First performed A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books, San Francisco
For a long while this probably wont seem like a love story,
but I assure you that it is.
Oh, what the hell, Ill get the love story started right away.
A little background. When I was 23 years old, I worked at a
management consultancy, and one of my assignments was for the Sunbeam Conglomerate, owner
of the DoubleTree Inn hotel chain, Sammys restaurants, NorWest Bank, several travel
agencies, and the Sunbeam candy division, maker of Sweet Tarts. In an effort to better
cross-market its properties, Sunbeam had datamined for patterns in credit card receipts
for 38 million Americans who had spent money at any Sunbeam property. Statisticians from
the University of Texas had isolated one single person who was the prototype bellweather
of their target market. She was known at Sunbeam as Miss Adult Sweet Tart, because she was
one of the rare adult women to buy Sweet Tart candy. Her credit card bills were sent to
Aurora, Colorado, outside Denver. Her name was Katherine Riley.
It was my job to go undercover and get to know her, this
bellweather. To observe her other buying patterns. I was 23, she was 24. She designed sets
for print commercials. I picked her up in a bookstore. During the day I killed time at a
desk at an advertising firm that Sunbeam owned.
What I hadnt told my bosses was that I, too, bought Sweet
Tarts. Maybe once a week. I loved the powder scent that was released right when you unwrap
the foilpaper. Having so much in common, Katherine and I fell in love. It was soulmate
love, the sense that Id known her already for a long time and just rediscovered her.
A sense of "of course-ness." A sense it was meant to be. Destiny.
Surreptitiously, I produced one hell of a detailed report, stats which would lead Sunbeam,
in the interest of cross-marketing to the other 38 million Americans she represented, to
float $800 million in 80s junk bonds and acquire sixteen other corporations whos
products Katherine also purchased.
Eventually I had to confess about the report. Katherine
couldnt take the news. It crushed her. It wasnt just that she didnt want
to be the bellweather for 38 million americans anymore. She lost faith that my love was
real, believed that I had faked it all this time for Sunbeam. Id abused her trust.
And it was eleven years before I ever saw her again. Eleven years, but that the thing
about soulmate love: you never doubt that youll see her sometime.
Okay, high tech and entrepreneurs, I know, I know, thats what
Im supposed to talk about.
When it comes to Silicon Valley and all that money they make, the
question that everyone wants to know is, is it luck, or is it genius? Is it
"Right place at right time" kind of lucky, or is it tremendous hard work? I
believe its neither. The first beneficial coincidence seems like random luck. But
when theres a streak of extraordinary coincidences--a streak that could not be
random--it feels like destiny.
But you cant ask entrepreneurs what it is, because they
develop a tremendously self-fulfilling psychology that is close to delusion. I know
because Ive been through it now, so let me tell you the Six Stages of Belief:
1.Whorl of Kismet. 2.Aggrandizement of Mission. 3.Singularity of Fixation. 4.Strategic
Inflection Point in the Tradeoff between Personal Life and Career. 5.Inevitable Onset of
Reality. 6.Denial of Reality.
You know, I think back, and its amazing to me, if Id
never left the window open to clear the air that one night, none of this would ever have
My friend Charlie Crane came over the next morning, sat down on my
toilet, and nearly froze his buns. If youve seen me read before, you might have
heard me list the 7 Habits of Highly Engineered People, and for Habit #2, "they will
keep on fixing whats not broken until its broken," I was always thinking
of Charlie. Charlies an engineer, and when he comes over to my house he is always
finding things to fix. One of his favorites is to rehang doors so they swing in a
direction that conserves space. So when Charlie sat down on the cold toilet seat, his mind
started thinking---What if hot water ran through the toilet seat? And right there, he
started to take apart my toilet. Big mistake. The water at the end of the hot pipe is
standing water, it cools off. It was a month before we could sit down again at my house.
Now, Charlie is a materials engineer. During this time, Charlie was
at his lab down at Lockheed, trying to come up with a polyresin casing material, when he
cooked a concoction too long and ended up with a very hard rubbery material that,
amazingly, had a resting state temperature of about 95 degrees. It stayed warm, unless you
held it in your hand, in which it transferred heat to your skin and cooled off slowly. So
Charlie, who could have done any number of things with this new material, had this other
problem on his hands of having ruined my toilet. Coincidence still? Maybe. He gave his
material the nickname Morphastic, morphable plastic, and made me a toilet seat out of it.
And oh, my, what a toilet seat! A throne! Because not only did it
heat your butt, the heat transference softens the material and in about ten seconds, it
adapts to your shape. I was doing some of my very best thinking of the day on that toilet
seat. My morning ritual was a whole new experience of peace and calm.
