Chapter 19 A King Is Born
128. They’d never believe me, not for a moment, not from a Volvo. It only had a top speed of 140, and pushing any further, the pedal and the needle, might just be the end of the Volvo and the Man from Intrepid. But right then I felt like I could do anything, even fly, like demons can, no matter whether it was what I was chasing down or running from.
On such a narrow single lane country road, wide enough for only one car smaller than a Volvo, it would only take a stray cow or sheep to send me into a real flight. But it was still for just long enough to be exhilarating and even clarifying.
And besides, I was untouchable now, everything so clearly pointing to it. Everything was going so fast and so well. Progress on Milcode was so far ahead of my wildest expectations, Shea and his team felt confident that soon enough, though not specific enough, they’d be able to reduce the crudely-wired prototypes into neat and precise circuit boards that would fit properly inside a case and look and function like a real secure phone. The first real chance to not only see our beautiful creature come to life, but to prove to all others that it was all true. All we needed, said Shea, were some of those circuit boards.
There was only one company in all of Ireland that would consider manufacturing printed circuit boards in the small quantities and low prices that we needed, and they were on the other side of the country in a place called Bunratty just beyond the city of Limerick. It was only about 150 miles away but with poor roads most of the way it would take me most of the day to get there and back. But I jumped at the challenge because it was another chance to get away and be by myself and think and plan and drive very fast in a Volvo.
Word was getting out, enquiries were coming in, although nothing yet from the Americans. Maybe they weren’t as impressed as we thought they might be. Maybe they’d secretly beaten us to the punch with a newer generation that hadn’t yet announced and were just waiting for us to publicly humiliate ourselves. Or perhaps they had decided to leave us in peace, compete with us fairly, leave our fight to the marketplace.
Hard as I begged the IDA for more money, and grants instead of the endless loan guarantees that would still come due eventually, they resisted just as hard. You need firm orders, they said, or at least firm interest from customers. We can’t get that without finished prototypes, I argued, and that needs more money. But they didn’t budge an inch while we needed to move forward miles, and so my attention went back to the teacher and our first substantial investor.
Unlike the IDA, he seemed to recognize the opportunity and the role encryption in any form might soon play in everything. We had our second, and very short meeting to discuss funding options. But instead of announcing that he had no further faith in the venture, he surprised me with an offer to acquire a majority stake in the company, for enough money to take the company into production, to sales, and hopefully to be acquired.
I would be left with a substantial minority share in the company, enough to make me a millionaire, along with an appropriate executive salary and package. And as a sweetener, he would assume all the company and my personal debts.
I told him I’d think about it for a few days, and talk to Shea too. The offer was interesting, and very tempting, it would ease so much of the almost unendurable stress of just not knowing. And I’d be a millionaire, finally, like I’d told everyone I would. I asked my father too, as he’d personally guaranteed some of the loans that could now be lifted from his shoulders.
“What if he’s just testing you?” he said. “You’re on the brink of a product that you’ve been telling everyone who’ll listen that it’ll make millions, yet you agree to sell out for pennies at the first offer you get? Would that alone not give him pause?”
My father was on a roll now. “And if he’s such a shrewd investor, and he wants the company that badly, then I think you must be on to something.” Hold fast, he counseled, and not putting much effort in hiding the fact that we were now parties to million pound negotiations.
I thought about the Crock too, would I make enough to save it, could it be saved, restored, even small parts of it? I decided that I would, hold fast. And hold fast in telling Shea too. At least for now. There would be no point in asking for his opinion or even sharing the conversation.
Shea saw conspiracies everywhere, especially around me, and to him this new offer would have all the telltales of a takeover attempt by the affluent teacher and I to oust Shea. I knew immediately that would be his reaction, and to him the mere discussion of the offer would then be absolute proof that his suspicions were right all along. There might be no coming back from that given how close we were to everything or nothing.
At least the British seemed excited. An enquiry and an offer of a visit to Dublin of a delegation from GEC Plessey’s crypto division was followed less than a week later by a similar request from Racal, the other major British defense company and Plessey’s biggest rival.
