The Truth Is Out There &
Joe Firmage Is Paying For It
By Laura Rich
Source The Industry Standard
From Stig Agermose <>
You can tell the story of Joe Firmage a number of ways: He's a saint, he's a wacko, or he's just a rich guy with good intentions and questionable means.
Firmage, 28, is the former CEO of Internet start-up USWeb, the successful interactive agency that made headlines in September 1998, when it was announced that USWeb would merge with CKS to form Reinvent. One month later, Firmage himself made headlines, when his involvement in a project he calls "Kairos" was revealed and he stepped down as USWeb's CEO. On Jan. 8, 1999, he resigned from the company completely, after the press had taken the Kairos story and run with it, portraying him as a UFO nut.
Now Firmage is off on a new project set to launch by the end of the year EarthCity, an e-commerce venture that will allow consumers to direct revenues from their purchases to nonprofit organizations. But until he makes a new fortune, creates a new empire, he will be hounded by those who mock him for pursuing, as he puts it, "The Truth."
It all started with a vision.
It was just before El Nino came to town, in October 1997, when the sun was still unwaveringly beating down upon Silicon Valley. Joe Firmage was working endless days to smooth the edges on countless drafts of papers to be filed with the Securities & Exchange Commission, so that the company he founded with Novell colleague Toby Corey in 1995 could make a run on the public stock market.
One morning, before the SEC papers were due but after he'd pressed the "snooze" button on his alarm clock, Firmage fell back to sleep. During that time, he says he was visited by a "remarkable being, clothed in brilliant white light," carrying a glowing blue sphere, the size of a basketball. The two exchanged words about space travel.
Just before Firmage was about to make that most symbolic move of taking his company public and "cashing in" a leading motive for most entrepreneurs he suddenly shifted his mental course. He says he realized he was in a position of power, and that he could do good with it or do evil. In the last hours before he was about to "sell out," Firmage was struck by a desire for a more rewarding avocation. He was prepared to give it all up to better society.
One year later, Firmage shocked the industry, which, it should be noted, is not closed to creativity, by revealing a project a Web site called Kairos that he'd been working on. Kairos is a Greek term with many definitions. Firmage's meaning is "the right moment." or "opportune."
"Ours is a Kairos moment," the site read. It posed a series of questions ("What is the future of learning? Will wars ever end? What is the future of religion? What would life from another world be like?") and went on to offer some "clues." The site prompted a wave of speculation about Firmage, mainly in the vein of Gary Reischel, a partner at venture capital firm Softbank Technology Ventures, who sits on USWeb's board. "A crackpot," he told The Standard, summarizing what he'd been hearing on the street.
The Kairos Web site turned out to be a teaser campaign for the ultimate product, a 600-page online "book" on life, religion, science and spirituality called The Truth . "That was what you call 'good marketing,'" Firmage says of Kairos, which logged 10,000 visitors per day at the time. The clues, of which there were 10, included links to books, writings and art by Carl Sagan, Vanevar Bush, the Pope and others.
"I want people to understand something here," Firmage says. "I have spent well over $3 million on this project. And I'm not expecting a single dime in return."
Before there was Kairos, before there was a focus for derision, Firmage was both liked and not liked. Wall Street types liked him because he made them money. More experienced competitors didn't because he was young and successful. Within USWeb, he was not a natural manager. He was always, however, respected as a visionary.
Firmage's career started taking off early. In 1989, he launched Serius Corporation, a software company, in his hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah. He sold it in 1993 to Novell for $24 million, and went to work as vice president of strategy in Novell's NetWare division. The unit's purpose was to promote and sell NetWare, an operating system for wide area networks (meaning it would provide the same computer language and interface for machines that were linked together, so that they could communicate more easily). The computer language for NetWare was Unix, which is what much of the Internet is based on.
In 1995, Novell decided to sell its rights to Unix, which Firmage thought was a terrible idea. "They had a wondrous opportunity with their Unix operating system," he says. "Novell owned the rights to Unix, which, today, ultimately runs the Internet. And 60 days after Netscape went public, Novell decided to sell its rights to Unix. I thought that was an insane decision and, therefore, I decided to leave. I was not optimistic about the prospects for Novell. And, of course, between then and now, it's taken a long, long time for Novell to even start to look like a turnaround."
