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Of Pitch Forks and the Art of Being Direct

By Gary Griffiths, CEO

We’d all get a lot more business done if we stopped talking and did more listening

Of pitchforks and the art of being direct

It will come as no surprise to anyone that as part of my responsibilities as CEO, I spend a lot of time with investors: those who are currently holding our shares as well as those we’d like to encourage to buy our stock.  In fact, I’m sure I spend a lot more time doing this than the average CEO.  But I need to spend a lot more time than the average CEO.  We had a lot of rightfully angry shareholders after iPass’ failed sale in late 2014-2015.  Our shareholders weren’t happy with the company, and they certainly had no reason to be happy with me—the new CEO, who as a long time board member, certainly had blood on his hands.  Our investors had suffered through eight long years of revenue decline and cash burn without seeing any profit.  We had activists wanting to replace the entire board.  Our stockholders were tired, and frustrated—and did I say angry?  So my task was to try to convince them that we had a strategy, and that we believed iPass was an undervalued asset that could grow, profitably.  At the onset, it wasn’t a pleasant task.  But we have a good story to tell, and gradually the mood softened.  The mood has gone from “burn this bozo at the stake” to “OK, let’s give him a chance to see if he crashes and burns without our help.”

But I’m starting off on a tangent. I want to talk about an investor I had the pleasure of meeting in New York this week.  Of the hundreds of fund managers, analysts, and investors I’ve talked to in the past year, he is special.   An old school investor.   A native New Yorker, who was making money on Wall Street, while I was still in high school.  The kind of guy who marks a friend with a firm handshake, not with a “like” on Facebook.  I’m pretty sure gentlemen like this don’t have a lot of time for Facebook, or any “social media.”

Going into this meeting, I was told to expect only 30 minutes—but not to be surprised if we only got 10, which would mean that he wasn’t impressed with our story.  Or me for that matter.  But frankly, I’m sure that he understands you can get a lot done in 30 minutes, as long as time isn’t wasted on pleasantries and inane small talk: “How ya’ doing.”  “Fine, how are you?”  “Yeah, good, me too.”  “When did you get into New York…” Blah, blah, blah.

So none of that. After the firm handshake, while looking me straight in the eye (don’t you hate it when a guy is looking at his shoes when shaking hands?), it was all business:

  1. “How many shares outstanding?”
  2. “Is that fully diluted?”
  3. “How much cash?”
  4. “Any debt?”
  5. “Tell me why I should invest in your company?”

I don’t mean to imply he was rude.  To the contrary—he was a true gentleman.   He was simply direct.   But respectful, courteous, and attentive.  Not distracted.  Not glancing at his cell phone, or stealing peaks at a computer screen.  I had all his attention.  100%.  He understands the power of listening, not talking.  Especially not talking about himself.  He wasn’t there to impress me.  His only objective was to see if iPass might be an opportunity for him to make some money.  An opportunity in which he could add value, and help the company, while helping himself.  He asked good questions—the right questions.  So I kept talking, and he kept listening.

I was inspired.  Here’s a man older than I am (that’s rare these days), with all the energy and passion of a 20-year-old.  A man who has earned the respect of Wall Street, but keeps a modest office, without the usual trappings, and a minimal staff.  A man of humility.  Of honor.  And integrity.

And it occurred to me how many more deals would get done—how much time would be saved—if we were all this direct and efficient in our business.  If we all said what we really thought—no agenda, no politics, no hedging.  No empty promises made without the intent to honor them.   As I often tell people, “Look, you don’t have to protect my feelings.  A simple ‘no’ works just fine.”

So 45 minutes later, I walked out of his office with an agreement to meet again in a couple weeks—and a promise that he’d make an introduction to the CEO of a company in his portfolio he thought might make a good partner for iPass.  A promise he fulfilled within an hour of the end of our meeting.  Will he invest in iPass?  I hope so; but I know he’ll make good on his commitment to meet again.  And whether he does or not, I’m a better man for having met him.