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Tellme is one of the best Silicon Valley companies most people have never heard of

  • Tellme -- as start-up sold to Microsoft a decade ago -- attracted and cultivated a remarkable amount of tech talent.
  • Many of former employees have been successful throughout Silicon Valley
Mike McCue, chief executive officer of Flipboard.
Antoine Antonio | Getty Images
Mike McCue, chief executive officer of Flipboard.

Seventeen years ago, I competed against Mike McCue, who is currently the Founder and CEO of Flipboard. Back then, he was the co-founder and CEO of Tellme Networks and I was the VP of Business Development at a company called VoiceGenie.

I met Mike for the first time two weeks ago at the Flipboard offices on a quiet street in Palo Alto, in a converted bowling alley.

Mike and I quickly started going through the talented team that he built at Tellme. In many ways, they were the first unicorn. Raising hundreds of millions of dollars in the late 90s dot com bubble from Kleiner Perkins, Jim Barksdale and many others on the promise of delivering "dial tone 2.0." For the first time, you'd be able to pick up the phone — any phone — and use your voice to ask for anything you wanted.

Now, this vision is commonplace with Siri, Cortana, and Alexa. But it was trailblazing back then.

But after the bust, Tellme had to retrench, lay off people, and focus on using voice automation to save companies on their customer service costs. Founder CEOs back then didn't yet have the power that Mark Zuckerberg does today to write their own ticket. Mike was forced to step aside for a hired gun "professional" CEO from Cincinnati Bell for a couple of years. But he never quit. He resumed the CEO title later, kept fighting, sold Tellme to Microsoft for between $800 million and $1 billion, and stayed on for two years after the sale.

Tellme is one of the best Silicon Valley companies you've never heard of. Its talent depth wasn't appreciated then and hasn't been recognized since. Some of the best Tellme people have gone on to have dramatic effects on the tech landscape in the nearly two decades since.

Here's a summary of the Tellme talent tree:

Tellme talent tree

Person
Tellme Role
--->
Current Company
Current Job
Mike McCue CEO ---> Flipboard CEO
Angus Davis Co-founder ---> Upserve CEO
Ellen Pao BD ---> Reddit Ex CEO
Emil Michael BD / Sales ---> Uber Ex SVP of Business
Brad Porter Engineering ---> Amazon VP Robotics but also helped build AWS
Steph Tryphonas Engineering ---> Microsoft Engineering
Richard Alfonsi Prod Mgt, VP of Enterprise BU ---> Stripe Head of Global Revenue & Growth
Hadi Partovi   ---> Code.org Co-founder
Ali Partovi   ---> Code.org Co-founder
Anthony Accardi   ---> Ru La La CTO
Jim Fanning   ---> Amazon AWS Country Manager
Michael Pitkins   ---> Nest Engineering
Daphne Luong Engineering Manager ---> Nest Head of Software Engineering
John Giannandra CTO ---> Google SVP, Engineering -- Runs search
Nikko Strom   ---> Amazon Helped create Alexa
Bruce Buntschuh   ---> Amazon Helped create Alexa
Adam Elman   ---> Amazon Helped create Alexa
Mike Cafarella   ---> Hadoop creator N/A
Dave Weiden Marketing ---> Khosla Ventures Partner
Charles Moldow Sales ---> Foundation Capital Partner
Jamie Bertasi Account Management ---> Homesuite COO
Alfred Lin VP Finance ---> Sequoia Partner
Travis Bogard Director Strategic Sales ---> Uber Head of Business
Jim Everingham   ---> Instagram CTO
Dave Bottoms Comms ---> Oath VP Product
Kyle Oppenheim   ---> Facebook  
Mike Dougerty   ---> Jelli Founder
Doug Nichols   ---> Kidzen Founder
David Alpert   ---> Google Ex founder of NYC office; now runs non-profit
Eckart Walther   ---> Twitter Card Spring founder, acquired by Twitter
Hetal Pandya   ---> Edison Software Co founder
Sanjay Desai   ---> Klout Chief Product Officer
Tom Thai   ---> Google BrandLab
Jonathan Diorio   ---> Uber Head of Global Financial Services
Jeff Kunins   ---> Amazon VP, Kindle
Jonathan Katzman   ---> Minerva Head of Product
Dariusz Paczuski   ---> Oath VP Marketing & Growth
Johnny Schulhof   ---> Loom Media CEO
Sanjeev Agrawal   ---> CollegeFeed Founder
Eric Alexander Sales ---> Uber Ex Head of APAC
Andy Scott   ---> 1bios CEO
Bob Komin CFO ---> Sunrun CFO

It's also worth noting that Mike had some fantastic advisers including:

  • Bill Campbell, Mike's CEO coach for many years
  • Mike Homer, who ran marketing at Netscape
  • Brad Silverberg and Peter Currie from the Tellme board
  • Avie Tevanian, who was Steve Jobs' head of engineering at NeXT and Apple in their critical years.
  • Mohan Gyani who was CEO of AT&T Wireless
  • Rick Roscitt who was CEO of AT&T's business services and now runs Delphi.
  • Naomi Seligman who ran the CIO forum
  • Kevin Harvey, partner at Benchmark.
  • And John Doerr and Danny Rimer — who are also members of the board at Flipboard

I asked Mike if he felt like a proud father or grandfather thinking of all his kids and grandkids making their way out in the world. He just smiled. "They're all so great."

We usually only think that someone is a "great" CEO when they achieve success. Flipboard has been around for 7 years now and hasn't yet achieved a big exit, but — for my money, and knowing what he did for a decade at Tellme and Microsoft — he's unquestionably a great CEO. He's likely going to start playing an important mentor role in the next decade.

There are so many important qualities a successful CEO has to have, but after my chat with Mike and going over all the people he worked with at Tellme, perhaps the biggest is to attract great people, keep them, and get them moving after the same goal.

Commentary by Eric Jackson, sign up for Eric's monthly Tech & Media Email. You can follow Eric on Twitter @ericjackson .