My dinner with SCO chief Darl McBride

Darl McBride is the guy everyone loves to hate.

Current chief executive officer of SCO, the company that’s suing IBM over its support of Linux (and will, if successful, sue just about anyone else using Linux), Darl used to work for the FranklinCovey Company. So did I.

FranklinCovey is a personal and organizational effectiveness company. If that sounds grandiose, check out their current home page, which states: “We enable greatness in people and organizations everywhere.”

Very modest. Very FranklinCovey.

If the Covey part sounds familiar, that’s because Stephen R. Covey, the founder of the Covey part of the empire, is the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, among other books, and a genuine guru. (Hyrum Smith – another guru – started the Franklin part, which eventually bought Covey.)

Way back 6-7 years ago, before anyone – even Darl – had thought of lawsuits against Linux, before Darl joined SCO, before IBM started placed big bets on Linux, and before Linux was the mainstream force it is today, Darl was the business manager of a unit of FranklinCovey that was going to take the enterprise into the brave new world of online applications and (perhaps more importantly) wonderfully gratifying internet company multiples in stock market valuation.

I worked with that business unit for over a year until its dissolution. Some of the people who lost their jobs when that unit died then subsequently asked me for a job.

At that time I was working (as I still do) for Premier – one of the top student success, student organization companies in the world. We sold (and sell) student planners, student success training, and more. What FranklinCovey is to the well-heeled corporate market, we are to the somewhat more pecuniarily-challenged education market.

FranklinCovey had bought us in 2001, so we were an allied business unit. I was Premier’s Technology Solutions Manager (basically led our web development team), and so I was in Salt Lake, FC’s corporate headquarters, 3-4 times a year, interacting with Darl’s group. Usually not with Darl himself; mostly with people that reported to him.

But what I remember most about Darl is the time when he visited Premier headquarters in Bellingham, WA. We had meetings for the better part of a day on web strategy and had dinner that night at a seafood place in one of Bellingham’s marinas.

Darl talked about having worked on the team that built or sent Cassini, the NASA spacecraft that is currently exploring Saturn. It was particularly controversial at the time because as part of its path to Saturn it had swung around earth for a gravity boost acceleration – and it had 1-3 pounds of plutonium on board (as an electrical power source). A slight error in calculation and it was not inconceivable that it would hit the earth … and spread one of the most dangerous substances known to man over a substantial amount of the globe’s surface. (Imperial to metric, anyone?)

Darl was fairly slick. He had been a successful executive at Novell, and exuded “executese.” Even then, though, you felt there was something behind the man. That there was a Darl you saw, and a Darl you did not see.

But he talked the talk. One of the things we spent quite a bit of time on was his vision for Franklin Planner Online. Franklin Planner Online was the result of a $10 million acquisition that FranklinCovey had made in late 1999, just before Darl had come onboard. It was an online planner (originally called DayTracker) built in Cold Fusion by the prototypical two guys in a garage.

Darl saw it being the centerpiece of FranklinCovey’s clients planning and scheduling world: syncing to their Palms, printing to their planner binders, sending text notifications of upcoming events to their cell phones, and publishing to spouses or colleagues’ calendars.

It was a good vision … one that is probably not entirely realized even today. But there were problems.

The prototypical two guys in a garage company had made a prototypical two guys in a garage product: crap. I spent some time talking to the geeks at FC when I was in Salt Lake one time, and they told me they had to rewrite almost all of the application to make it enterprise-ready.

Guess how happy they were to re-write it all at $60-70 K per year when FranklinCovey had just blown $10 million on the source code? Not very! But this was the dotcom era, and when a big company that felt like a dinosaur needed to move into the 21st century, they did so quickly and perhaps not too carefully.

There were other problems.

In 2001 synchronization with desktop software meant a big, expensive software project. FC blew probably over a hundred thousand on that alone.

There there was the Flash version.

After having bought their multi-million dollar toy, FC realized that no-one actually used online calendars. That the 40,000 “users” of the calendar they had bought were signed up zombies who in most cases didn’t touch the app after day one.

The problem, everyone realized, was the lack of desktop responsiveness. And in those pre-AJAX days, the only option was Flash. So Darl’s division blew what I hear was a half million or so on a Flash version.

The last time I saw Darl was probably near the end of that project. The prototype had been built, and the plan was to offer this as a branded calendar to large companies. Unfortunately, the prototype was not skinnable, and money was running out. Darl looked a bit hunted, or maybe haunted, and I guess even at that time the writing was on the wall.

Soon after this, FranklinCovey shut down the division, laid off all the staff, and realized that they had just blown tens of millions of dollars trying to be hip and cool in a market that they didn’t even begin to understand.

The rest is history: Darl eventually joined a small, struggling UNIX company, and found a way in which to try to grow it again.

I kind of wonder what I would say to him if I met him again.

All the time while were meeting and talking and scheming, I was bringing more and more Linux servers online for essentially zero dollars … a much better deal than the thousands he was spending on provisioning NT servers running ColdFusion for FranklinPlanner Online.

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Note: FranklinCovey eventually sold Premier, the company I work for, to School Speciality, which is still the company that owns us.

3 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Really interesting background. When I left the ministry for the business world, Franklin Covey is the only place that would hire this former pastor. So I joined the marketplace as a part time employee in a Franklin Covey mall store.

    It was a good experience…but I could tell there in the frontlines they were experimenting a lot in the corporate office. Or so it seemed to me.

    For that reason it was fun to see part of what was going on behind the curtain.

    Thanks for sharing “more of the story”.

  • You’re welcome, Michael. I have to say, being part of the FranklinCovey company was, overall, a really great experience. I, and everyone I knew, was treated really, really well.

    That said, we were part of the only money-making part of FC for a while … which helps.

    Unfortunately, some bad decisions and investments at the top almost resulted in the company going in the toilet – FC was almost a penny stock for a while. They seem to have stabilized and have been doing much better over the past few years.