Morino Associates, later Legent, was one of the first commercial tech companies in the 1970s and 1980s.
Software firms or product firms were really rare. If you go back to 1984 or 1985, there were only maybe six true software firms in the region. A meeting of the CEOs could have fit around the corner of the bar at Clyde’s. And we were ostracized. We were these mavericks—we weren’t doing “real” business, we weren’t part of the big government complexes, and we weren’t part of the business community. No one gave you the time of day.
Why did you retire?
I got remarried and I had my first family, and I knew that if I stayed in business, I would ruin that relationship. I’m too competitive and too driven, and I just had to break it. I made a cold-turkey break in 1992.
What was your next move?
I began to go to meetings and network with leaders in the region. When I was doing my business, I couldn’t have told you who my supervisor was in Fairfax County. I didn’t care; I was running a business that was all over the world.
Making the rounds, I learned about the complexity of the leadership of this region and the importance of getting involved. You have all those groups that you can see—the boards of trade, the tech communities, the business roundtables. Then you have informal groups. One executive told me, “Decisions in DC are made by four guys at Congressional Country Club at 7:30 on Friday mornings.”
That doesn’t even get into the community networks and the activists. And there’s an international monetary world and a presidential administration.
The DC region is a massive ecosystem. I went to a National Parks Foundation dinner once where there had to be 1,500 people. I didn’t see one face that I recognized. That’s Washington. If you step outside of your arena, you can be totally in another world.
Is that complexity bad?
It’s not bad, but if you don’t know how to navigate it, you’re toast.
Sally Quinn talked to me for a Washington Post story about how new money was changing the area. I told her you can get on a ladder of success here, climb the ladder, get to the top, and feel so proud. And then you look around and realize you’re on the wrong ladder. There are so many ladders taller than the one you’re on.
How did you become known as the godfather of the tech industry?
After I retired, I got involved with the Northern Virginia Business Roundtable. George Johnson ran it—he was then president of George Mason University—and that’s where I met Earle Williams, lawyer and developer Til Hazel, and others in the Northern Virginia business community. I was again the new guy on the block and the odd guy at the table. Everybody else was either a builder or a computer-systems integrator. That was it.
I gave a speech to the group on September 28, 1994, about the future of Washington as a digital capital. I remember the date because that morning Disney announced that it was pulling out of its plan to build a theme park near Manassas. I walked in to give the speech, and it was like death had hit this place. All the Northern Virginia builders—they just saw massive fortunes go down the drain.
But the negative atmosphere helped my speech. By the time I finished, people were really excited; they were sort of on the rebound. At the end of the meeting, George Johnson, whom I hardly knew, said to me, “I don’t know if I understand anything you said, but I watched this room, and there’s a chariot moving out, and I’m getting on it.”
What did you say in the speech?
I showed them that this region was going to be a portal of commerce in the 21st century. It wouldn’t be just technology, but technology would enable it. We were moving to a network society, a world connected by the Internet. Remember, this was 1994, when Al Gore was still talking about the information superhighway.
I told them that the MAE-East, the key Internet exchange point for the eastern part of the country, was located here—in Northern Virginia. The closer you are to that pipe, the faster your Internet times are going to be. That’s why you saw the emergence of Internet-service providers here and why so many hosting centers located here. This was as close to the pipe as you could get on the East Coast.
At the time, Legent was an anchor company spinning off lots of smaller companies. MCI was also an anchor, and AOL was clearly emerging as one.