Jonathan George has spent a lot of time on the couch recently, recovering from serious personal and professional blow-ups.
Last year at this time, George and some dedicated colleagues were frantically building his company, e-mail app Evomail, in Wichita when both it and his marriage crashed and burned. These days he has his fingers in a variety of projects, including spending some time helping his hometown slowly move toward building a technology entrepreneurial scene.
He’s also working on a project about which he’s mum, traveling a week a month in San Francisco.
George, one of Wichita’s biggest tech entrepreneurs, built and in 2012 sold a company called Boxcar, a smartphone app that assembled and pushed notifications from platforms such as Twitter, e-mail and Facebook.
Evomail was aimed at developing coding around e-mail to make it much more usable.
George, 31, has one daughter.
So what happened to Evomail?
It ties into creating a Wichita tech-scene. One of the biggest problems we have here in the Midwest is access to capital … In the case of Evomail, we were out-financed. Our top three competitors combined raised over $20 million. We raised $100,000. We set out to raise another half million and found the economics of the market (for a consumer application) weren’t really there. What we had to do was sign these (big business application) deals. I thought there was a market there.
We did close one deal. By all accounts it was a fantastic deal, but it turns out it wasn’t exactly what they wanted. We had the best lawyers in the industry working on it, but when it comes down to it, the best contract is only worth what what you’re willing to spend to defend it. And when you are fighting a company worth $10 billion in market cap and you’ve raised $100,000, and they decide to dispute one of your invoices, you’re out of luck. But ultimately the responsibility falls on me. There is always another option, another path you can take. I had some personal life happening, re-evaluating things and, for me, it was one thing or the other, so I just decided to do neither. I needed some time to clear my head and figure out what I wanted to do with my life.
Is being an entrepreneur especially hard on a person?
Work life balance is hard. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, has no balance. If he sends you an e-mail at 5 a.m., he expects an answer, within a reasonable time, which, for him, may be 15 minutes. Employees recognize this and they do it. In Silicon Valley, people are working until 7-8-9 at night. I’m ready to get off at 5 and go home and see my child. Now, after she goes to bed, I may get out the laptop and go back to work. That being said, I don’t think any entrepreneur ever turns it off. If you’re sitting on the couch watching “So You Think You Can Dance” with your partner, you’re still thinking about it. Product things can be running through your head or what you need to do tomorrow. It never turns off, which in some ways is pretty sad, but it’s also why you do it.
What happened to all of work you and the others did with Evomail?
It depends on how the company fails. Sometimes the technology just disappears back into the ether.
So there are thousands of lines of code somewhere?
All that intellectual property that was put into it, and the time, it just sits there, rots and dies. It’s very purpose built, specific to the problem we were trying to solve.
So there’s no value left?
There are different ways you can deal with it. You can open source code it. That usually requires board approval to release it. A huge example of that is Netscape, the browser. It was sold to (America Online) and AOL open sourced it and that became Mozilla which created Firefox from it.
But that’s not common, is it?
Usually there are a lot of tech companies that turn into what we call the walking dead. They don’t have enough money to survive at even what we call Ramen level, where they’re not even pulling in a $1,000 a month to cover minimum expenses for a graduate student. So what we find is they become the walking dead where the site still exists, where people can use the application because it costs a bare minimum to keep it running, but nobody supports it or actively maintains it or updates it. It just exists, that’s it.
What do you see as Wichita’s opportunities?
Materials science. When you’re the guy in his garage who could put build something out of parts from Radio Shack. When you’re ready to have that first version built, it’s very costly, I mean ridiculously expensive, and so if we were known as the city that builds these prototypes and also have that next level, so if you are ready to make a million of those, you do that here. That is how we grow our economy and lean into our strengths.
Another thing would be drones. We are the aircraft capital of the world. Why aren’t we embracing the next frontier of aerospace? I’m sure we are in some capacity, but I’m not seeing a lot of small startups. I know of two right now, but there should be a lot more. We already have all these brilliant engineers here, it’s just a matter of of giving them the chance to take this stuff to market, or to formulate the idea and making it easy for others to join.
Is Wichita making progress to where it could produce more tech startups?
In software, since I came here in 2006, it’s completely changed. There is way more support. The chamber (Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce) is very, very actively involved and has been for the last year. It started as a grass-roots movement, now we’re seeing support from the chamber, and WSU and Friends University and the various companies in town. It’s incredible to see.
Will that produce anything?
It will, but it’s a long-term play. One of the best things I’ve ever realized is that it’s a 20-year outlook. What we’re doing now is the seeds of anything that will come after.