by C. Richard Patton
“Yes, Chip, there’s risk — more risk than going to work for Westinghouse. But they aren’t doing what we do. We’re making next generation changes to society, to the world, through technology. These career decisions, these life decisions… It’s not about playing it safe. It’s all about a lack of future regrets.”
That was it for me. I was in. I went to work for T. Colton, CEO of TPresence, Inc., in the spring of 2000. T was the most visionary and hip boss I’d had. Yes, everyone called him “T”, he may have had a full first name, but I never heard it, and I never asked. He wore his hair in a pony tail and at 29 was 5 years my junior.
It was the Internet bubble, Y2K had just fizzled. TPresence was a start-up spun out of Carnegie Mellon University. Their product was virtual reality. For me, after 8 years with big companies, the TPresence office was virtual reality, too.
We were innovators. Computer scientists, roboticists, digital artists. Free soft drinks. Free lunch. Nerf guns and Razor scooters for real battles among the cubicles and Unreal Gold on the servers for after-hours virtual wars. Flex time. A free flow of ideas. Cutting edge prototype hardware, Coppermine CPU’s and prototype graphics chips. Intel loved us, we were building consumer appetites for faster iron.
Working at TPresence was cool, fast, fun, and it was over in 14 months. The deep-pocketed backers, the Oscar winning actor, the tool inventor from the infomercials, the resort owners, they dried up as the Internet bubble burst. We’d blown through 5 million dollars and all we’d ever produced were a couple of wicked cool demos, zero sales. Holodesk, the virtual world where you could join your friends as a customized 3-D avatar and shop, chat, play gravity-defying sports, or just hang out, peaked at slightly over 200,000 non-paying members. We never asked them for a dime.
Early in the summer of 2001, as salaries were halved and the vintage Charlie’s Angels pinball machine was sold, optimism waned and tempers flared. The headcount peaked at 32. The girl who ran Human Resources quit first. Giving out five figure signing bonuses was fun, but she wanted no part of the blood bath to come.
Others stressed and left, too. T Colton was forced out by the Board of Directors. Some of us clung to the dream. The following phrase appeared one day on our main white board: “Forgive us our Tpresences, as we forgive those who Tpresence against us.” No one erased it. It remained there, in blue low-odor dry erase ink, during the auction. I myself bought a Steelcase desk and 18 computer keyboards, including two Naturals, for exactly twenty-three bucks. It was over.
TPresence was prologue. T called me aside at our off-site failure party following the auction.
“The shutdown timing is actually pretty good. A few of us are starting something new. We’d like you to join us.”
So that’s how I became one of six founding employees at the phoenix company, Revolutionary Technologies, Inc. We just called it RevTech. At least that’s the nickname we started with. RevTech had no outside investors at first. It was a real start-up, not some Power Point preso looking for angels. TPresence had been all about easy money and style. RevTech was about sweat equity and results.
T’s idea was simple, we would revolutionize the fast food industry through automation and the branch of robotics called “machine vision”. T had a PhD in it. Set up a few bullet cameras around a McDonald’s or a BK and they’d know when their customers were arriving, and who they were. Here comes soccer mom and three kids so get the chicken nuggets ready, and a salad for Mom.
Automate the food prep machines and the cash registers and you could decimate labor costs. That pesky high turnover rate among minimum wage fry slingers would be history, too. There was already another company that could make a pizza completely inside a contraption that looked a lot like a 1950’s juke box — all we had to do was make one for burgers and fries.
We set up in T’s walkout basement. Brought our own office chairs and computers (some straight from the TPresence auction). I donated the Natural keyboards to the cause — the other two developers were fond of them, but I couldn’t get comfortable on the angled halves. I stuck with a standard keyboard with a full wrist pad and nursed my carpal tunnel syndrome. We used coupons at Staples for office supplies. We took no salary except RevTech stock, scheduled to vest over 3 years, and health insurance. And we built something that we could sell.
T took a part time job at McDonald’s. For research. But he cashed his paychecks. T had put his own money into the company. The rest of us either didn’t have any or had family obligations. That was my excuse: a wife and two kids.
We learned to call it “The Quick Serve Restaurant Industry” instead of “Fast Food” and we pitched our ideas to dentists. They can be great angel investors, lots of cash and not too financially savvy. We practically lived in T’s basement, working on our first version, dubbed “Revolutionary Rob”. I only ever went upstairs for the microwave, to nuke my lunch. A bare bones, pure software demo version of Revo Rob was ready in 3 months.
After that it all happened quickly. Burgers, chicken patties, and French fries were all easy to cook with machines, at least for people who had automated wheat harvesting via giant driverless combines down to a few centimeters by using differential GPS. Ketchup, mustard and diced onions were easy, and when other condiments looked like they might be tricky, T declared, “We won’t be stopped by pickles.” And we weren’t.
