(originally published Feb 16, 2007 - published again, today, as a rememberance of Mr. Johnson)
An English friend was always eager to explain sarcasm to me - like I didn't get it. He would say something sarcastic, and then explain, "Oh - you yanks don't understand sarcasm. See, when I said it was bloody good that the software crashed just then - I meant it wasn't actually very good at all. Don't you see? That's called S A R C A S M. Get it?" He was like a waiter with a dessert tray explaining the vanilla pudding in excruciating detail. Yeah, I get it.
Actually, my friend had no idea who he was dealing with. He couldn't understand my dead-pan responses to his "jokes". After all, I knew he was trying to be funny, it's just that he wasn't funny enough. And, I really can't fake amusement.
Worse yet, this guy never understood my sarcasm.
My sarcasm is Boston-style.
If you're from Boston, then the only other people who will truly know when you are being sarcastic are other Bostonians. And furthermore, you'll never tell! You'll use dead-pan methods to plead sincerity until the bitter end. And then, when you're at the bitter end and you confess your sins of sarcasm to Father O'Flaherty, he'll just smirk and say, "Oh I'm SURE God will have no problem with that AT ALL!"
When Bostonians listen to other Bostonians every word is measured against a secret Sarcasm-o-meter. As a Bostonian, it takes years and years to tune your Sarcasm-o-meter. You can start tuning it as early as Kindergarten. "Sure Barry, eat more paste -- that's great"! I also found that frequent trips to Fenway Park were helpful as I got older.
The sarcasm thing goes hand-in-hand with the deadpan thing. If you're not really sure if someone is being sarcastic, deadpan is like a defense mechanism. It can be interpreted as "This is funny, I'll go with it", or "of course you're being sincere - I feel so bad for your sister. Is schnecktolitus always fatal?".
With this in mind, imagine my surprise when I discovered that the master of deadpan and the prince of sarcasm were embodied in a single person. That person was Craig Johnson. He was the founder of Venture Law Group (aka VLG), and shockingly, he wasn't from Boston.
Worse yet, he looked just like Henry Fonda. In fact, not only did he look like Henry Fonda, but he had the mannerisms of Henry Fonda too. Henry Fonda; an icon of sincerity. Craig's DNA was sneaky. Very sneaky.
Craig and I had just driven back from Quadrus Cafe on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park. He was very excited about Reality Fusion, and he wanted to help make it successful. Besides being the founder of VLG, Craig was one of the founders of Garage.com. He was one of the most influential people on Sand Hill Road. Besides all that, he was also a really nice man.
Craig and I were strolling across the parking lot outside VLG, returning to his office. He was telling me his views on startup companies, and Garage.com in particular. He was super optimistic that Reality Fusion was going to hit a major home run. But he had also been playing a little hard to get. Like something was on his mind.
Suddenly, he paused and said, "Barry, I want you to promise me something".
I said, "Well, what is it"?
He looked down, and then peered out to the horizon. "Barry, you're going to be wildly successful with Reality Fusion - and you're going to make a lot of money - you know that, right"?
"Sure, Craig, I know that".
He shifted his feet a little bit, and then he put his hand on my shoulder and said, "I want you to promise me that you'll do some good things with the money. I want you to donate some of it to a worthy cause. Maybe start a philanthropic foundation for needy children or something. You can name it the "Spencer Fund", or whatever you like. Okay? Will you promise me that?"
"Of course, Craig. Sure."
He continued, "...because with great success comes great responsibility. Try to remember that - okay?"
Talk about putting the cart before the horse! Like other people I've met, Craig was a master at painting a beautifully tantalizing picture, and then hanging this picture in front of you like a carrot on a stick. But that's not a nice way to put it. Calling it "focused on success" would be a far nicer way.
Here's where my story gets a little lame. I can't remember the name of the book that I was reading; I thought it was "Startup", but apparently not. It was a very popular book at the time - especially in Silicon Valley. In fact, I think it was on the NY Times Best Seller list. Anyhow, the book was an autobiographical account of a "regular guy" that started a high tech company - the company skyrocketed and then I think it tanked. Anyway, after a few years, the guy ended up with nothing more than an interesting story to tell.
In the book, there was a scene between the protagonist and his VC, where the VC delivered basically the exact same speech that Craig had just delivered to me. The crazy thing is that I had read the passage in the book only a few days before this meeting with Craig.
I didn't know what to think. How could Henry Fonda be delivering the same speech as the VC in the book? In fact, it Craig that recommended that book to me in the first place! DIdn't he know that I'd figure it out?
Of course he did. He was being funny, of course. But, duh, I didn't get it.
Now that I know Craig better, I can't help but see the humor. Maybe I had even told him I was reading the book. I'm not sure I did, but I like to think so.
Garage.com was big on adding value to its startup companies. A huge part of Garage.com's added value was Craig. He had a rare combination of helpfulness and non-meddlesomeness. He was a little bit like a chemist. He'd mix different people together and see what happened. "Barry, meet Larry. Larry does this. Barry does that. Okay, now let's see if we can figure out some way that you guys can help each other out".
One such chemistry experiment took place after a meeting in Craig's office.
Even though Craig was the head honcho at VLG, his office was totally understated. It was the same office as the rest of the 70 or so other lawyers at VLG - with one key difference. Craig's desk was extremely organized.
Craig also had a collection of interesting little widgets in his desk. He had one in particular that he would take out and play with while he talked to me.
"Barry, we need to find an investor for you. I don't know if you read the Mercury News or not, but they published a list of the top-compensated Silicon Valley executives last year. Right on the top of the list is a fellow named Joe Costello. Have you ever heard of him"?
"Actually, no -- never heard of him, Craig".
"Well, since you need money, and the Mercury News says that Joe has money, perhaps we should try to speak with him".
To me, this sounded like a good idea. I figured that Craig would set wheels in motion, perhaps in time we could locate this Costello person - or maybe some other people from the list. Craig might spend a week or two on it - with the help from an assistant or two. Maybe I could help, but I doubted it.
I replied with, "Sure Craig, sounds great. How do we do that"?
Craig said, "How about I give him a call". And with that, Craig picked up the phone and asked his assistant to get Joe on the phone. Craig hung up and waited. He spoke with me some more, and played with his widget.
Then, perhaps 30 seconds later, the phone rang. Craig said, "Okay, put him on". Craig put the phone on speaker, and put the handset back in the cradle.
"Joe? This is Craig Johnson at VLG. We haven't met. I have Barry Spencer here in my office. Barry started a very interesting new company which looks like it's right up your alley. I think you should meet with him".
It turns out that Joe had just read about Reality Fusion on a recent flight back from Italy. Fortune Magazine had done an article on the company, Joe read it on the plane, and he was already interested. (This is another case of serendipity.)
A few days later, I met with Joe at the Garage.com headquarters. He loved what we were doing, and within 10 minutes of meeting he said he'd invest. (Someday I'll write about Joe. For now, I'll practice my writing skills and wait for the day that I'll be able to reach the level of eloquence necessary to express my deep gratitude for his 9 years of supporting Reality Fusion. For now, I'll simply say that Joe is "super fantastic".)
This introduction to Joe was typical of the assistance that Craig provided. Some of the introductions we asked for, others times we were introduced simply because Craig saw a good fit.
Footnote: Craig was also the lawyer that helped me out of a jam with "Feebix".