THE ACCIDENTAL CANDIDATE
By Deborah Branscum
Everybody likes to have a good time, including the titans of technology. Some execs sail; others pilot their own planes to remote ranches when a little R&R beckons. But not Nat Goldhaber. In his spare time the Internet entrepreneur ran for Vice President of the United States. While the Florida political battle continues, Goldhaber's back at work as the vice chairman of MyPoints.com and looking none the worse for wear after a three-month stint of campaigning for the Reform-Natural Law Party ticket.
The campaign was not your standard executive vacation. As the Berkeley native tells it, he never even intended to run for office. In 1996, he had cofounded CyberGold, an online incentives company that paid consumers for their attention to advertising. Ultimately he hoped the company would also become a powerhouse in creating a marketplace for intellectual property. That never happened--the market hasn't welcomed self-publishing, even from Stephen King--but CyberGold's successful IPO in September 1999 was a cause for celebration. Only a few months later, though, competition was fierce, no profits were in sight and CyberGold's stock, like that of so many dot-coms, had tanked. So the company arranged to be acquired by MyPoints, creating the largest online loyalty-marketing firm and, in theory, freeing up Goldhaber for other pursuits.
On the same August day that the sale of CyberGold was completed, Goldhaber flew to Southern California to attend the Reform Party nominating convention. He was there to support his friend John Hagelin, the physicist-politician who had run for president twice before as the Natural Law candidate. This time Hagelin was competing with Pat Buchanan to be the nominee of the Reform Party, too, when all hell broke loose. According to reports, Buchanan supporters commandeered the microphones and angered the majority of Reform delegates, who stormed out of the official convention to create a splinter group.
Hagelin got the nod for the faction's presidential slot and a Reform-Natural Law coalition was born. Several candidates for Vice President were nominated, including Goldhaber. He and Hagelin had become friends decades earlier, drawn together because of their belief in meditation. Perhaps best known for heading Kaleida Labs, the unsuccessful IBM-Apple joint venture, Goldhaber ran the Berkeley Transcendental Meditation Center in the early 1960s. The dapper 52 year-old began meditating in 1965 and worked with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi for several years, during which he helped establish the Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa, where Hagelin teaches.
Afterward, Goldhaber worked as a special assistant to the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor and ran the Pennsylvania State Energy Agency as an interim director. He headed back west in 1986 to found and head Centram Systems West, later called TOPS, which developed the first IBM-Macintosh local-area network. TOPS was sold to Sun Microsystems for a tidy sum, and Goldhaber became a venture capitalist for a time before starting CyberGold.
But he kept in touch with Hagelin and kept his eye on politics. As a joke, Goldhaber used to call himself a Republican Anarchist ("break down the stagnant structures, but keep the money") but his heart, he says, was never with either of the two major parties. "What's refreshing about third-party politics is that you can look at each of the issues on its merits. You can be pro-environment and still believe in the Second Amendment."
Before the Reform convention, Hagelin had asked Goldhaber to be his running mate and the executive said no. But Goldhaber won the vice presidential vote and felt compelled to participate. "I became a candidate much to my surprise and later, to my delight," says the exec.
Perhaps only Goldhaber was surprised; certainly his co-workers weren't. "I had sort of expected that for a long time," says Gary Fitts, who cofounded CyberGold and is now CTO at Magna Cash, a CyberGold spinout. Fitts was convinced his colleague would dive into politics some day. "He was always very interested in policy, in politics, and a tremendously good speaker. And energetic. Many of the things that make one a good entrepreneur apply just as well to politics." Only one close friend said, at least to his face, that it was nuts to run, that he would regret it.
"I enjoyed the hell out of it," says Goldhaber with a grin. "I can't imagine anything more fun." He loved zipping around the country, addressing crowds, listening to their concerns and seeing the true diversity this country offers.
Now that the campaign's over, Goldhaber is back to the technology treadmill. "We sold CyberGold to MyPoints because we thought together they would become the market leader, " he says. "I believed at the time the MyPoints team was better than the team I assembled." But there wasn't much of a team left after the acquisition was completed and disappointing third-quarter results led to staff layoffs of 29%, according to one MyPoints executive. MyPoints.com has gone from a high of $90 per share to just $1.25 and is now searching for a new CEO. Goldhaber, as a large shareholder, has his attention riveted on increasing the value of the company.
Still, he remains unfazed, unrepentant and happy he took the plunge into politics. The Hagelin-Goldhaber slogan was "Anything's Possible." But surely he never believed there was a chance in hell they might win.
"Sure, we could have won," he insists.
C'mon, Nat, investors and employees are banking on your good judgment. Those quotes about being in the race to win, you didn't really mean it, right?
"If we'd had $200 million, we could have won," Goldhaber says with a laugh.