On to the next stage in belief building: aggrandizement of the
mission. Yes, we were proposing to reinvent the toilet seat, but Charlie and I saw
ourselves as more than that. Our mission was to be ambassadors for the peaceful moment
in a world of chaos, to deepen and lengthen sincere reflection. Our inspiration was
Antaeus, the god in Greek Mythology who flew around all day but replenished his strength
only when he touched the ground. We wanted to replenish people when their bum graced the
Then, the stage of fixation: ignoring other options and strategies
to pursue a single tangible objective. It feels like your future is calling out to you.
You cant help but chase it. Our fixation was to get the Morphastic toilet seat in
Bill Gates $40 million home on the shores of Lake Washington, where--a coincidence
again?--I used to waterski as a child. We were so confident of our crapper seat that we
knew all we had to do was install it on Gates toilet, and the next morning it would
Gates cyberpalace was a high tech Xanadu, a test site for
computer assisted living. There was some just darn cool things; a 60 foot pool with
underwater speakers, a trampoline room with 20 foot ceilings, a stream stocked with
tigerfish. But what makes his house distinctive is the electronic clothing pin, which
tells the house who and where you are, so rooms light up as you enter a room (to your
lighting settings) and dim as you exit. Music follows you around the house. The house will
know everything about your preferences. So if you dont take phone calls during
dinner, the phone wont ring, et cetera.
I had no plan. Charlie left it up to me. I left it up to fate. It
was either my destiny to get in to the mansion or not. So one night last March I drove
there, and the guard at the gate didnt even take my name, he just held out a keypad
for me to punch in my PIN number. I tried "2001," since someone always
uses that one. The guard said, "Here you go, Mr. Kinsley," and handed me a
safety pin with an imbedded microchip and a little blue ribbon.
These iron gates in front of the house opened on my approach, and
carrying the toilet seat I went into the house, which I could tell you more about, but I
think it was best said by Margaret Talbot writing in the New Republic, when she was
paraphrasing Christopher Lasch in the Atlantic, who interviewed the novelist and
Republican speechwriter Mark Helprin after he had read an account of Gates abode in
a Harpers Magazine reading that had actually been excerpted from a Scott Rosenberg
column in Salon:
I quote: "What great wealth procures for itself is not excess
but insulation, carefully calibrated, from the contigencies and disruptions of daily life
as most people live it. The Gates house is the perfect symbol of the new elite. It is not
a monument to excess so much as a monument to control. For the baby boomer aristocracy,
control--over social reality, over the biological reality of reproduction and aging--has
become an obsession. There are many ways to achieve this kind of mastery over ones
environment, but Gates may have hit upon the surest: build yourself a technological cocoon
that anticipates your every need and protects you not only from danger, but from serendipity."
You see, that scares me, because eliminating serendipity eliminates
the possibility of destiny.
I got as far as the kitchen door when I saw him through the
entryway. He was entertaining an entourage of Japanese businessmen by demonstrating his
appliances. Gates was taller than I but withery of build, and his apricot coiffure had a
waves-in-a-storm look, with tufts breaking like whitecaps. His vast eyeglasses were
fencelike, guarding his face.
It turned out these men represented the company that made the
Japanese high tech toilet, Matsushita Electric Works. Yes, another whorl of kismet. I had
arrived on the scene just as Gates and Matsushita were negotiating a deal on their high
tech toilet! Gates was willing to keep their toilet in his dream home, but he wanted money
for it, $8 million for two years. He knew what the most famous home in the world was
worth. He was auctioning off his home to the highest bidders. The home, which had cost him
$40 million to build, had already earned $60 million in up-front product placement fees.
Muzak, which was in the midst of a corporate redesign and is also based in Seattle, had
paid $12 million to provide Xanadu with its audio atmosphere. A titanium knife company had
paid $60,000 just to get their grapefruit knife in his kitchen drawer.
Now, I knew the Matsushita toilet. I called it the seat of anal
paranoia ... spray systems, self-cleaning systems with a plastic baggie sleeve that snakes
over the seat, scent releasing buttons, completely high-tech. But their toilet had ignored
the most important part, the seat. It was thin hard plastic, an airplane seat, for a
little Japanese rear end.
The Matsushita people wanted to pay only $2 million, because that is
what a Michigan furnishings company had paid for the bathtub. They werent making any
headway. Gates was caustic and antagonistic, as he always is, rocking like a rhesus and
using Socratic dialogue to humiliate his negotiating adversaries. "Tell me what makes
a bathtub as important as a toilet," he demanded, and so on.
Thats when I stepped in, waving my Morphastic toilet seat and
talking about warm bums. They didnt throw me out because Gates seemed to presume I
was with Matsushita, sort of a surprise feature extra, brought in at the last minute to
get him to back down to $2 million. And the Matsushita guys thought I must be with Gates.
They were all excited to try the Morphastic out.
So we all went in the bathroom, and I just tipped up the Japanese
airplane seat and rested the Morphastic on the rim. All the Japanese guys had brought
their bathing suits, because theyd heard about the 60 foot pool with underwater
music, so they all changed into these tightey whitey underwear that I guess was somehow
not embarassing to them. Meanwhile, Gates took the throne. The door was closed but I heard
him use his cell phone to make a call, he said to someone, "youve got to get
over here right away."
