Steve Saroff, a software entrepreneur who’s started six companies, says that in business, the message should be honed and simple.
“When I ran a business, I realized you need to spin your story to a point and focus on one thing,” he said.
People are more complex than businesses, and he has a long story and wonders “where the focus is.” He’s met many other entrepreneurs and says there’s a common misfit nature and wide range of interests. So he wonders if it’s relevant that, before he taught himself to write software and later started a company and sold it to Dell, that he arrived in Missoula in his late teens as a dyslexic runaway who dropped out of high school and lived outside for years.
He has also, by his own account, held the following jobs: carpenter, carpet installer, cook, copywriter, dishwasher, firewood cutter, general laborer, hay bucker and ranch hand.
He also lived off his writing for three years in his 20s and is a photographer and ceramicist.
“I love writing, I love photography, I love ceramics, I love writing software,” he said. These pursuits all “give instant feedback. You know when you do it well,” he said. You know when it’s clicking, he said, and there are no other people around to interject and try to make decisions for you. Maybe the common trait is that all these pursuits require solitary focus to reap their rewards.
“It gives you tremendous pleasure, when you’re building things, whether they’re physical or intellectual,” he said.
Saroff, 61, grew up in both Israel and Maryland. His mother died when he was 10. His father was an early adopter of photography who built his own cameras and made his own film. There was a tiny dark room at their house, and Saroff guesses he was only 5 or 6 when he started learning the art.
He has a show up right now at Butterfly Herbs. He shot night scenes with dense webs of stars and ceramic kiln firings.
“What helps make us human are the experiences we can share. Photography helps capture the bits of time that are forever happening and then disappearing,” he said. Photography “lets me share what was.”
When he was 16 or 17, he was “horrifically dyslexic” and dropped out of the then-brutal special education classes in Maryland and made his way across the United States, ending up in Missoula. Instead of the stereotype of a runaway getting into drugs and alcohol, he said he wanted to get out to the woods and be alone, which made Montana ideal.
Bente Winston, the founder of Sussex School, and Don Winston, a University of Montana professor, took him under their wing and got him work and enrolled into college.
He eventually graduated with a degree in geochemistry, but devoured as many credits a semester as he could.
He was also living outside, camping up in the Rattlesnake or on Mount Sentinel.
“If you go up on Mount Sentinel, you go right up near the top, there are these ancient river benches from erosion. Little level places in the trees. So I would set up a tent up there, and I always really clean up there,” he said.
He never started a fire or left trash, and he figured that if he was clean and unobtrusive people would leave him alone. He kept everything he owned in lockers in different gyms or in his pack. The Mansfield Library stayed open late, so he would study there until closing. For lunch, he would go to the Poverello Center, then located downtown, and eat and wash dishes.
“I loved living outside,” he said. “It was probably the strongest, happiest time in my life.”
During the summer, he would bicycle out to the Blackfoot River to fish, because the cutthroat were tastier than the “mushy” fish in the Clark Fork River. He kept a small cooler on the back of his bike, and one day at the end of summer, he stopped in at Harold’s Club to get some ice for his two fish. A heavyset older man who noticed that he’d been fishing struck up a conversation. It was Richard Hugo, the late poet and founder of the UM Creative Writing Program.
Hugo at first wanted to talk fishing, and then encouraged Saroff to sit in on one of his poetry classes. They met frequently for several years.
Saroff stopped living outside when he was 23, for reasons you could guess.
“Women, for some of us, save our lives,” he said.
He made a living for about three years on his fiction, which was published in Redbook, then a coveted outlet for writers, and other women’s magazines. He guesses he was living off of $3,000 to $4,000 a year. He also kept a studio in the Brunswick Building and shot pictures and developed them in the dark room.
If he got in a bind, he would pick up jobs writing software, an interest he’d developed very early in the field.
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“Whenever I would get broke, I would end up working for somebody, somewhere, writing software,” he said.
He notes that very few people owned computers then, and it was not an economic force that it is today.
“Back when I first started working with computers, it was vocationally about as lucrative as knowing how to fix a toaster or a lawnmower,” he said.
He was hired by Oregon State University as a faculty research engineer for their oceanography department, because he knew how to program in a language called C, which is “what created the computer revolution more than any hardware. It allowed people to write things in a very free-form way. All the original, great software that made people start buying PCs was written in C,” he said.
After a bad break-up in Oregon, he decided to move back to Missoula. His partner felt like she was living in his shadow, because success appeared to come easy to him. He spent four months here washing dishes trying to figure out what to do.
“I couldn’t figure out where to focus my energy, which is common with dyslexics,” he said.
His first big success, which could have been a $100 million company if things had worked out, was called FreeMail, one of the first web-based email systems.
In the early ‘90s, most people didn’t actually have internet access, he and his partner Glenn Kreisel designed software that used a combination of the internet and dial-up lines to form an organic network. They eventually sold it to a subsidiary of WorldCom, which then went bust. They’d accepted equity and subsequently got nothing.
That coincided with the 1999 dot-com crash. “I was unemployed, fired and broke,” he said. It was hard to even find work in computers here in Missoula. He’d also gone through a divorce and had two young children to care for. He’d go to the job service to find manual labor, like putting up drywall. He also fixed electronics on the side.
“Any amount of money is infinitely more than no amount of money, and never feel proud about what you do,” he said. He nearly lost his house. His vehicle broke down.
After several years of “abject poverty,” he and Kreisel started a company called Remote Scan with around $200.
Software, he says, “allows you to change the world, and you can do it with a cheap machine.”
The company is the simplest and “most boring” thing he’s ever worked on. It allowed scanners, such as ones for IDs, to connect with a remote computer. They stayed small and lean, wary of contracts after their FreeMail experience.
Within a year, it was pulling in $1 million in revenue. About eight years ago, they sold it to Dell Computers.
He now works on projects that he’s interested in. When he talks with people who want investments, he said what’s often missing is a ground-level work ethic. He was the first investor in Submittable, a Missoula firm that just raised $10 million in funding. He said that company’s founder, Michael FitzGerald, was the type of person who was willing to do all the difficult tasks himself, which isn’t always the case.
“They want other people to do the hard work,” he said. They also sign contracts without knowing that they’re being taken advantage of.
“Probably more than anything else that helps you start a business, run a business and make money and deal with life in general, is to circle through all sorts of adverse things. I’m not saying anything new here,” he said.
Saroff also is active with the ceramics community. He shares a studio at his house with Casey Zablocki, an artist he met through wood-kiln firings with the Clay Studio of Missoula.
Those firings, held at a large outdoor kiln, require up to 10 days, with people helping stoke the fire day and night.
“It marries almost everything I like. It's really difficult, it's really unpredictable, and it's like wonderful people,” he said.
Ceramics lets you create by yourself and then come together to complete it, a trait common to many art forms, or even writing code.
“Go out in the world, be alone, find something, do something by yourself and then come back together and go, 'look what I found.' Share it in some way,” he said.