Entrenpreneur Bio: Charles Roth
15 March 2012
This biography started out as a response to teachers at the
Ann Arbor Learning Community,
who were looking for stories about entrepreneurs in the community.
It's still intended for young people and their teachers (especially the final section,
"Lessons Learned") -- but it grew a little in the telling!
Questions are welcome, send them to
I never intended to be an entrepreneur; it really just "sort of happened".
And, like most labels, it's just one part of the story.
It all started in college, in the late 1970's, at RPI.
I'd been tinkering with computers since I was 14, and we're talking
back in the "Dark Ages": keypunches, mainframes that filled a room,
with stupendous amounts of memory, like, oh, 256K (thousand) bytes.
Your standard smartphone today has upwards of 4 giga (billion) bytes.
But I loved them, and by the time I got to college, I was already
teaching other people how to write programs.
So in my senior year at college, I was taking advanced graduate
courses in "Artificial Intelligence", and even wrote a complete
program that played chess.
(It could beat me, but only at 3am when I was really tired...)
My professor also worked full-time at the General Electric Research &
Development Center, and hired me right out of college to help program
the robots he was building to inspect aircraft engine parts.
I started bringing in some of my friends, and he hired a few of them
and was interested in hiring some more... but he was only allowed to
hire a limited number of regular employees.
So one afternoon, we cooked up the idea that I could start a company,
hire students from RPI as part-time contractors.
He would pay me, I would pay them, and they would be my
employees, not his.
It was crazy... and wonderful.
I quit GE, and became my first own employee.
2 years later, I had 14 employees, most of them part-time,
working at GE.
I named the company "Aule-Tek", a play on words combining "all technical"
with "Aule", one of the mythological characters from the Lord of the Rings.
(Aule is the demi-god who created the dwarves, and we engineers identified with
the dwarves who worked deep underground, and made intricate devices and weapons.)
The logo was "Durin's Hammer", that appears on the magical doors
to the home of the Dwarves in the movie.
I was incredibly naive -- it didn't occur to me to try and
make any money off of my employees -- I just charged my boss for
their time, and whatever time I took to do the paperwork.
(I learned a lot about how much paperwork it takes to
have a real employee.
One time the IRS computers made an error and wanted to charge
me a fine -- I wrote back with the detailed calculations of
where they went wrong, and then asked if they wanted any
They cancelled the fine and I never heard from them again.)
II. Camber-Roth: Caucus phase I
In the early 1980's I went off to graduate school at Wayne State
I also wanted to try teaching, and got a part-time instructorship
only because Wayne lost a teacher in the middle of the semester,
and they desparately needed someone, anyone, who could teach
what was then the main mathematical computer language, called
So I was studying... and teaching... and doing a little consulting for GE...
and still partly running Aule-Tek from afar.
So I split up the ownership of Aule-Tek with several friends that
were working for it day-to-day, and
hired an old friend who had gotten her CPA (certified public accountant),
and transferred more and more responsibility to her.
She actually knew something about running a company: for one thing,
she started making a profit off of each employee.
And then at Wayne I saw a primitive "bulletin board" or "forum" or "chat room"
kind of program, called Confer.
And as soon as I saw the power of this, I wanted to write one
that everybody could use.
(More of this story at
3 years later, I'd left Detroit for the much more pleasant
communities in Ann Arbor, and I'd convinced
the other owners of Aule-Tek to front some of our profits
to pay for me developing a "portable" (meaning it would run
on lots of different kinds of computers) "forum"
We named it "Caucus", and created a new division of
Aule-Tek, named "Camber-Roth".
(No, there was nobody named Camber.
Another mythological figure from a fantasy novel.
In those days, all new computer companies were named something-hyphen-something-else.
It sounded respectable, I guess, like a law firm. Who knew?)
I worked half-time writing software at the University of Michigan to pay my bills,
and then the other half (for much less pay) for Camber-Roth.
But it was my creation!
We sold our first copy in 1986... by 1990 we were selling enough,
that with some of the other profits from Aule-Tek, we could pay
two full-time developers (myself and one other).
A company in Japan flew me out to spend 2 weeks modifying it to work
with Japanese... we even had our own mini-conventions, the "Caucus Caucuses",
for several years.
III. The Break, the Web, and ScreenPorch: Caucus phase 2
But like so many new companies, we had our growing pains, and our
The dream of becoming a software company had faded, even though Caucus
was doing "OK"... and Aule-Tek (renamed "Unified Technologies" as
the company became more serious) was headed more and more down
the general software consulting track.
Unfortunately, the differences in desire and opinion became
perceived as a power struggle... we should have just split
in two instead of wrestling with each other.
By 1994 I did just that -- I bought out the rights to
Caucus in exchange for most of my (large) block of Aule-Tek
stock, and struck out totally on my own.
(I even wrote an original
country & western
song to express my disgust and frustration.)
So, poor but happy, I struggled along for another year...
when (in February 1995) I discovered the (just becoming visible)
This was the answer to my prayers -- one common interface
that bolstered my "writing a tool so everyone could use it" dream.
In a month I wrote a completely new language ("CML", the Caucus Markup Language)
and built a web interface for Caucus.