Before Firmage left Novell, he met Toby Corey, a former Ashton Tate executive who was NetWare's vice president of marketing. "We saw the world the same way," says Firmage. "We were both frustrated with Novell. It was like birds of a feather." Furthermore, "Toby is one of the most brilliant operational managers I've met. And he has a deep understanding of marketing."
Corey, who would not return phone calls for this story, said last fall in an interview about his last days at Novell with Firmage, "We felt there was an opportunity, a shortage of people who could help businesses take advantage of the Internet."
With the Internet in their sights, the two decided to strike out on their own. Corey and Firmage moved to Silicon Valley, where the money and necessary talent for start-ups was more readily available. In March of 1996, USWeb was launched as a joint venture with Ziff-Davis, which owns Softbank Technology Ventures. Ziff-Davis is no longer a partner in USWeb, but Softbank is still on USWeb's board.
The first round of criticism could best be termed the "McWeb complaint." Competitors said the company was making a commodity business out of a service business, and that Web design should be based on individual attention to clients not an entirely inaccurate claim. Firmage and Corey say they could not become the major consulting firm they hoped to be if no one knew who they were. So they built their brand by licensing their name and business model for $25,000 per year and 7 percent of revenues to affiliates, who would also gain access to USWeb's growing base of technology partners. "We signed 40 or so affiliates and gained a recognizable brand early on," Corey explained last fall.
In March of 1997, enough brand equity had been built. The company's roster of technology partners included the cream of the crop, including Microsoft, Novell, Cisco and Sun Microsystems, and $20 million had just been raised in a private capital round. USWeb hired a mergers and acquisitions team led by Bruce Gilpin, a former venture capitalist, and set about building a network of wholly owned firms.
They swallowed up companies such as San Francisco-based Ikonic, W3 Design in Los Angeles and Reach Networks in New York: smallish, creative firms considered specialty boutiques. USWeb also bought Gray Peak Technologies, a technology firm on Long Island for $100 million in stock. The idea was to amass a balance of talent across the creative, technology and strategic sectors of Internet marketing and business operations. Although USWeb officials made statements to the press asserting that the original brand names of the shops would not be changed, once each deal was closed, what happened was the equivalent of a truck backing up to the new acquisition: A USWeb team would take over the shop's existing ways with the goal of making their processes more organized and efficient, like USWeb's. Logos were changed, new business cards were handed out and all computer systems were exchanged for USWeb's own. Employees were expected to download their expertise onto a companywide network called the Knowledge Base.
In this way, Firmage became an Internet mogul and a respected businessman, even if he was somewhat disliked for his smugness. Critics complained USWeb's tactics drained their acquisitions of the freedom to be creative. Firmage and Corey countered that by taking over administrative tasks, the shops were actually freer to be creative.
In the meantime, Firmage was working on The Truth. Over the course of the book, the author, with contributions from others, runs through the history of the planet from geological, biological, physical and spiritual perspectives. Links off of a sort of poem act as a guide, or menu. The poem, his thesis, goes like this:
"Evolving in a place called Eden
Is a promising young civilization.
We grow more dangerous
yet wiser each day.
Teachers have taught us
through the ages.
They are watching us now.
The Cosmos is their ocean,
and they have been mindful
of our need to develop.
At what moment in history
would these visitors want us to join them?
What will we become when we do?
We shall meet them
as the Men and Women of the Earth.
And ask them for their Truth."
An image of a DNA strand bisects the poem.
Firmage's primary hypothesis is that the Earth has been visited by extraterrestrial life forms who have contributed their own developments such as fiber optics to our scientific history. These visitations have been expedited by time travel.
He also has no doubt that humans will, before long, resolve the mystery of gravity. Firmage describes a "new vehicle" in The Truth a self-propelling, antigravity machine (only its technology, not its assembly, has been determined, he says). But, for the time being, he drives a red Corvette convertible. "And I will be the first one to turn it over in exchange for one of these new vehicles, believe me," he says.
