The guards in the lobby were naturally suspicious and demanded some authorization for removing the computers from the building. Chasen pulled out a letter from his boss, and the guards duly made a copy of it, along with a copy of their drivers’ licenses. They also took care to write down the serial numbers of the monitors and processing units and make a copy of their drivers’ licenses. Then, with all the paperwork complete, they headed out the door.
“Of course, what we were really doing was stealing the chairs,” Chasen confesses.
Chasen tells the story with the perfect setup and timing of the standup comic he might have been if he hadn’t founded Blackboard and grown it into one of the world’s dominant providers of course management software to colleges and universities, with more than $600 million in revenue, 3,000 employees and a market value of about $2 billion. Anyone who’s been a student or teacher (like me) at a college in the past decade knows Blackboard.
But sometime in the next few weeks, Chasen will walk out of Blackboard’s headquarters in downtown Washington for the last time, having sold the company to a private-equity firm for $1.8 billion. As usually happens in such circumstances, after a one-year transition, he is now stepping down as chief executive.
Blackboard is one of Washington’s most remarkable business success stories, all the more so since it has nothing to do with the federal government. And by all accounts, much of the success is because of Chasen, a force of nature who combined hard work and wily determination with an uncanny knack for getting investors, employees and customers to follow his lead.
As the story of the chair illustrates, Chasen is one of those opportunists who manages to create his own luck, a geek whose entrepreneurial bent was already evident when he began charging $25 an hour while still in junior high school to write programs on his father’s Radio Shack computer for small businesses in his hometown of Cheshire, Conn.
While in college, he managed to snare a rare part-time job doing tech support at the FBI. And after spending hours filling out applications for law school and business school, he came up with a program for online applications that he and Pittinsky tried to peddle to U.S. News and World Report, the Princeton Review and several universities. They all said it would never fly.
One of Blackboard’s early backers was Bethesda-based Novak Biddle Venture Partners. Roger Novak admits to turning down Chasen’s first proposal because of his lack of experience both with business and software programming. He changed his mind six months later after Chasen and Pittinsky teamed up with a rival group of programmers from Cornell that had already developed a crude course-management program.