God Goes Home: In Search of Spencer Ollopa
By M.A. Kohl
Abnormal Psych. was a super course. It was Spring Semester of my Junior year. The professor was old and eccentric. He told lots and lots of stories. He liked to teach outside.
So we discussed Personality Disorders under a huge Willow, an expansive shelter that kept us firmly in the shade. On Borderline Personality Disorder day, it rained, just long enough to thoroughly soak the grass. We stayed inside that day.
I mention this because it was in this particular course, on that peculiar rainy Tuesday, that I became friendly with a guy named Spencer Ollopa. Spencer, like me, was not a Psychology major. He was taking Psych. as a minor. His double major was Marketing and CompuSci.
After graduation, I took my English major and used it for many weeks as a very effective place mat. When the stains started to bug me, I took a trip to Williams Sonoma. And when my lack of a graduate degree started to bug me, I did a painless Master’s in English Lit. in medical school years.
Spencer, on the other hand, went on to get his MBA and then a Masters in Computer Science. His MBA thesis was called: “Putting Your Ear to the Ground: The Future is Here.” (Maybe you’ve read it in paperback.)
It’s a story you already know: Many geeks and an IPO later, by the early Spring of 1998, Spencer Ollopa, Founder and CEO of SearchMe.com, was richer than almost anyone else on the planet.
“There’s something off about the whole thing, something vaporous and intoxicating,” he said once, intoxicated. “It’s all…too invisible for my taste. I’m waiting for the big bad wolf to blow it down.”
This was back in the magic months beginning 1999. I was out at Spencer’s house, visiting an old pal. He’s the kind of old pal you make sure to keep in touch with.
I had followed Ollopa outside to his veranda, a drink in each hand. He has an overwhelming view of the San Francisco Bay. I could have stayed up there forever, just watching the lights, watching the moon in the water. Then I turned around and looked at his sprawling home. It was all glass. From a few hundred feet away, one could almost not see it at all.
I called him a few months ago to see how he was doing since the Internet turned rabid. I wasn’t really asking about Ollopa.com, just Spencer.man. Although both were kind of piquing my interest, if the truth be told. The company was being remarkably secretive. He invited me out to the house to talk about it. I tried not to say “Oh, so you still have the house! Thank God!”
I asked if I could do a piece on him while I was there. He said, a bit puzzled-like, “Of course…That’s what I thought you meant. Come anytime after New Year’s.”
The fabulous glass house is still standing when I arrive, although the wolves Spencer spoke of have been circling for a while. His sister opens the door, greets me warmly. I’ve met her before, a few times, briefly, and as I recall, she’s Spencer’s twin. They look nothing alike, if that’s your next question. She’s a knockout, all lips and legs and great skin. (No offense to pale, sparsely featured Spencer, of course, but the gods were certainly patriarchal in their aesthetic triage here.)
Selena says she’s in the process of moving and Spence is letting her crash. I see her as more of a human filter for unwanted contact.
Spencer strolls down the stairs in a pair of Teva clogs that he brings in from Israel. He could not move any slower unless he were moving backwards. His shorts and shirt are breezy off-white linen, billowing from his body, which is now considerably more sinewy than I remember. He’s lost weight. A lot of weight. He hasn’t shaved in two days, maybe more.
I ask him if he is dating Calvin Klein.
Spencer laughs. “You’ll never let it go, will you? I’m straight for God’s sake. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it’s just not me. Good to see you, Mak, by the way. Hi, Hello. Welcome.” He laughs again. He looks strange.
It hits me: He’s happy.
I confront him on it later, over a drink. He had obviously been waiting for me to ask. He’s ready with an answer, dives right into the thing. “I am happy. I am here, you see? I am HERE. The whole damn world fell all around me at the end of last summer, and kept falling. People were – are – going insane. And I’m just not into it somehow…” He sounds almost apologetic, that he can’t muster any more grief or apprehension. It is, after all, his universe we’re talking about, but he seems more than a little detached.
It seems that Spencer had anticipated this plunge into hell, more or less. He had been stabilizing, quietly, slowly, for quite some time before the bottom of the Earth fell out from under Silicon Valley.
“So once,” he begins, out of nowhere, “My CFO is pouring Maalox into this big mug and sipping it like Chardonnay, and I am looking around, doing some quick math in my head, and I figure that whatever happens, everyone in that room would still have somewhere to live and something to drive, and there will still be a company of some size. And then about one minute later, I’m thinking how even that is beside the point, although the point, I can’t quite say what it is. I’m just sitting, in my suddenly huge chair, staring at everyone, they’re all sweating and on the verge of massive coronaries, and I’m wondering: Is this normal, you know, for people to do this? To be this? It was this quick, funny thought – like – I was watching them in the zoo…”
I regard Ollopa with new interest, stare at him a bit, which he doesn’t seem to mind, although I’m trying not to be obvious about it. This man is not nose-to-the-ground Spencer from Abnormal Psych. This man is all eyes. This man looks older but better, handsomer.
