By SUSAN LAHEY
Special Contributor to Silicon Hills News
For a moment, think only of Chaotic Moon Labs’ Board of Awesomeness: a battery-powered, all terrain skateboard that surges to 32 miles an hour. It’s not Chaotic Moon’s magnum opus, but it is a signature piece. The Board of Awesomeness is the kind of thing kids have fantasized about for decades, lying under big trees in the grass, drinking root beer, eating Starburst and thinking: “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a motorized, all terrain skateboard that went as fast as a car?”
Take a bunch of people who still live that moment, give them ridiculous amounts of technological know-how, and you have Chaotic Moon.
The face of Chaotic Moon is its general manager, Whurley. Born William Hurley (and previously thoroughly insulted by the Whurley moniker because it wasn’t meant as a compliment,) Whurley started life as an Army brat. His dad gave him access to a computer when computers were still in their infancy. And his parents taught him to love ideas, inculcating him with shows like Connections, a television series in which British narrator James Burke– wearing the same pantsuit in every episode– shows how everything that happens in modern times can be traced back to inventions, decisions and cultures of 100 years ago, 500 years, a thousand. Watching that show religiously as a kid taught Whurley perspective.
His parents never explained that some things can’t be done. They were more inclined to say “Try it, see what happens.” So he did.
His first career choice was as a bassist in a successful funk band which toured regularly and achieved some success and whose name he refuses to reveal. But in 1991 his music career was interrupted by a serious car accident. He endured 13 hours of exploratory surgery and several weeks in the ICU, followed by nearly a year of recovery. The band went on without him. So Whurley—then known as Bill or Billy or William—started toying with sound synchronization on CDs. It stemmed from his interest in music but expanded to movies and games. He was able to make sound line up with action. It was a skill Apple computer needed and it was the start of Whurley’s tech career.
The career progressed from R&D for Apple to Master Inventor, Senior Manager of Targeted Internet Solutions for IBM, where he racked up many patents for the company. Then he voyaged through several other companies: Qlusters Inc., Symbiot Inc.—of which he was a cofounder–and BMC Software.
Whurley had no college degree, though he’s considering pursuing a degree in Awesomeness. But neither would he say he’s self taught.
“No one is really self taught,” he shrugged. “I’ve had dozens of amazing mentors who were nice enough to take the time to teach me.”
Among them were Steve Smith, Chaotic Moon’s Chief Technology Officer, Tom Bishop of BMC. Doug Lenat, founder of Cycorp Inc.
He’s always been fascinated by what was possible, and was among the founders of a camp for iPhone developers when another founder, Raven Zachary, invited him to go for a walk. It was 2007. Zachary announced: “I’m going to start a company building apps.” Almost without thinking about it, Whurley responded “Me too.”
At that moment, he said, he had a vision of Obi Wan Kenobi floating in front of him saying “Pioneers get all the arrows in the back.” Apps were new. Anyone who plunged in in 2007 was destined for some arrows in the back. So Whurley took his idea to his old friend Mike Erwin who suggested they wait three years. 2010. That would be the perfect moment to launch an app company.
“Waiting three years was hard for me,” Whurley said. “It’s always been so easy for me to see advanced technology and say ‘This could be a reality now. ‘ But the tech isn’t there or the people aren’t ready for it, they won’t buy it yet.”
In 2009 at SXSW, Whurley and Erwin met Ben Lamm and he instantly became “the third wheel of our tricycle.” They had three very different personalities and different skill sets but together they made a perfect team. For awhile, Whurley said, they postulated that if any one of them were to disappear, the cult/family that is Chaotic Moon would dissolve. But now they think it’s taken on a life of its own.
In the last months of 2009, they all took time off. Erwin to travel. Whurley to spend time with his teenage son. In January of 2010, he said, he started asking “Hey, remember that company we were going to start?” By mid February it was a matter of some urgency. They launched at SXSW in 2010.
The company’s structure is meant to fuel dreams. As Whurley said in an interview with Businessmakers: “Chaotic Moon…is kind of a dream engine if you will. Most people’s plan looks like a three-step plan, right? And step one is, you know, fantastic idea, and step three is profit, and step two is a big question mark.”
Chaotic Moon does step two. The studios group does work for hire in very large apps such as The Daily. The games division is a publisher of original titles as well as titles people bring to the company. And the labs is the intellectual property development arm. “That’s where we respond to client needs when nothing exists to meet the client’s need,” he said.
The company runs on a two-out-of-three management system. If two of the three founders outvote the other, he stays outvoted. Whurley swore they’d never have a CEO. But one day, he was in a meeting with a client and Ben Lamm who was the Chief Creative Officer.
“The guy says, ‘This is an $8 million deal, I’m not going to negotiate with the chief creative officer.’ So I called Mike and said ‘This guy needs a CEO what do you think of making Ben CEO?’ and he said ‘Done.’ So I turned back to the guy and said, ‘Okay, he’s the CEO, let’s negotiate.’”
Currently Whurley’s working on a $20 million deal but most apps cost a couple million. Sometimes the company gets paid in cash, sometimes stock and royalties. It has a strong incentive and profit sharing program to encourage the wholehearted participation of stellar developers.
Chaotic Moon’s founders created its culture very deliberately, with a video-game, space-guy avatar that speaks to many generations, the tag line “All Your Mobile Apps Are Belong to Us” and the constant promise “We’re smarter than you.”
“You know you go to the website of most of these app developers and they’re so serious and then you go meet them and they’re all like ‘We’re so awesome.’” He said. “We wanted to do the opposite. So they go to the website and we’re like ‘We’re awesome, we’re smarter than you,’ and then they meet us and we’re just these regular guys. People who don’t have a sense of humor never call us. They don’t get it.”
“Austin has this very strong be yourself ethos,” said Bijoy Goswami, founder of The Bootstrap Network. “It’s about individualism and self expression. The question isn’t just ‘Did you build a big company?’ it’s ‘Did you build one that was unique and true to yourself?’ In a lot of ways, Chaotic Moon is the quintessential Austin company.”
Equally important, Goswami said, is how Chaotic Moon is exporting that unique culture outside of Austin “showing us where we ought to be going.”
Whurley, too, is part of the brand. Whurley intends to create a whole website, the domain of which someone acquired for him years ago. He avoided it because it originally referred to the fact that he’s high energy, all over the board. “Whirly.” But he was speaking on going for a bold brand once and an audience member challenged him about why he had failed to embrace the name. After that, he became Whurley everywhere.
“He’s part of what makes the startup community what it is,” said Eve Richter, the City of Austin’s Emerging Technologies Coordinator. “He’s one of a handful of people everyone knows, thought leaders, personalities. But I’ve never heard anyone say ‘Oh Whurley, yeah he’s full of himself or he’s posturing. I’ve never heard anyone say that. People like him and they like being around him.”
His business card, she pointed out, listed him as “Evil Genius.” Anybody with that on their business card is okay in my book.”
Keith Casey, developer evangelist of Twilio said Whurley showed him around town and heard someone refer to Whurley as Tony Stark.
“He just cracked up,” he said.
But Whurley gives entirely too much credit to his partners and the 30 or so brilliant people who work with their company to create extraordinary products to be Tony Stark.
He explains his group’s success succinctly.
“We have a healthy imagination and no respect for boundaries and limits.”