From whiz-kid founder of a multimillion-dollar Internet services company to UFO zealot, Joe Firmage has caused quite a storm amongst the conformists of Silicon Valley. Sam Witt and Sean Durkin investigate.
Joe Firmage does not seem crazy. His words do not echo like the proclamations of a zealot but rather are delivered in a controlled, deliberate, boardroom fashion. They sound like the words of a man who was forming a strategy for building Web sites one day - and forming a strategy for a techno-spiritual evolution the next. Somehow, Firmage's manner makes the progression seem natural.
Joe Firmage wants you to believe what he believes. To wit: "You are a homo sapiens animal, sitting at the top of an 8000-mile-wide clump of geology, staring into an electronic communications system called 'the Internet' . . . 2000 revolutions around this globe since the birth of a man named Jesus. That's a more accurate picture of you in the eyes of the cosmos right now." Joe Firmage says that without blinking.
Joseph P. Firmage, 28, founded USWeb, a leading Internet consulting firm, in 1995. Like his previous ventures, the company prospered wildly.
For fiscal 1998, USWeb posted revenue of $US228 million - a 100 per cent increase over the previous year.
During that year of intense growth, Joe Firmage was moonlighting - working on the Kairos Project, a Web site and book (due in the American summer) about human evolution and extraterrestrials.
Word got out. In January, Firmage posted his 700-page manifesto, called The Truth (http://www.thewordistruth.org), which evokes both Star Trek and the New Testament. In the manifesto, Firmage asserts that extraterrestrials not only have visited us, but have also influenced our technological development. A few days later, he resigned.
So is he a "crackpot", as USWeb/CKS (the companies merged shortly before Firmage left) board member Gary Reischel recently pronounced him, summing up what he'd heard from colleagues? Or is he a maverick entrepreneur with disturbing ideas who is paying with his credibility for the strength of his convictions?
Joe Firmage does not look like a man who's spent 3 million of his own dollars researching extraterrestrials. In tiny Los Gatos, California, in a living room almost too small for its opulent furniture, he speaks without flourish, with pregnant pauses and sustained eye-blinks as much as with bold words. He wears a discreetly trimmed beard and is dressed casually, as per the uniform of Silicon Valley executives (including mandatory mobile phone, which periodically interrupts an interview). Out front in the driveway, a cardboard Jesus hangs from the rearview mirror of his red Corvette.
Firmage is both savvy and candid about all the attention the world is paying him. "I've been very open to the media for 10 years now in a business context," he says, but "I've given nobody reason to question my sanity until six months ago."
When he first published his manifesto, the news stories tended toward predictable snickering, but Firmage says he believes "it's beginning to shift in the right direction. Rolling Stone is doing a good piece on us. Time's already done something. I'll be on Dateline [NBC]. I just spent the whole day with ABC News."
How does he expect those TV interviews to go? "Everything can and will be used against me," he laughs.
Firmage was born and raised in Salt Lake City, where his family belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. ("It's a very cosmic thing", he says of the Mormon church.) After finishing high school in a mere two years, a scholarship in physics led him to the University of Utah. Firmage left college in 1989 after his sophomore year to form his first venture: Serius, which began as a Macintosh program for his mother's greeting card business and quickly grew into a database software company. Result? "Within six months," Firmage says, Serius "closed $7 million" in revenue.
The real deal
In 1993, Firmage sold the company to Novell for $24 million and a vice presidency. In 1995, he left to found USWeb.
According to Novell public relations manager Jonathan Cohen, the company considered Firmage a "valued contributor . . . We wouldn't comment on his beliefs or cultural activities."
"I am convinced that the UFO phenomenon is absolutely legitimate," Firmage says. "I have sat across the table from people whose credibility is unimpeachable." People have described to him in great detail their experiences as alien abductees, he says. Asked to mention names, he replies, "I can't".
The cultural activities Cohen mentions can be traced, Firmage says, to a vision he had early one morning in 1997, shortly before USWeb's initial public offering. A mysterious figure clad in white hovered over his bed, he recalls. The two shared a brief conversation about space-time travel. When asked by the visitor why he should be given the chance to travel in space, Firmage said, "because I'm willing to die for it".
The following year was "the busiest time of my professional life", he says. "I held a 12-hour-per-day job at USWeb, with Kairos [the UFO project] growing to four to six hours per day. I had a simple system: daytime: USWeb; evening: Kairos."
A year after the visit, Firmage posted his manuscript online. A media flood followed. Then came investor jitters.
"For the record, I chose to step down," Firmage says. "And off the record, I chose to step down. That's the truth. I was not forced out. Now, had I not chosen to step down, I could well have been forced out. I've been 10 years in this valley. I know how the game is played."
Is there no room for visions like his in Silicon Valley? "I would like the answer to be yes. But right now . . . no." Maybe that's why, Firmage claims, there are several Silicon Valley leaders hiding their own belief in extraterrestrials (he declines several times to mention names). Why the need to remain quiet? "Well, look what happened to me."
"Frankly, I admire the guy," says author and columnist Robert Cringely. "In a world filled with weasels who call themselves entrepreneurs and who will corrupt their business plan to fit whatever is this week's hot technology, Firmage stands out as a man of principle."
And now out of the boardroom, Firmage is free to discuss those principles. "I can say things I could never say" when at the helm of USWeb, he says. "Every single executive of a public company has to live that way." He says Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are exceptions who "have a measure of freedom that anybody just one notch down on that ladder does not have".
One of Firmage's goals, he says, "is to make things that have not been permitted to be spoken in open company speakable. Things that deal with anomalies. Things that deal with spirituality."
Things like zero-point energy and gravitational propulsion. Those controversial theories of physics underpin Firmage's belief in space-time travel. Zero-point energy refers to a theory that energy can be created from nothing, rather than matter. Gravitational propulsion is based on the concept that the force of gravity can not only be harnessed, but also engineered. Combined, the two provide the foundation for spacecraft capable of warp speeds.
Firmage's beliefs have backers. John Peterson, a futurist and head of the Arlington Institute, a nonprofit research group in Virginia, is adamant about zero-point energy. "There's no question that it's real." And Charles Ostman, senior fellow at the San Francisco-based Institute for Global Futures, says that, in 25 to 50 years, "we probably will have things like antigravity travel, time-space continuum manipulation - all the usual precursors [to] getting around the universe".
Not all scientists agree. In fact, not all seekers of extraterrestrials agree. Dan Wertheimer, director of the University of California at Berkeley's Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence program, calls Firmage's ideas "pretty wacko . . . you'd be hard-pressed to find any scientist that thought there was an ounce of credibility in his ideas".
You'd also be hard-pressed to find a Silicon Valley CEO who doesn't drone on about vision and evolution and progress. If nothing else, Joe Firmage's story is the story of what happens when the vision becomes intensely personal, when public relations buffers melt away and the board runs for cover.
It's impossible not to wonder at Firmage's motivations. Is this story about a yearning for liberation from the corporate structure? Is Firmage after a piece of history? Is this a publicity trick, a plan to get richer? Or is this as simple as one man telling his version of the truth - and paying for it dearly?
"What happens in the history of a world when its most advanced beings for the first time gain the power to break through its own gravity well?" Firmage asks. "I'll tell you what it's called; it's called birth. If we one day gain the power to touch the fabric of space-time itself, and use it, tap it, to voyage - is that not literally a birth? And is not the history of humanity an incredible drum roll to the opening of the first real frontier? That's the vision that I see."