An idea for a new business can strike anywhere: In the shower, in the car, even in a dream. Mike Jetter got his in a cancer ward.
In 1994, the German programmer was stuck in a hospital room in Munich, following his second leukemia relapse and his second bone-marrow transplant. Given a 50% chance to live another year, Jetter needed a distraction badly.
At the time, so-called mind-mapping was all the rage in Europe. Hailed as a more creative way to think, it involves organizing ideas in a visual way, with big concepts written in a circle in the middle of a page, surrounded by smaller ideas that branch off from them. But with pencil and paper, you couldn't drag and drop, edit, or collaborate. So Jetter set out to write a computer program.
After his release from the hospital, he and his wife Bettina handed marketing for the product over to a German CD-ROM distributor, assuming not much would come of it. Today the software has spawned a $20 million-a-year business called Mindjet, headquartered in San Francisco.
Now the Jetters are turning this desktop product into something companies can use broadly to help brainstorm, plan, collaborate, and organize a host of business activities. Last year, the Jetters hired former Oracle (ORCL) exec Robert Gordon as CEO. And their product is available with certain versions of Salesforce.com's (CRM) offerings, allowing salespeople to view customer data in a more visual, nonlinear way.
The Jetters hope this is just the beginning. They recently spoke with BusinessWeek Online reporter Sarah Lacy about the project that kept Mike sane 11 years ago, and how it has evolved. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: So how did this company start?
Mike: I got leukemia about 15 years ago. At Christmas time we went to the hospital in the middle of the night, and I was diagnosed. It was a pretty big shock at the time, as you can imagine. It took almost a year for us to comprehend what was happening, and what the choices were. A year later, I got a bone-marrow transplant. I was in this isolation ward for three months, so we really went through a lot, but it turned out pretty well.
But then I had two relapses, and four years later I had another bone-marrow transplant, which is very unusual.
Q: Did you know something was wrong?
Mike: In retrospect, yes. For two or three months before, I was tired, but I worked a lot. I thought, "I have to sleep more, get more of a balance." But then later you figure out there was something wrong. I was 28, so I was pretty young. We had been married for two years, and it was a big change.
Q: So you had two relapses and a second bone-marrow transplant. Then what?
Mike: You're not sure what happens next. Maybe I can't leave this hospital again, because at this time I had a 50% one-year survival rate. I also knew from the first time, it's more of a mental problem. How do you stay sane inside that room? A small hospital room where people are coming in, and they have surgical clothes -- a face mask and gloves -- and are telling me I can't leave.
So I'm thinking I have to keep busy. I was a computer programmer, and mind-mapping was very well known in Germany. People were doing these creative presentations with pencils and colored pens, but if you do it on paper, it's a one-time thing. You can't really develop it. You can't really share it.
Software interfaces were appearing more and more, so I thought, "Let's put it in software, so people can move stuff around, add to it, print it out." So I did this five or six hours a day in that hospital room. It was very good. I was distracted from sitting around and thinking, "Oh gosh, what's happening to me?"
When I left the hospital, we figured, let's try to sell it. We found a reseller, who said there might be companies interested, but it would take a few months. Then after two to three weeks, he said, "Hey I sold a copy," and sent us a check for $30, and we went out to dinner. We said, "Cool, every time we get this, we'll go out to dinner."
A few months later we got some publicity and received about 100 sales that month. We started on the second version and founded a small business around it. We were still not thinking we could make it this big, but we were seeing the value and enthusiastic customers.
Q: Did you both have other jobs this whole time?
Bettina: We always did it part-time until 1996, when we decided to come to the States. Netscape was big, and we read in the German newspaper they were washing their cars with champagne. So we thought, "This is exciting." Mike was working for a 3-D interactive Internet company that offered him a job in San Francisco. So we said, "Let's go for two years and see what happens."
After four months, the startup closed their U.S. office, and we were all laid off. We then decided we were going to do our business on our own, full-time.
It was always clear to us if you want to sell software, you have to be in the States. We officially opened our office here in Sausalito, Calif., in 1998. We have over 500,000 users worldwide, including really big companies with thousands of licenses. We are very proud of what we've accomplished, being that it came out of desperation.
Q: So why bring in a new CEO?
Bettina: We might be the founders, and we brought it to a point, but the company definitely needed to get more into the enterprise world by expanding the product line and hiring more senior executives. [Gordon] is an ex-Oracle person, so this definitely gave us a lot of credibility.
Q: A lot of times it's the investors who force that decision. It's interesting that you wanted it. Is it ever difficult not being the CEO anymore?
Bettina: I had been the CEO, but really we both did everything before. Since we are a couple, we discussed business strategies on our Sunday walks. We never had any time off. I said to Mike once, "Just give me a break and wait until I've had my latte." It was every minute of our lives. So this definitely formed our roles better within the company.
Q: Which is the bigger challenge that the company now faces: Technology or marketing?
Mike: Both, but more marketing, I would say. The product is very unknown and requires acceptance, learning, and changing behavior. We're happy that it has grown so fast by word of mouth, but it's not enough to really grow the business. So marketing is probably the bigger challenge. But we know if you want to grow a business, you have to be good at everything.