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: