Bob Dolan, an influential Santa Barbara technologist who co-founded publicly traded CallWave and seeded the landscape with companies and entrepreneurs who have started firms of their own, has died from complications of pulmonary fibrosis. He was 59.
Friends, co-workers and family describe Dolan as a child prodigy who became a creative wellspring and prolific generator of business ideas and who was also uncannily personable, with the ability to attract the capital and talent to launch his ideas. He was a serial entrepreneur who founded or was the lead investor in at least 10 companies from the late 1970s onward.
They include ComDesign, an early networking hardware firm that he sold in the late 1980s, Internet call waiting firm CallWave, which went public in 2004, and Cogi, a transcription service. When he died he was still actively working on a scheduling service called ShiftShuffle.
Scores of startup executives and entrepreneurs credit Dolan with inspiring them to start companies of their own or work in high-risk, high-reward world of early-stage companies. Hundreds of others held jobs at the various companies he created over the decades.
“Because he started so many companies and exposed so many people to the segment, he seeded the startup community we have today,” said Mike Pfau, an attorney who worked with Dolan on several ventures. “He introduced so many people to the excitement of startups who otherwise would have been mired in institutional firms.”
Dolan was born in 1956 in San Francisco and moved to Santa Barbara as a teenager. He attended San Marcos High School, but when he was 15 or 16 he was helping teach political science courses at UC Santa Barbara. While there, he experimented with the state-of-the-art computers on campus and immersed himself in APARTNET, the network that formed the basis for what would become the Internet and of which UCSB was a node.
“His mom would have to drive him to campus to reset the servers. He was the only guy who knew how to do it,” said Jason Spievak, who was a CallWave financial executive and moved on to help found Ring Revenue.
Dolan attended UCSB for a couple of years but dropped out to focus on starting his own businesses. He founded ComDesign, which rapidly gained a place on Inc. magazine’s list of fastest-growing companies and was eventually successfully sold. John Petote, now an angel investor and owner of IT firm CIO Solutions, remembers researching ComDesign and deciding he wanted to work there because the CEO was 29 years old.
The experience gave him a glimpse of Dolan’s renowned ability to bring together a highly motivated team, a skill that every person the Business Times spoke with singled out.
“To this day, 30 years later, some of my best friends are from that company – it’s amazing how strong those relationships are today,” Petote said. “When I started my own company, I tried to recreate that immediately.”
If there’s such a thing as a “Santa Barbara style” to recruiting and retaining talent for startups, it likely flows from Dolan’s approach. Pfau said he was a sort of “pied piper” whose creative energy, enthusiasm and sheer intelligence rubbed off on early employees and investors alike. David McClintock, who worked with Dolan at voicemail firm Connected Systems and later CallWave, said Dolan had a sixth sense about how to keep employees happy, getting to know them well and even giving big raises and increases in responsibility well before they were asked for.
“He liked to reward the team. There was a little showman in there when it mattered,” McClintock said. Early on at CallWave, “he prepared everybody’s bonus checks for a meeting. He handed the checks out right there in person to everybody and said thank you. Instead of letting the managers handle it, he wanted to be the person to say thank you for coming to work.”
On top of his people skills, Dolan seemed to know everything about anything, whether it was an obscure securities or intellectual property law or the deep workings of telephone and computer networking.
David Hofstatter, Dolan’s CallWave co-founder, remember struggling to figure out how to launch a fax-to-email and Internet call waiting service without telephone switches all over the country. “That was hard to do with telecom back in the day,” Hofstatter said. “We had Chinese food on the Mesa, and going back to his garage where the business was founded on La Cumbre Street, he said, ‘I’ve got it. We can put one [voice-over-IP] switch in one place in the country and backhaul all of the call waiting calls over an 800 number to a single switch.’ … He literally had that depth of knowledge, and it was the birth of Internet call waiting.”
In addition to Dolan’s passion and creativity, those who worked with him remember his ability to not take himself too seriously and have a good time with the people he worked with. “He was always up for grabbing a cocktail and following the fun wherever it was going,” said Rob Duva, who worked with Dolan at CallWave and co-founded RingRevenue.
Dolan was also known for having made fortunes and lost them, several times. He was not afraid to spend money, especially on vacations that his sons – Sam, 25, Charles, 22 and William, 20 – would remember for the rest of their lives. Sam Dolan recalled a trip back from Aspen, Colo. Their father had chartered a private plane. A snowstorm arose and forced them to take a larger jet. “I had a whole couch to myself,” Sam Dolan said with a laugh. “He wanted to create those memories.”
But most of Dolan’s capital went toward businesses he believed in, whether his own or others. If he liked an idea, he was all in, regardless of the risk. “It’s high risk, high reward — that’s how Bob lived his life,” said Palmer Jackson, who worked with Dolan and CallWave and co-founded Cogi with him. “Where other people might have said, ‘Hey, I’m doing fine’ he did not believe in that. He said, ‘Nope, I’ve got to make this into something bigger.’”
Dolan was also incredibly generous. “When CallWave went public, he came over and gave my secretary some shares, just as a thank you,” Pfau said. Dolan spent hours and even days doing research and evaluating business models for others “for free, just because he wanted to see them succeed,” Sam Dolan said.
Friends and family remember Dolan has a 24-hour-a-day mind, able to carry on three of four conversations at once and always juggling several new business ideas in the back of his mind. He befriended scores of people over the years and never quit creating.
“He was talking about patent stuff in the hospital two days before he died,” Sam Dolan said. “He never accepted his fate. He’d say to people, ‘We’ll talk next week. I’ll go get this lung real quick and be right back.’ He fought it until the very end. He lived a big, complex life.”
• A memorial is planned for Dolan in early September. Email [email protected] for more information.