The prototype Revo Rob was installed at a franchise store owned by the grandson of the inventor of a million-selling sandwich whose name rhymes with Big Snack. Revo Rob was installed below the corporate radar. It wasn’t on their approved equipment list, just like the famous sandwich almost 40 years earlier wasn’t on the corporate approved menu. Within 6 months the store manager swore he’d quit if they made him “fire” Revo Rob. There was no going back..
The robotics were cool, and kids loved to watch the articulated metal arms plop the patties on the bun bottoms. Then it would squirt on the mustard and ketchup in a bi-colored stream just before the sesame-seeded top dropped on. Our featured stores had more spectators than a Krispy Kreme Doughnuts during spring break. But the genius of the Revo Rob system, and the intellectual property value, was in what our patent filing called “impending demand”. This is where my contribution came in. I’m a software guy and I tied the data from the machine vision system with counts from the automated kitchen equipment. Strategically placed cameras tracked the customers as they approached the restaurant and the registers inside. Meanwhile, RFID tags in the loyalty cards carried by the customers let us know that a double cheeseburger combo meal with a chocolate shake kicker was about to be ordered. Setting a freshly mixed shake in front of someone before they’d even gotten their wallet out of their pocket always drew a smile.
And the system evolved from there. The RFID cards tracked the customers and tied in with a payment system through the new smart phones that everyone was getting. Pretty soon we knew precisely when millions of people wanted to eat, and what they wanted. And we started delivering. I mean not just fulfilling the need, but driving the food to their house, or their work, or while they were out walking their dog. This made us, including me, a lot of money, at least on paper. I had my founder’s shares of Revolutionary Technologies stock. Of course the percentage of the company that I owned went down every time we took investor funding, but the old start-up adage was working perfectly, I had a smaller and smaller slice of a much, much, much bigger pie. When we IPO’d my net worth on paper was into seven figures and kept climbing. I should have sold at least half of it on the first trading day after the holding period expired. Sold it and moved to Australia. Only that wouldn’t have been far enough. RevTech had sold the rights in Australia early on to raise cash, but it’s the farthest place I could think of and there came a time when just getting away, as far away as possible, would have been a good idea.
You see, Revo Rob became pervasive, and more than that, it became invasive. The impending demand algorithms knew when the customers wanted our food. It was like a gigantic Pavlov’s dog experiment with ESP. They’d start salivating and we’d drop cheap, low nutrition food in their hand. We’d shrunk the robotics and added refrigeration. Our most loyal customers had a portable robotic kitchen with them 24/7, and if they twitched just so and leaked a few pheromones out through their pores, Runaround Rob whirred and heated and plopped them out the answer to their personal craving. But the portability of Runaround Rob required stable ingredients (“inputs” we called them, just like the rest of the impending demand data, it was all just inputs to us). The food stored in Rob had to be almost inert, so it could last a long time in the portable unit. This meant that nutritional value, and taste, suffered. Rob got a reputation worse than McDonald’s, or even Arby’s, ever had. It should have been clear that it was far past time to cash out and get my name off the downhill slide. I might have gotten away with at least a piece of my self-respect, and a big chunk of cash, even if my reputation was already doomed.
But I couldn’t quite let go. Something in my ambitious self, that self that had been lured into RevTech by a long-haired visionary with a letter instead of a first name, felt incomplete. Both T and I had had a desire to change the world. We’d done that. But not without those regrets we’d wanted to avoid. I still hoped to fix it, to pull us out of the vortex that we were spiraling into. We’d succumbed to the price pressure, to the marketplace demands, and to the constant and growing impending demand from our millions and millions of customers.
That’s when the new nickname popped up and burst any lingering bubble of hope we may have still had. Who knows where these things originate in this Internet Age, but it was popularized by a blog on Huff Post Green. They blasted our product for everything from its energy footprint to not using locally sourced ingredients. Of course they hit us for the bad taste of the food itself, too. And we deserved it, we really did. You’ve probably guessed the nickname by now, it was clever, or everyone thought so at the time. It was simple, too. I guess these things usually are. And it was devastating. They just squeezed a couple letters out of RevTech and the stock plummeted faster and our sales tanked. My reputation and my net worth both took a nose dive. I had let my family down. But it was the knowledge that our monstrosity had changed the world for the worse rather than for the better that really made me ReTch.
C. Richard Patton resides among rocket scientists and roboticists in Huntsville, Alabama where he writes software, poetry and a variety of short fiction. One of his medieval fantasy stories comes with a polyhedral dice game that he designed for Chipsterzone Games. Or perhaps it is the other way around.