He's back. Well, sort of, and he doesn't want to talk about it.
William L. Schrader, founder and chief executive of what was once PSINet, one of the first companies to sell Internet access, all but disappeared a few years ago when PSINet crashed, went through bankruptcy and took all of Schrader's personal holdings in the company with it. Back then, Schrader said he'd had it with the whole technology and finance scene, especially the media. And he'd never give another interview.
But a person, especially one who is passionate about his field and who happens to need a job, can't stay away forever. So Schrader recently signed on to the advisory board of TV Worldwide, a Chantilly-based Internet broadcasting company. In an e-mail, Schrader politely told me he's still not talking.
While Schrader may be particularly secretive, he's not alone in wanting to make a low-profile comeback.
Taking a cue from companies that are developing quietly today, with little of the hype of the bubble era, well-known Washington technology executives are slipping back into the game, but quietly. It's quite a contrast from the days of big launch parties and the white noise of the public relations machine. Executives actually are waiting to have something to say before they say it.
The reticence may reflect fear of being in the spotlight again as well as a simple determination to focus on running a business.
"He's gently treading back into the water," David R. Gardy, founder and chief executive of TV Worldwide, says of Schrader. Gardy says he hired Schrader to help the company raise its next round of funding. He says he's paying Schrader for his work but won't say how much.
TV Worldwide hasn't been shy lately. Some tech insiders joke that it's putting out a record number of press releases per week. But no financiers have heard Gardy knocking at their door until now. He says he hasn't tried to talk to potential funders in years because the market's been so slow for Internet start-up financing. "We've been reclusively bootstrapping along," he says, referring to the company's self-funding. But now, the four-year-old company that creates TV channels of sponsored video over the Internet is looking for cash. Schrader is its not-so-secret weapon.
Gardy says Schrader's role is more than honorary. He expects Schrader to negotiate financing deals and clue in the company on proposed terms that could be problematic later on. "He's been burned," Gardy says. "He's brutally honest."
This week, Richard A. Kay is also emerging from what he calls his "retirement" with a new role as special partner with venture capital firm ABS Capital Partners in Baltimore. Kay, who sold the software company he founded, OTG Software, to Legato Systems in 2002, spent the past two years traveling the world and doing things he never could have imagined in his previous life, like driving in a carpool for his four kids. "I settled back into hanging out with my family and tried to breathe," he says. "I've been sitting back."
But it was time to do something again, he says, when non-compete clauses in his contract with Legato expired this year. Besides, his wife began to complain that he was running the family like a corporation, with elaborate scheduling and little downtime. "My wife told me 'this year, you have to go back to work,' " he says.
Kay now represents ABS on the board of Broadmargin, a telecommunications billing company based in Fairfax. Kay says there's another project he's focusing on, too, but for now that's all he's ready to say.
He plans to join a few other boards on ABS's behalf but says he doesn't want to become the chief executive of any of them. "I'm not prepared to go back eight days a week, 100 hours a week and do it again," he says. "I'm not looking for a full-time job."
Still, it's a scenario similar to the one that got Kay's friend Raul J. Fernandez his current job. Fernandez, founder of Web services firm Proxicom, had become a partner with venture capital firm General Atlantic after selling his business. Fernandez became chairman of one of General Atlantic's companies, Object Video, a video surveillance firm in Reston, then took the chief executive's role a few months later. Those involved say it was a great way for Fernandez and the company to test each other out.
As these executives step back into the action, many are creating a portfolio of projects rather than taking the reins of a single company. The risk is spread out that way, and it makes for a much more flexible lifestyle. Gardy says Schrader has a lot of other work going on, although, of course, he can't say what. Kay is a partner in Lincoln Holdings, the sports management company run by AOL's Theodore J. Leonsis that owns interests in the Washington Capitals and other teams. Kay is also an investor in Updata, a Reston venture capital fund.
The returning executives are often working with familiar faces. PSINet, through a venture capital arm it ran in its successful days, had invested in Gardy's previous streaming-video company, TVontheWeb. ABS Capital Partners invested in Kay's OTG in 1998, and the investing firm's general managing partner Donald B. Hebb Jr. sat on OTG's board.
Other tech veterans apparently feel just fine staying under the radar. Douglas E. Humphrey, founder of Internet access company Digex, is spending much of his time as captain of a renovated British warship that is docked in the Baltimore Harbor when it's not overseas. Humphrey says he's busy "working on a few things," but if they ended up in this column, "we wouldn't be very quiet now, would we?"
Shannon Henry writes about Washington's technology culture every other Thursday. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.