The Japanese men were very excited and kept knocking on the bathroom
door, saying "Mister Gates, our turn, our turn." But Gates kepts saying
"shut up, Im thinking." When he finally came out, hed figured it all
out. Hed done some serious thinking on that toilet, in that moment. As he talked, it
soon became clear that Bill Gates knew far more about crap that wed ever considered.
Forget about 2 million versus 8 million. Now, he wanted to buy my seat and the entire
Matsushita toilet division.
Gates always wanted to put a computer in every home. And that he
couldnt manage to get into every home had haunted him. Hed bought into NBC and
TCI, but that was just a virtual presence in the home. He was obsessed with having a
physical thing in the home.
It was amazing to watch his mind work. Here was what he figured out
as he sat there, warming his tush. The toilet could be leveraged. Just as Windows is the
graphical user interface between the human being and the computer, lo, the whole internet,
he said, the toilet seat is the user interface between the human being and the toilet, lo,
the entire plumbing network. Under the economic Doctrine of Channel Control, which states
that by controlling any one link of the pipeline or channel one can de facto control the
entire channel, Gates knew that he could leverage the toilet seat to control the
worlds water supply. First, the toilet seat hinges are altered slightly: if you want
this MS toilet seat to fit properly on your toilet, youd better buy the MS toilet
rim. From the rim to the bowl. From the bowl to the plumbing. From the plumbing to the
sewage system. From the sewage system to the water supply. He could control all of it. He
could control where we crapped, how we crapped, who we crapped with. If you control
mans ability to crap, you control his sphincter, and by the Doctrine of Channel
Control, you control mankind.
It was a match made for the cover of Vanity Fair. Bill Gates
strategy with Matsushitas jet stream toilet with my Morphastic toilet seat. The deal
that warmed billions.
But .. there was a catch. I said the next phase is the Strategic
Inflection Point in the Tradeoff bw Career and Personal Life, which is when theres
no looking back, you cant jockey both sides any more, youve made your choice.
And that was about to come. The marriage of toilet to seat to monopolist was dependent
upon one other person, Microsofts official tester. No Microsoft product got out the
door without her testing it. Nothing had gone into the Xanadu without her authorization,
not even the titanium grapefruit knife.
Suddenly, I smelled Sweet Tarts. At first, I thought it was the
masking scent that was released from the Matsushita, but when she came into the room, I
couldnt believe it. It was HER! Katherine. Miss Adult Sweet Tart, the one true love
of my life. Katherine Riley. The human sunbeam. My heart pounded, and I couldnt take
my eyes off her.
Katherine was Bill Gates little secret. Her heart broken by me
so long ago, she had taken her role as bellweather princess and sold it to the highest
bidder. Whatever she wanted, he knew that at least 38 million Americans would want. 38
million computer mice, 38 million web browsers, 38 million CDROM Encyclopedias.
Now, Katherine, the one love of my life, controlled my destiny.
It all happened so fast. I was struck with lovesickness. It was
unprofessional of me, but I blubbered it out, I couldnt help it. "I still love
you. I always loved you."
She was in tears, too. "Youre just saying that so
Ill like your toilet."
"No, no, I mean it. I would do anything for your love
She said, "Give up the toilet then. Take it out of this
equation. Sign it away to Bill and then tell me you love me when theres nothing in
it for you."
And then she really had me. If I said no, she would hate my toilet
out of spite, If I said, yes, I at least had a chance for her love.
Quickly, on a napkin, I signed away the rights to the Morphastic
seat. We embraced, we kissed. But then-- ... her eyes closed. Wed always kissed with
our eyes open. When we parted, I saw the napkin was gone. Stage five: the inevitable onset
of reality. What had I done? My seat was about the acknowledgment that we crap, it was
about recognizing a good crap and owning that feeling. The Matsushita toilet, with all its
sprays and scents, covered up the fact that we crap, it made crapping less like crapping.
Theirs was the opposite of our mission.
I told Katherine I wanted to leave. I had to leave, right then, I
couldnt think about it. Stage Six: The Denial of Reality. Yes dear, she said. We
headed for the door, I was hyperventilating. I had to get through those iron gates, and I
slipped ahead of Katherine just a few feet. "Itll all be over soon, dear,"
she said, and then the next thing I knew the gates had closed behind me, with Katherine
still inside. I turned to look but she wasnt even looking back, she was walking to
He was waiting in the doorway for her. I watched Gates put his hand
on her neck and ride it down to her shoulder, in such a way ... And I saw, knew, that
there was something there, something between them.... a business trip, first class side by
side seats, some champagne to celebrate a deal, him being taken by the way she laughs. 38
million Sealy posturepedics, 38 million Kimono latex condoms, 38 million Americans who
make the same sighs as her, the same severity of clench.