He also looks a bit… religious? I ask him about this, but he closes his eyes. God, or Whomever, is off limits.
I spend the rest of the day with Selena.
Now he’s in a talkative mood again, and he starts right where he left off yesterday, with no introduction whatsoever. “There was something about that day that just totally blew all the bullshit out on a breeze. It disappeared. You know? It’s like, when I tuned back into the conversation my execs were having in there, it was like a foreign language. Like they were on one Earth, with one set of rules, and I was on another, with very different ones, and I didn’t mind so much, being on mine, just I felt bad that they hadn’t jumped over with me.”
Ollopa has come up with a name for that moment: He calls it his founding. That has a nice corporate feel, I tell him, hoping he’ll elaborate. He doesn’t. But he does tell me that he’ll always be Spencer, whether he’s “colonizing the Internet or settling his soul.” I ask him who he’s been to see and where, but I’m up against the fog again.
This kinder, gentler Spencer says nothing else all afternoon. He’s reading a book, John Updike’s The Afterlife and Other Stories. He closes his eyes every now and then, leans back into his lounge chair on the roof. He’s built a solarium up there; As long as the sun’s out, it’s the warmest, most soothing – down to your every muscle and bone – spot on the planet. (If I had one of these, I wouldn’t need the rest of my house. Or food.)
Once again, I talk to Selena about her work (she’s a record producer between projects) while she makes us margaritas in the middle of the afternoon. I could get used to this.
Spencer hasn’t spoken for hours, but his presence is deafening. He seems to be enjoying himself here doing nothing. Did I mention he was unemployed?
The rest of the story went something like this: Spencer looked at the room full of “dying shell-people”, and started to laugh. Still laughing, he got up to hug every executive in the room. This, he mentions, did nothing good for the rumors about his sexual orientation, or his sanity, but then, he really doesn’t care what people say. That much has always been true about him.
(We settle for sanity, he told me once, back in college, but we don’t have to – settle, or settle. I’m still not sure I get it, but it comes back to me now, as I write this…)
He told them all to go home. To watch TV and to rest and to be with their families. He’d have something to tell them by morning. Please be downstairs in the gym at ten. He sent an e-mail out to sixty other key employees, telling them the same. He called the gym, asked the manager to clear out the equipment. To put it in storage. He wanted a big empty room with carpets and mirrors by morning.
Ollopa’s top people were sitting on the floor cross-legged in seven rows of ten, a strange tribunal of elders convening under the not-yet burning temple. It didn’t matter that all the facts were not yet in, he said, or that much of the world still thought the ‘net was spread evenly under them. He pretty much knew how the story would end, and sooner than anyone thought.
Here’s what he said, more or less:
The good news: Every one of you still has a job, although there will be some re-sorting and re-shaping of what those jobs are. Be prepared to do stuff you haven’t done since school. This is not true for everyone in the company, so please treat this as good news.
The bad news: Most of you are no longer millionaires and probably will never be.
And more good news: We will survive better than almost any other Internet company, if you people can exit the bubble before it bursts completely.
Spencer launched his re-organization crusade with this:
It’s not over, but it will never be the same.
So it was written, and so it has been done: SearchMe held on to most (not all, but most) of its upper-mid to high level employees, kept on consolidating its resources, and ultimately carved out a niche for itself on the unraveling web. (See “SearchMe’s Second Page”, page 235.) In a slimmer, more streamlined, less generous cyber-world, portal, product, and premium were taken very seriously, very early by Ollopa. It saved many asses, although, the way he arranged it, not his own.
After putting his house in order these last few months, Ollopa met with that same tribunal of elders on what he says was a freezing day during the recent holiday Season (isn’t California supposed to be warm? Who told me that?), and handed over the reigns to Deb Wolf, Rick Hill, and Ted Marcus, his “tried and true triumvirate of corporate sanity and humanity.” (He told me to quote him on this.)
And then he took himself off the payroll.
He’s just there for moral support, he says, to lend his brain, to occasionally adjust the jib when he can feel the wind changing. He says that he doesn’t want to drain the company of any more money to pay himself; he also feels that his best contribution has already been made, and that he does not want his “old ego-ambition” to kill the company now that it is weaker.