In the last section of The Truth, Firmage describes his dream-state encounter with the hovering Christ-like figure. That's where you find sections beginning, "I am the body," "I am the civilization" and "I am the creator of everything that comes after me," in which it's unclear about whom the pronoun "I" refers.
Plans for a new CEO at the merged USWeb and CKS had been in the works, but were accelerated when the company began to receive unwanted publicity over Kairos. Sources say Mark Kvamme, CEO of CKS Group, the company with which USWeb was merging at the time, went berzerk when he heard about Firmage's Web site.
On Nov. 3, 1998, Firmage stepped down from his post as chief executive officer of USWeb, the company he built, to make way for Robert Shaw, a former top executive at Oracle and a Silicon Valley heavyweight with the Booz, Allen & Hamilton resume and salt-and-pepper hair to prove it. Kvamme, unreachable for days "at merger meetings," according to his assistant finally returned calls only upon news of Firmage's replacement. He continues to refuse to discuss Firmage or his book.
A few weeks after his resignation as CEO, two days before Thanksgiving and a day before his online book was to be launched, Firmage showed little outward signs of last-minute jitters. He wasn't distracted by the merger, or by his book, or by an interview in the midst of it all. He chose to discuss his reputation, saying he would lose nothing with the publication of the book and noting that he's in a good position to take risks with his ideas. After all, he has a proven track record.
"Outside the Valley, the spin will be however the newspapers choose to report it, right? So let's say it's the Wall Street Journal," which has written several stories on him and knows his business history, a confident Firmage asserted. "That's a national circulation. USA Today knows me. So, when they report, they'll always say, 'and this guy built this company,' 'a bright young guy,' whatever. So, I get credibility, because of my history."
But Firmage's credibility was strained throughout the next few months as he continued to receive more and more disparaging publicity. On Jan. 8, he cut his ties to USWeb, saying he wanted to protect the company from the flak he was receiving for The Truth.
But Firmage insists he's not a martyr, nor a cult leader (in an interview with USA Today, he said, "Someone said I'm trying to become the next L. Ron Hubbard," referring to the founder of Scientology. "I don't know of any comment that could be less appealing."). He says he's simply trying to spread some of the inspiration he's found to others, so that they will change their lives to better all of humanity. The outcomes include an end to consumer behavior that strains natural resources and the empowerment of individuals to become independent of the "system."
"A lot of people in fact most people don't know where that inspiration can come from. And what has replaced a God in their life is consumerism. How much do we worship the dollar? Think about that," he says. "There is a load we are placing on strained, limited natural resources. It's a very fragile planet. And unless we wake up and start to realize a different way of life, a more ecologically sound way of life frankly, a slower-paced life I very much fear for the survival of this species. And that sounds like a remarkable, bold statement. But it's also absolutely true. Talk to any biologist with a good set of credentials and they'll tell you exactly the same thing: The world is headed for disaster. If we're not smart enough and we're not courageous enough to look ourselves in the mirror and say, here's what we look like, here's what were doing, than we deserve to die in an ecological disaster."
Firmage recounts his years as a "youth" his word as the fifth of seven children in a Mormon family. His father had worked in the White House as Hubert Humphrey's press secretary and ran for a U.S. Senate spot as a Democrat during the '70s "which is about as close to suicide as you could possibly come [in conservative Utah]," notes Firmage. He remembers that his parents fought against expansion of land-based missile tests. He says that his father was a senior member of the Mormon church and a famed lecturer on theology. He doesn't mention that his parents split up when he was 18, when his father left the Mormon church, and that he dropped out of school to live with his dad. And in all the times he mentions his father whom he seems to respect and adore very, very much he does not mention that one of the biggest moments in his father's life was when he came out as a gay man a few years after his divorce.
Lots of people do like Firmage, recent media coverage notwithstanding. Those who have spent any time with him are ready to sing his praises. And he realizes this. In several interviews, in The Truth and several times within this interview, he refers to "people who know me."
Last October, he sent out an e-mail to USWeb employees, informing them of the project on which he'd spent $3 million and countless hours over the past year. Drew Stepek, 28, responded.
