delegate and have great people that you can trust, that’s also great, great to do. I just, right now in my life, don’t have that as an option.
Even if I had the money, again, it’s just from practical terms. I can rely on me. If I screw up, it’s my fault. It can’t scale that way, I know. But at least, for now, it give me peace of mind. It’s just me. I do take having fun seriously. I travel great distances to have fun, to give fun and to be a apart of fun. Fun is part of the magic of what I try to do.
There needs to be those three letters or otherwise it doesn’t make it worth it, usually.
Andrew: All right. I usually would end up by asking something like, what’s next for you? How about what’s the next fun thing that you’re going to be doing?
Jeff: Well. I have a couple of things. My kids are going to be going to college. They’re 17. They’re juniors in college, juniors in high school. The next year or so they’re going to figure out where to go to school and based on where they’re going and how they need help, that’s going to be something fun to at least be part of, peripherally.
For me, I have a start-up. I’ve been sitting on an idea literally since 1997 that is sort of in the social web, Telecom space. If I can get the money raised. We’re raising a significant amount of money, I’m dealing with people that are professionals. They’re my friends who have done start-ups before, exits, know everything.
If we could raise the money we’re looking for, I’m looking at that to be my full-time gig, at least by default. I’m looking to be executive chairman, not non-executive chairman. I’m looking, for whatever it’s worth, have a desk and a place to be and a place to have meetings and a place to promote.
That’s what I’m hoping for. That would be kind of cool. Again, I’m chairman so other people would be doing the work but I’m providing vision and stuff.
Beyond that, I would like to take the “140 Conferences” to the next level. I did come up with the idea last year, very similar to what TEDx was announcing. I’m just trying not to sound like them. I came to a similar idea around the same time they announced TEDx. I’m trying to encourage people to run their own local versions of the “140”. If one person’s attended the conference before and feels the energy of it, I’m encouraging people to run their own events.
This month and May of 2011, there’s a 140 taking place in Des Moines. One in Vancouver, Washington. One in Central Sierra in California and one in Long Island. It would be run independently. Not with me, but by other people. I like that.
Hopefully we’ll get more people to do that. To really help extend the story-telling and extend the platforms. For me, at the end of the day, the “140 Conferences” almost look like a talk show where I provide the stage. I provide the audience and I use celebrities as a way to bring people in. But then I switch gears and let my unfamous friends have the stage and be heard and discovered.
Really, at the end of the day, the one thing I’m promoting is something called hybrid vigor. If we were farmers and we had crops that don’t naturally crossbreed. The offspring is called hybrid vigor. At the conferences I run and maybe at the meet ups you come to. You run into someone from a very different background than you.
The only reason why you met them is because you came to that event. But the relationships that breed after that, that’s the vigor that we promote. That’s what makes it all worthwhile for me sometimes. It’s just feeling that energy and knowing that we maybe helped change someone’s life for the better.
Andrew: That’s a great place to put it. Jeff Pulver. Great to talk to you. Thanks for doing the interview.
Jeff: Thanks for listening.
Andrew: Thank you. I hope it won’t be the last and I thank you all for watching.
Jeff: Thank you. Bye.