Encouraging as it was that interest was percolating and people were recognizing the significance of our accomplishment, it was tempered by mounting frustration that we still had nothing to show them, nothing at all. We were bragging and teasing about a product that we still didn’t have, and all in the hope it might attract a customer or investor who could help us deliver what we were promising.
The only two working prototypes we had completed so far were much too crude for any meaningful demonstration. I wanted a phone that spoke for itself, not one layered in explanations and descriptions and excuses and always kept out of sight like a reclusive film star not quite ready for the lights and the attention.
Shea and the team were still working furiously to fit the newly-minted printed circuit boards into the sleek but very shallow plastic house. They were running into problems with both the power supply that we had to build ourselves, and the growing number of connectors we needed to add if we wanted to live up to our promise of total voice, data, and fax security and privacy for the entire world and beyond.
“It would be grand if we had a bigger case,” said Shea. “If it weren’t for that wedge at the front, we’d have just enough space.” But they’d have to make it work, because a new case tooled just for Milcode was completely impractical for now. It would take too long and cost too much. And besides, it was still a Plessey case, and that might be leverage in our upcoming discussions. A small psychological advantage and maybe a small but useful win if the product already looked familiar to them.
We scheduled Plessey first, in part because they said they already had a trip planned to their Dublin office and dropping in would be more convenient than coming back. It bothered me that we might be little more than an afterthought, a brief moment of curiosity or politeness on their way to the airport. But at least they were coming. This would be our best chance yet to test the reaction of a real customer.
The weeks of waiting were consumed by wave after wave of anticipation and stress. The IDA had politely offered the use of their massive boardroom for the meeting, and we graciously accepted if only because there wouldn’t be enough room in our crypt to host them. But that offer stole another card we might have needed.
If the Plessey team showed a positive reaction, confirmed our bold claims about the significance of our Milcode and the size of the opportunity, it would be a perfect bookend to that first meeting with the Captain and his big idea. It would surely give the IDA the confidence to finally loosen the purse strings and engage in serious discussions about real funding.
But anything less from Plessey might give the IDA the smug satisfaction that they were right all along to be cautious and skeptical, and might even doom our hopes of any further funding. At least if the meeting were held elsewhere and without the presence of the IDA, I could speak creatively about any outcomes.
But things were set now. We had to have at least two working prototypes within the two weeks we’d offered, and they had to work gloriously on the day. You shouldn’t have promised, said Shea. I didn’t, I said, they were coming anyway, so why not give it a try? I tried to dilute his anger with the suggestion that if they were at least confident from the demonstration that we’d really done what we’d claimed, we might be something they’d want to invest in. This meeting could be our greatest win yet. Maybe even the final one.
It wouldn’t matter if the phone wasn’t completely ready for its big reveal, Plessey said. Just enough to learn if we would be, well, just enough. That seemed just enough for Shea, at least for now.
I didn’t sleep for days before the meeting. I never slept much anyway. Everyone was stressed, short tempered, exhausted. Afraid. Days starting at seven in the morning and often not ending until three or four the following morning.
I could do little to help even though I’d already done my part, but Shea would still occasionally call me at around midnight to ask if I wouldn’t mind bringing a pizza around for the lads seeing as I was the only one with a car. There was a small 24-hour pizza hole just around the corner from the office but it was his way of reminding me that at least for now, he was in charge.
While the IDA had been very supportive, and especially in helping us raise bank financing by guaranteeing those loans, we needed more, so much more. And fast. No more loans that we’d eventually have to pay back, unless we didn’t make it. But investment, real and substantial. And even better, grants connected to jobs created so that we wouldn’t have to dilute any more equity. Shea hated that. Too many mouths to feed, too many beggars at the table, he whined.
We should be asking for much more, he said. Half a million at least. If it’s a small amount, Shea loved to say, they have you by the short and curlys. A big amount and you have them by the same. It was an interesting theory, like all of his, and did make some sense.
But no matter how hard we pushed, no matter how many encouraging signs we lit up in front of the IDA, we couldn’t get even a resemblance of a commitment out of them. Barely even a reaction. If this meeting went well though, that would change, it had to. We’d get the funding we needed, and Intrepid would likely complete the last mile of the first race and I could, maybe at long last, find some kind of rest and peace.
If either of these upcoming meetings were a success, it could quite possibly be the launch of Intrepid globally. Beyond being a customer, I privately hoped that Plessey might offer to be an investor too, and maybe a first step towards a very commonsense and strategic decision to acquire the entire startup for far more than the teacher had offered. For the sake of my sanity I didn’t allow myself to imagine the outcome, all the reactions I’d have to manage, if the meeting failed.
Our guests would be a delegation of four from GEC Plessey Crypto in Liverpool, GEC’s growing crypto division, and would include a couple of engineers, a cryptographer, and the company’s top sales manager. Our side bettered them and all rinsed and polished as though expecting an audience with the Queen herself.
Shea and I would lead the meeting and accompanied by Brendan to explain the speech coding, Ciaran to tackle the cryptographer, and a couple of Shea’s backroom prodigies to make sure the thing was plugged in. And clean. And we brough Gemma too, just in case. It couldn’t hurt.
From the IDA, just one. The same one. Always just him.
I opened the meeting, introducing my shiny shabby team, explaining the role of the IDA, and congratulating and thanking them for their role as a visionary supporter and investor. That was followed by a short speech about our joint hopes to make Ireland a leader in the growing field of encryption. And our determination to take advantage of both our neutrality and our decision not to be signatory to any global agreements that restricted or regulated the use of encryption.
I guided the audience through the origins of the Intrepid project and the main features of the phone, but quickly handing over to Shea to reassure him that he was really the most important man in the room and the only reason we were here so quickly.
“Where do I recognize that phone from?” asked one of the engineers. “Have you pitched us before?”
“I know, I recognize it too,” said the second engineer.
Time to confess. It’s a Plessy Communications ISDN phone case, I explained. “I knew it,” he said, “We have some of those in our conference room.”
The ice was broken, their reaction to the phone was just as I had hoped, and it gave us a gentle ramp to the most important part of the meeting.The biggest challenge for our demonstration was that it was impossible to tell from something as simple as a phone call whether that call was indeed going through some incredibly complicated processing and encryption just to be heard. But they still wanted to hear it. The validation of the technology would come later.
We set some of Shea’s team up in a small room off the conference room, plugged both phones into telephone jacks, and started making calls between the two phones. It was easy enough for the GEC team to check off the obvious. The length of time between answering the phone and hearing the voice at the other end, the quality of the voice at the other end, and if it was distinguishable, recognizable, accurately fabricated by Milcode’s mechanics.
They wanted to test delays between speaking and hearing, and especially our claims that we were able to reduce the lag time from around twenty seconds in the STU III to about a second. So barely noticeable at all, even if the phone was just in the other room less than twenty feet away. Long distance calls would be tested later.
They asked if Gemma could say a few words, just to make sure the phone processed female speech just as accurately. We sang, we couged, we shouted, we whispered, and Milcode stood up to every test. One of the GEC engineers who apparently had an ear for interference listened closely for any unusual signals or background noise, and very cheerfully confirmed that the signals he could detect coming through with the voice suggested very strongly the existence of speech processing and encryption taking place.
“What about electromagnetic pulse and EMSEC?” asked one of the engineers, and I’m sure just trying to either show off or catch us out.
“You mean TEMPEST?” I responded before anyone else could. “Absolutely. Just not in this demo.”
“CESG will probably want to take a look,” he said. “Maybe try to get it certified.” The Communications Electronic Security Group was a part of GCHQ, Britain’s ultra secret spy headquarters, and a place I would be later invited to visit.
We might even be able to stretch to NEMP, Shea interrupted. NEMP, or Nuclear Electromagnetic Pulse, was one of Shea’s growing list of fixations, the theoretical shielding of the components of a secure phone to prevent the phone from being fried internally from the radiation effects of a nuclear activation or explosion. In other words, being able to continue communicating securely in the event of a nuclear attack.
“So how do you think the Americans will react?” asked the sales manager. “I mean, they probably won’t be pleased.”
I tried to show some bravado. “Honestly, I don’t think there’s much they can do about it. We’re a neutral country and we’re not part of COCOM, so they’ll just have to get used to us.” My secret hope was always that the Americans would buy us. Or simply the possibility that they might spur someone else, like GEC, to make us an offer.