Stepek had been toiling away in USWeb's Los Angeles office, working on scripts for the online version of NBC's Homicide and The Practice. He was a frustrated writer, looking for an outlet. He wrote Firmage and told him he wanted to help. They bonded over the discovery of their ages. Stepek was five days older than Firmage, but, they concluded, they couldn't have been more different. Firmage had been raised in the orderly, conservative town of Salt Lake City. Stepek grew up in a fast-paced, middle-class town on the East Coast. Firmage wore suits. Stepek died his hair yellow and wore baggy pants. Firmage was a businessman. Stepek was a creative type.
"He thought I was part of this hip-hop crowd," says Stepek. Firmage ultimately asked Stepek to write 10 pages on what life is like for a "youth" these days. The result is found in the "We grow more dangerous" section of The Truth. It's a "semiautobiographical" account of Stepek's last year in high school, in which his best friend is shot to death right before his eyes and another friend commits suicide because she can't escape her stepfather's molesting advances. The story is intended to be Firmage's way of giving readers a glimpse into the lives of "our children."
"Joe is a really nice dude," Stepek says. "I can't really dispell anything in his book. He believes it. That's what's important."
Stepek isn't the only one who's standing at some distance by Firmage throughout an ordeal that has put him in the awkward position of UFO poster boy. "I was his critic, until he told me his epiphany," said Ed Firmage, Sr., Joe's father, in December. "It's clear that Joe had experienced something profound. He's always been intensely rational, except for this last thing. What he's doing now, I can understand. But I could see more clearly than Joe what it would do to his corporate life."
Firmage behaves as if he's the first to discover the troubles many people have, or the ties between various religions and the points where they intersect with science. Furthermore, his naivete shows no more clearly than through the thoroughly Christian and Western slant of the entire book, a book that claims it is a resource that can tie together all walks of thought and types of people and lend them the knowledge to change their lives and the world. He says on the day before the book launches that those people who don't have the werewithal to take his knowledge and improve their lives "don't deserve to be a part of the future society."
And he believes that all critics have to do to be convinced is to read the book. But skeptics did read the book. And they lambasted him.
He's not pleased with the way the media has skewered The Truth. The free paper, the Silicon Valley Metro, featured the Firmage story on its cover, giving it full tabloid treatment with the headline "Silicon Valley CEO Meets the Aliens," and adorning the article with illustrations of aliens. Once Firmage revealed his complete departure from USWeb/CKS earlier this month, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News followed with their own stories, similarly portraying him as a flying saucer-chaser.
Over the Martin Luther King Day weekend, Firmage was expected to release a condensed, printable version of the book. He also says he will continue to communicate directly with those who have visited The Truth.
But why call it "The Truth"? He utters two words: "Monica Lewinsky."
"You look at the consequences of a relatively minor lie in the office of the President, and you look at the consequences," says Firmage. "If you really wanted to change civilization, for the better, what would you do? If there was one thing you could do to change civilization for the better? Tell the truth. Because ultimately, the truth will guide people where they need to go. If we knew how we were damaging the environment, we could fix it. If we knew when a President was lying, we could deal with it." The Truth, says Firmage, will set you free.
Mentioned in this article
*Joe Firmage Chief Strategist, USWeb/CKS
*Toby Corey President and COO, USWeb/CKS
*USWeb Santa Clara, CA
*Novell Provo, UT
*Netscape Mountain View, CA
*Ziff-Davis New York, NY
*Microsoft Redmond, WA
*Cisco San Jose, CA
*Sun Palo Alto, CA
Related Articles
*USWeb Founder Quits Over UFO Views
USWeb founder Joe Firmage resigned Friday, saying that he believed
continued publicity over his belief in UFOs would damage the company's
reputation. (January 11, 1999)
*Why USWeb's CEO Had to Go
If you think your CEO is about to make you lose face with your clients,
what should you do? Speed up the process of replacing him, of course.
(November 06, 1998)
*USWeb's Firmage Steps Down
UPDATE In a surprise announcement Thursday morning, USWeb's Joe Firmage
said he is stepping down from his role as CEO. (November 05, 1998)
*USWeb CEO Prepares Book on Universal Order
In one month's time, the way to deal with the chaos of the universe
will be clear. That's the message of a Web site promoting an online
book coming out from Joe Firmage, the CEO of USWeb. (October 29,
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