What happens when great wealth comes into your life? What matters when the fortune is suddenly gone?
The meteoric path of David Colby Hayden began while working as a carpenter and led to success and fame during the early days of the internet. He co-founded Magellan, one of the first search engines, and later, Critical Path, the first company to use the cloud to deliver commercial services on the world wide web.
“Back then, the internet was very exciting because it represented this vast trove of knowledge that we had to figure out a way to gain access to, to categorize it and search through it. I wanted to create things, so we worked around the clock.”
Hayden, 62, was an Eagle Scout who built houses in the San Francisco Bay Area with a construction business he started while studying political science at Stanford University. He quit building houses to work with his sister-in-law, who worked on information retrieval in the early 1990s, when there were only about 30,000 websites around the world. Hayden saw how servers could be centralized outside of offices, built a team and went after venture capital.
“It was always about ideas for me,” Hayden said. “I wanted to create things. Carpenters are great problem solvers and spatial thinkers. We are also good at organizing a team to get something done.”
The team worked. Even though Magellan was passed over for an initial public offering, Hayden took Critical Path to great heights, bringing Hayden riches and fame. He was named one of the top 100 Internet Entrepreneurs at the 2000 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and delivered the keynote speech at the World Bank Government Borrower’s Forum in Rome in 2000. His personal fortune at one point was estimated to be around $500 million.
“My wife and I traveled a lot and bought expensive houses that we then spent a lot of money remodeling. We contributed some to charities but could have done so much more.”
Hayden then watched it all go away. According to The New York Times, Hayden had borrowed $2 million from an investment bank, pledging all his Critical Path stock as collateral, as well as any future stock he might receive. When the company went public in 1999, its initial offering price of $24 rose rapidly and his shares grew in value to more than $100 million. In 2000, they were worth well over $200 million.
Hayden sold $45 million worth of stock but borrowed heavily on company stock, which would soon drop precipitously.
Court cases ensued and Hayden lost his family to divorce. In the end, he was left with very little, facing a life that a few years earlier seemed unimaginable.
“The bank lawyers contended that I was too smart to get into such a pickle, but if I had sold stock as CEO it would have looked bad to the company’s investors. I was dissuaded from doing this. I am embarrassed now that it all went away and also sad that it affected a lot of other people, too.”
Hayden suffered a stroke about a year ago that left him unable to walk or use his left arm. He rolled into a gulch and was rescued by passersby who saw his dog Stella watching him from above. Hayden’s speech is halting but has been improved with therapy aimed at calming his mind. He has a sense of humor and ready smile.
“I lost my physical freedom and I don’t speak quickly like I used to, but I am grateful every minute for what I do have. My Eagle Scout character has given me strength. Life is a gift and I am lucky to be here.”
Hayden lives at Bell Mountain Village and Care Center, an assisted-living facility in Bellevue.
“Although I never thought I would wind up here, the people here are amazing caregivers and human beings,” said Hayden, who kicks himself around the building with his good leg in a wheelchair, followed by Stella.
“When you have a lot of money, everybody wants to be your friend, but they mostly go away when the money goes away. But it was never about the money for me. We wanted to change the underlying technology and create a new corporate culture.”
Hayden said he found out who his real friends were when his back was against the wall and he didn’t know what to do.
“Although I don’t run in those circles anymore, I still have some wealthy friends who are doing good things in the world.”
One good friend from his college days showed up recently when Hayden’s mother prepared for her 90th birthday. He drove to Idaho from the Bay Area to give Hayden and Stella a ride to the party, and back.
“I am just not about money anymore. Life is all about friendship, love, kindness and integrity, qualities that people don’t seem to talk much about. I have to respond to others. That is what a relationship is.”
Hayden meditates and prays every day, reflecting on the many spiritual traditions that inspired him when he was younger, including Eastern traditions. He has taken to writing poetry again, which began for him as a way to communicate with a girlfriend years ago.
“My poetry is somewhat mystical and opaque, little journeys of the soul. When I write a poem, I take that journey.”
Hayden delivered a provocative TEDx Sun Valley lecture last year, titled “The Very Concept of Imagination,” in which he described a theoretical internet-like system that could allow for the transmission of information and matter without technology.
“I gave that talk because I wanted to get people thinking differently about the world than they usually do. There is a field of consciousness that we all share,” Hayden said. “What if we could exchange knowledge and information without any devices?”
Hayden said he continues to work on applications that could further transform communication, visual apps that could transmit information without text or symbols.
“The fish trap exists because of the fish. Once you’ve gotten the fish you can forget the trap,” says Hayden, quoting Zhuang Zhou, a 4th century B.C. Chinese philosopher.
“The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit. Once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning. Once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words.”