IV. Caucus Systems: phase 3
This excited a lot of people, and I gained a free office at Eastern Michigan
University in exchange for supporting their installation of Caucus.
By 1997 I had formed a new company, ScreenPorch.com (another dumb name, alas)
with 2 other partners who were excited by Caucus.
In 1999 I took a giant leap of faith, and joined with a
small Washington-D.C. organizational development consulting firm
(the "MetaNetwork") to form a new, venture-capital based, "dot-com"
company -- "Caucus Systems, Inc".
(Another dumb name, in my opinion.)
In less than a year, we hired 20 people, burned through
$2 million in venture capital...
...and then I got laid off in the summer of 2000, with a wife
and a 6-month-old baby (Emma).
About 60% of the company got dropped the same day.
This was the "dot-bomb" in the "dot-com": the bursting
of the "Internet bubble".
I was devastated and angry.
A nationally-known Internet speaker and author
('Doc' Searls) called it
"throwing the sailors overboard and letting the passengers run the ship".
Now I knew how Steve Jobs felt when he got
thrown out of Apple.
So, I "got a job" as a software architect.
Good pay, good respect, lousy tools, not much vision.
Then the bubble burst even more (if that makes any sense),
and I had to get a different job.
Fixing software at a company that made auto loans to
people with bad credit.
Who were happy to send customers' private data,
unencrypted, over the public Internet.
(I objected and, against my boss's orders, made sure the
data got encrypted first.)
A job where the wall was painted (I kid you not)
with a huge logo of the scales of justice,
with the words "Collections Center -- where Justice = Profits".
V. CaucusCare: phase 4
By late 2001, the remnants of Caucus Systems had finally imploded
and gone bankrupt.
Through the incredible kindness and foresight of one of the
board of directors, their last act (before turning off the lights,
so to speak) was to grant me (back) the rights to Caucus,
in exchange for 15% of any money I made off of it.
I immediately started CaucusCare,
to both sell new licenses to Caucus,
and support (hence the "Care" part) the existing customers
who were left in the lurch.
Ironically, even the court-appointed bankruptcy agent
dropped the "estate", so to speak, of the former
Caucus Systems, so there was no-one left for me to
pay the 15% to.
Over the next 5 years, I ran CaucusCare as a "side" business
working occasional nights, then as a half-time business
while I got a half-time job, and finally back to a
side, almost a hobby, business.
It was a time of great excitement for me,
but also of great stress on both me and my family.
VI. Caucus open source: phase 5
But, alas, it was not sustainable as a "main" job.
The Internet was moving along, and while parts of
Caucus were still innovative, other parts were getting old
License sales dried up, and my passion was technology
and communication -- not marketing.
Before I transitioned Caucus back to a "side" business,
I made a few major technology improvements -- notably
rewriting it to use the most popular
database, called MySQL.
And I "open source-d" Caucus, so that anyone could
download it, run it, and even modify it -- for free.
The trick with an open-source business is simple: you give the
product away -- but charge for everything else.
Support, custom modifications, consulting, hosting.
(I have several Caucus customers who pay me to host their Caucus
sites on computer servers that I maintain.
They don't have to worry about maintaining a server and software,
I get money for almost zero work, and everybody wins!)
VII. The Future?
Caucus embodies several ideas that, to my (both) hope and disappointment,
much of the online world has still not adopted:
I see many places where Caucus' strengths could be useful.
But it's also seriously cramped by some ancient technology.
So I have dropped most of my consulting "side" business,
and I am concentrating on hosting (because it takes almost zero time),
and on rewriting Caucus from the ground-up in a modern
"web framework" tool based on the
My hope is that I'll be able to rebuild the strengths of
Caucus, on top of tools that already exist,
in a way that will let me create a new version, quickly.
We'll see what happens!
VIII. Lessons Learned
- True knowledge sharing.
- Serious, ongoing over time, trackable conversations.
(Not emphemeral social networking "fluff" that is here and then gone.)
- Back-and-forth conversation, moderated by experts.
A few thoughts for budding entrepreneurs, and things I wish I'd known earlier!
- First and foremost: follow your passion.
If you don't love your project, if you don't have to make yourself
go to sleep at night (instead of working on your ideas)... get a regular
Or keep coming up with ideas until you find one you truly love.
- Don't hide your ideas.
Keeping them close to your chest won't help you succeed.
Build your ideas, and publish them!
Make it clear that you are the expert on your idea.
It will protect you legally, and if a big company wants your idea,
it's far cheaper for them to hire you to work on it, than to "steal" it.
- Don't aim to make money.
Aim to make delighted customers.
One passionate customer, who can't help tell everyone they see,
is worth more than 10 customers who bought your product once,
- You will learn more, building a product and a business,
than any 2 years of college.
- Give as much of your business away as you can.
Keep only the most central part.
I firmly believe that if I had adopted the "open source"
model in 1995, I would be happily working full-time
in my own business now.
But instead I followed the siren song of "one software
idea becomes a big company"... and I got
chewed up by big people who were only interested in big money.
- Finally: don't be afraid to fail.
Pour your heart into something.
If it fails, it fails.
But you will have learned more, grown more, and be
more valuable to anyone, any company, for the experience.
I am extremely successful and highly praised in my current job in a big
precisely because I know the entire business and
technology cycle of a small company.