Part of his late summer restructuring last year involved reallocating his old salary to the R&D department, a move he feels might ultimately be the thing that keeps the company, if one can pronounce this sentence without crying, “if not profitable, at least alive.”
Ollopa must be the world’s most famous intern, other, of course, than Monica Lewinsky. He still goes to work a few times a week, in his Teva clogs, and he “does what needs to be done, meets who needs to be met”, even attends executive meetings, helping “as they want me.”
He’s moved from Luke to Obi Wan to Yoda in the blink of an eye.
“Yoda, huh? Funny you are, Michael, in things which do you say…ha ha … I guess so. That’s what I feel, a bit, now, is old. In this very weird way, because I’ve never felt more free, more like a little kid. I have no where else to conquer, to fix, to do, except in here, in my own space. For example – I’d like to travel, to see things, but I don’t feel like I have to read five books on Italian Renaissance Art before I visit Florence. I don’t feel like I need to be head of the committee to save Venice to go to Venice. What for, you know? I feel like I can just go and visit Italy. Do you know what I mean?”
I am starting to get it, I tell him. That you can feel old – ridiculously old – at just turned thirty. But he, at least, has the advantage of also sounding wise.
Later, I ask him the inevitable, about the money, the stuff. He tells me that he still, of course, has the house and its contents (which are sparse and lovely and plenty expensive) and two SUV’s, but he’s sold much of everything else, including a plane, a loft on Central Park, and a time share in South Beach. He kept the yacht and the helicopter.
He’s a rich guy, but he might not make any headlines ever again. Ask him if he cares.
I have one more question for Spencer. We’re still up on the roof. It’s getting dark, and now it’s kind of cold in here, and San Francisco is flickering – literally – around us. I forget I am cold. I have no desire to ever leave.
It suddenly occurs to me that Selena might be here now because she was using one or both of those apartments Spencer just sold. She nods, smiling. It’s cool, though, she says – she has her own house in Seattle.
She looks at Spencer and neither of them elaborates further. He just seems genuinely glad to have her here with him. These two and their looks are making me wish for a twin. They literally don’t need to speak.
By the time I get to my question, at the end of the looks, I feel like a bit of an outsider, like my time here is, actually, done.
But I ask it anyway: Is he lonely, now that the madness is over? Is enlightenment enough?
“You mean, why is my sister here, and not a woman? No offense, Le-Le. You mean, if I’m not gay, and not busy running the world, why am I not part of a couple, a family?”
That’s what I mean. Selena looks at me quickly.
“I don’t know, Kohl.” Ollopa looks around, looks up for a long time, looks at his feet, looks at Selena: Telling her it’s OK I asked. That I got.
Before I can congratulate myself on this breach of their psychic placenta, I hear him mumbling, “I’m glad there’s something I don’t know.”
From: Michael A. Kohl [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Date: Wednesday, January 19, 2001 3:30 PM
To: Ken Bogan [email@example.com]
Subject: RE: Ollopa Profile – Attached
Here it is, attached. It was a great trip…Thanks. Spencer has changed so much since college…I’m not sure you’d recognize him on the street. He still has that voice, though…Remember? That Nicholson voice. It’s fantastic. But now it doesn’t go with his personality like it once did.
He’ll be in the city next month and wants to get together with you. Said he’d call you. I’d believe him now.
BTW, Yes, I’d love to come up and interview Sandra Dylan for Empire’s August issue …Gee, Thanks Ken! Maybe God likes me after all? Or is it just that you do?
Why do I feel fifteen when I think about calling her manager? Do you remember discovering your manhood in front of Ivy Leaguers? I saw it 25 times. Ahhh, Sandra. I can’t believe she’s turning 40! Yikes!
From: Webmaster [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Date: Wednesday, January 19, 2001 8:17 PM
To: Hands_Solo [email@example.com]
Subject: RE: Your e-mail of last week
Hi. Well that certainly was an interesting e-mail from your drunken depths. lol. Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you…Things have been busy at home.
Glad you felt you could trust me. I’m really sorry that happened to you. I don’t know what else to say…It was a shitty thing your ex did.
I’m sorry if that thing I brought up about choosing our circumstances has got you going a bit nuts…I really didn’t mean to excavate anything…lol…Or maybe I did? Maybe fate has thrown us together to excavate everything? Maybe we chose to speak with each other for a reason? Now I understand why the mental institutions are so full. Once you start thinking like this, where does reality begin?
Anyway – what I wanted to tell you was – Don’t let your ex off that easy…she created this mess, also, you know???
You know, I woke up this morning with a lot of energy – now what to do with it all???
- Maya (The non-artist formerly known as NB)
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