From the series, “Down and Out in Silicon Valley, the Chronicles of ThruDispatch”. (Names and locations are changed to protect the privacy of the parties).
I was called to the palatial Atherton home of Hiryu Watanabe, father of Hiroshi (Hank Watanabe). A rich man beyond the dreams of even the Valley’s moneyed, he retired from the board of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries after a distinguished career of 40 years. Estimated net worth: 800 Million.
We had spoken on the phone briefly about his troubled son; he spoke and I listened about the all too common meltdown that occurred when Hank got tied up in a software project. Hank’s love was his poison. The father had been dealing with this since Hank started the downward spiral, shortly after gathering his doctorate from Standford.
I didn’t quite know what to expect, or what the subject of our conversation would be. I halfway assumed that maybe, maybe Mr. Watanabe Senior had gone through Hank’s things and found the ThruDispatch code. But, I had written it off already, and I didn’t want to personally pursue it like a vulture; at any rate it was very preliminary and useless to me, for now. I was mystified at the invitation.
‘Now, this is a nice house’, I saw before me a modern, possibly Frank Lloyd Wright inspired or, more likely, original edifice. Modern and oh so architectural in the extreme, homes like this in the 12 k sq. foot range must be worth at least 20 million in Atherton.
A young woman, very pretty and sure enough a native Japanese, came to the door in a blazer and name tag, which said, ‘consular security’. Hmmm, have to file that one away for later. She showed me in and said in perfect though accented English, “Mr. ‘Nabe, will come to be calling on you here now”. Mr. Nabe – ok, a familiarity.
She told me to address him as, ‘Mr. Nabe, or Shihan Watanabe’, I can’t be sure what she was requesting. As it turned out, I didn’t have to do much talking at the meeting. There may have been, however ample opportunity for fainting.
I was led to a room deep in the Watanabe compound - a sumptuous den that has no analogue to the rooms that I had frequented, either in youth or adulthood. Oy Vey: it was such a large room I didn’t see my host nestled about the various accouterments. The escort directed me with a well manicured index finger and the polite introduction, “Nabe San, Mr. Wilensky”. She got my name mostly right.
I introduced myself, I was just plain intimidated, despite being very familiar with Japanese Culture, both as a participant in Martial arts, and in the business world. I have been to Hokkaido, and worked during the 1990′s with reps from Sony, Matsushita, JVC, and Denon.
“Sir, Shihan Watanabe, I am Alan Wilensky”, I bowed at my waist. I was not expecting what came next.
“Please do not do that to me you are though in my house so welcome here to me”, Mr Nabe was off to a great start. “She the girl is hospitality honor from the Japan Consul, I am Trade Representative for my country since my retiring; me and you are not formal, you and I”. This was the mode of Hiryu Speaking, as I would learn.
I got him. He didn’t look well for a young and robust man of say, 60 or less. Not more than ten years my senior, if that. ‘See”, I thought to myself, “Grown ups have children and houses and careers”. My musings were an intrusion. I should get to the bottom of why he wanted to see me.
As I said, he was not a sick man, but very haggard and careworn, certainly a better physical specimen than myself. I started, “Sir, Nabe, why did you wish to see me? Is there something I can do for Hank?”.
Mr. Nabe darkened, but not at me it seemed,”Hiroshi, ah, poor son of promise our only boy child, is getting help at psychiatric facility. He will always be eventually ok, better soon.” This could not be easy for him.
“Many times when Hiroshi would work on projects, he would have these problems, and forget them in a very short time. But with your project, he has been insistent that he wants to come back, he seems to enjoy your company, your friendship…..Hiroshi has no brothers, his one sister is much younger, a child of my old age and from later in life”. I was a little overwhelmed. I did not start this adventure with the notion of being an object of altruism. Big Brother Technology Mentor Program.
I was touched, however, and I had a sort of soft spot for Hank, due our both being flawed (in different ways) as a result of acting upon our idealism within the entrepreneurial jungle. For Hank, it was a chemical or constitutional imbalance, for me, well, I was just a bright product visionary with no credentials and no business acumen. I felt very bad for Mr. Watanabe - but I was totally unprepared for what he was about to offer, and what I, ultimately, could not accept.
“I can help my son, I have made investments as an angel person, accredited investing. My son and yourself would allow me to be one on your board, and I would make available the required funds”. I was glad to be sitting at this point, for I would have fainted, but I knew in my heart that no honest person could ever take this deal.
He was not finished, he was determined to give me a lot to consider, “I have a trust for Hiroshi, one which exceeds his needs by many, many times. Even a small amount could finance your business. We would keep Hiroshi’s care staff close to him, and you would work with him and myself to realize your invention”.
It was my turn, and I couldn’t believe the words coming out of my mouth, after all these years, being beat down by Venture Capital, here I was turning down, how much I wondered? There was no way to ask at this point, it would be crass. I had to decline the offer, I didn’t need a minute to consider”.
“Mr. Nabe, I have such compassion for your son, I can tell he is a good man, he tried very hard for me, and his talent is outstanding. But I cannot make an exploit out of your love for your son. But, I will help in any other way to be a friend to him, and if he gets better someday, to work with him as a colleague”.
I’m not sure that Shihan Watanabe heard all of my reply, or if his focus was such that he only heard what he thought he wanted to hear, for his next words were, “I think if the work agrees with Hiroshi, and we can establish a therapeutic work environment, I could allocate, over time, 1.5 million dollars. It would be under my management, but you would be a key man to budget the funds”.
Yikes……I needed water…a Valium, something, my mommy or daddy…but I kept it together:
“My dear Mr. Watanabe, my heart is so sad (you can say that again, in more ways that one), I must at this time, decline, at least for now. Perhaps let me visit you and your son, as a friend, when he returns from treatment. Then we can talk about a business, as there are many possibilities. Maybe I can get the business running and Hank can have a role that will not be so…..rigorous?”
“I see”, said Mr. Watanabe, “I have been not myself when my son is suffering’. He was a rock nonetheless in my book. “I would most welcome you come back when my son is here. And, Mr. Wilensky…”, Nabe was wrapping up like the trade mission rep he was, not to mention forty years as a upper-level exec at Mitsubishi, “there are many things you can do for us here, in business, and friendship”.
I realized that to be a true friend to this family, so culturally different from my own heritage, the first order of business would be to purge from my heart any desire for personal monetary gain, investment in ThruDispatch, or just the enhancement of influence.
To exploit this father’s love for his only son would be a coup for ThruDispatch, but a blemish on my conscience. As it turns out, my best asset has been an internal compass - the only undamaged instrument I have left within my personal inventory, as a result of navigating the Silicon Valley.