“It’s designed to be a crypto engine,” said Shea. “You can swap out our encryption and put your own it.” That was a concern for us from very early on. If we were asked to customize the phone, use a client’s encryption and key management instead of our own, then we would know almost as much about their encryption and key management as they would. That might make us a national security threat. And that would make us vulnerable, even unsafe.
“So,” said Malachy, and the first time he’d spoken since the introduction. “If you were to resell, how many do you think we’d be talking about? Just best guess.”
At least his first question was a meaningful one, and the very question that had been racing around my head but too afraid to ask.
The sales manager looked at each of his team, and they looked back, as though either not knowing the answer or afraid to commit to one so quickly.
“What do you think, would 50 be realistic?”
Jesus Christ, and I nearly screamed it aloud as all the air quickly abandoned the room. 50 units at a dealer price and at our current costs wouldn’t even cover our costs. Please say more, I silently implored him, it has to be at least ten times that.
His engineer looked at the ceiling, as though the answer might be written there, pondered the thought and the number for a few moments.
“Over the next few years? I think that’s doable. Especially if it’s worldwide.”
It was like a kiss too soon, suddenly everything felt awkward and went quiet, it seemed as though no one had anything left to say, to ask. It was completely deflating. And it was setting in very quickly, that we might be done and I might be in big trouble. Not only did it kill any chance of any further support from the IDA, it completely yanked the rug from under the entire startup.
If one of the biggest defense companies in the world could only see a market of 50 Milcodes a year, Intrepid was not only pointless, but I was beginning to look like a fraud. Or worse, a fool. How did I get the numbers so wrong?
As though to rub in the fact that he was right to be untrusting of me all along, Malachy asked for clarification.
“So you think 50 units a year, you think that’s the topline, worldwide?” A coup de gras, a final cut, and I hated the IDA now.
The Plessey team looked at us and then each other and laughed.
“Sorry, no,” said the sales manager, as if the news could get any worse. “I mean fifty million pounds worth.”
The air rushed back into the room and filled our lungs and our cheeks. Jesus Christ I screamed again and this time I didn’t care if I went to hell for it.
“That would be over a few years, though,” he tempered, but that mattered nothing. The faces of my team lit up, while Malachy’s remained stuck in the neutral position.
“That sounds about right,” I finally chimed in, trying to manage my cracking voice. “That’s what my research was telling me.”
I didn’t really have any research but that’s what I was telling everyone anyway, knowing that I couldn’t be proven wrong and right here, right now, completely vindicated. This was turning into the best day of my life, even better than the other bookend, that meeting with the Captain. That would be thousands of Milcodes every year, maybe as many as 5,000 if we assumed a low dealer price. Way beyond my projections. And that was just one customer.
How big could it get? Two, three, ten times that number? I’d always believed that if Milcode was cheap enough, affordable enough, it could replace every phone in the world that was used to share any conversations of any level of sensitivity. And fax machines too, and computers. It would indeed be millins!
I was the King, and now there were witnesses. No longer would they doubt me, mock me, mistrust me. I was right all along, and if I was right about this, and in fact very understated, then safe to assume that I was right, and modestly so, about everything else.
Malachy’s reaction was to apologize to the room that he had to rush to another meeting and that he would catch up with me later. And just like that the biggest meeting of our lives concluded with the best news of our lives.
While Shea, Brendan and the others headed back to the office and the celebrations, I waited with the Plessey guests as they waited for a taxi.
“It looks like a great product,” said the sales manager. “Do you mind me asking, have you had better offers?” I confessed that we didn’t, that in fact they were the first. I could have told him we were drenched in offers and he’d have to move soon.
But at that point, consumed by the joy and the relief, it was just easy to be truthful and even vulnerable. At that moment, it felt like it might trigger the best reaction. And maybe a quick one at that. I didn’t mention that their biggest competitor was coming to visit us the following week. It was enough truth for one conversation.
But the sales manager had a different reason for the question. “I was surprised at Malachy’s reaction, that’s all. He has a great poker face. I threw out a number of fifty million and he didn’t even blink.”
He was right, he didn’t blink, or even look at me. It was puzzling and troubling but not enough for me to dwell on for very long because we had just won, everything, and Malachy no longer really mattered now.