If At First You Don’t Succeed: How my father tried to reconcile his big ideas with a small-minded world.

Hillary Johnson
20 min readOct 12, 2023

Originally published in Inc. Magazine, 2003

Three years ago my father, Morgan Johnson, called me up cell phone to cell phone, in a state of feverish agitation. At the time he was in the process of dissolving yet another frustrated start-up company based on technology he had invented while drawing on a napkin at Starbucks. He had been keeping me posted on the debacle long distance, but this call had a different quality to it, and in one long rush he told me a story from his high school days, an incident he’d just unearthed from memory:

“I was in the hallway one morning, standing at my locker,” my dad said, “when this kid named Gene Allen walked in the front door. Gene was a really quiet kid from the wrong side of town, a guy nobody thought much about. But he came to school that day in the most incredible garment I’ve ever seen in my life — then or since. It was this black leather motorcycle jacket absolutely covered in zippers. And dangling on a chain from each zipper tab was a pair of dice. You couldn’t buy anything like it, he had to have sewn the whole thing himself. You have to remember,” my father continued, “the ’50s weren’t really like Happy Days. Guys who looked like Fonzie weren’t cool at my school, they were outcasts.”

High school for my father was in the southern Oregon town of Klamath Falls, a place where the teenagers could be as mean as the rattlesnakes they blasted out of the surrounding hills with homemade cannons on weekends. In K Falls, there was a “right” and a “wrong” side of town; even though my father wasn’t an especially popular kid and showed no remarkable talents (in his senior year he was runner-up to “Most Typical”), his parents owned a chain of grocery stores and belonged to the country club and he had a hot rod, all of which put him on the right side. Not so Gene Allen. He came from a poorer family and had wisely managed to stay all but invisible until the day he wore the jacket to school.

“That’s why it was so startling,” my dad went on. “I remember looking at him and thinking, this is the most original act I’ve ever seen — in fact, it might have been the only original act I’d ever seen. My next feeling was terror — I was as afraid of the reaction he’d suffer, as if I were standing there in that jacket.”

As Gene Allen walked into his first class that day, my dad fled, deciding to go home sick, he said, rather than witness the brutal scene that would surely take place. “I didn’t want to be associated with the derision Gene was about to suffer….” His voice trailed off in unspeakable regret. The jacket, of course, was never seen again; Gene Allen’s daring bid for recognition had been as viciously put down as my father had predicted.

My father left Klamath Falls and became an inventor, a life that can be explained almost entirely by this particular bit of personal history. It was as if, at that critical moment, Gene Allen’s soul had been blown right out of his body by a hot gust of failure and humiliation, and had flown across Klamath Falls and lodged in my father. “It was my first experience of innovation,” my dad said. “And the same thing that happened to Gene Allen that day has been happening to me ever since, over and over again.”

Most people hold idealized images of the entrepreneurial version of the American dream: a moment of inspiration in an unfinished garage in California or basement in the Midwest that translates into a rich trajectory of 20,000-square-foot homes, generous donations to local hospitals, and a brilliant career. But the real story of an all-American entrepreneur is more checkered and haphazard than people who use zippers and spray pumps and integrated circuit boards on a daily basis dare to imagine.

The empty mediocrity Jack Nicholson embodied in About Schmidt is the dark side of the corporate, commuter paradise: a place where iron-clad job security and family harmony can be expected to sour. But the independent entrepreneur’s dream of immense risk followed by equally immense reward has its shadow side, too, one that my dad and I have lived under for the past 40 years.

My father has all the elements of the wildly successful entrepreneur: a concoction of exuberance, irreverence, cockiness, and brilliance. All his life he’s angered and annoyed people with his eccentric, impulsive behavior, yet kept them hooked by his talent, and even more so, by his brazen optimism. He holds 11 patents and has burned through several million dollars’ worth of other people’s money in a series of start-up ventures. But so far, large-scale commercial success has eluded him. Now in his sixties, he’s banded together with a bunch of other old guys and mounted a last ditch campaign that seems, miracle of miracles, to be working. He’s also started wondering about why it never worked before. So have I. And the answers we each came up with are a lot more disturbing than you might think.

But we were a long way from figuring out any of this in 1963 when I was a baby and my dad was a grad student at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where he had been admitted on the strength of a stack of graph paper, covered in sketches of a modular mass transit system that was fueled by an organic computer and moved through the air in three-dimensional pathways. He and my mother, also an art student, had married while undergraduates at the University of Oregon because I was on the way. They were both 21 years old.

As a small child, I lived in a world of continuous invention. Nothing my family ate, wore, read, thought, or slept in could be remotely described as “normal,” “cookie cutter” or “readymade.” We lived on a tugboat instead of in a house. My mother decorated the ship’s head with a bolt of paisley cloth, laminating it over every square inch, including the inside of the claw-footed tub. There was some fabric left over, so we all ended up with clothes that matched the bathroom.

Shortly after my brother Din was born, my father was hired as the design director for Jack in the Box and we moved to San Diego for six months, where the paisley-clad four of us zoomed around town on a baby-blue Vespa. Gene Allen would have loved it. At night, we watched Star Trek in its original run, a program that excited my dad about the way the world was turning out, until the show was suddenly canceled. A lot of things my dad got excited about would be suddenly canceled.

My parents split up when I was five. We had come back from San Diego and settled again in Portland. My mother kept us kids, along with the graphic design business she and my dad started (and which she still runs today, 30-some years later), while my father abruptly moved to New York City with a modern dancer named Barbara.

I’m sure there was ill feeling around the fact that before the ink had dried on the divorce papers my father essentially ran off with a hoofer. But it wasn’t an acrimonious divorce. My mother, one of the steadiest and calmest individuals I’ve ever met, seemed relieved to have gotten off the Morgan ride after the first couple of hair-raising loop-the-loops. “It’s impossible to stay mad at Morgan,” she says now. “Everything he does is well-meaning. It’s just that he’s — “ she throws up her hands — “he’s Morgan.”

I know what she means: Complaining about my father’s vagaries would be like complaining that Yogi Berra doesn’t make sense when he talks. When someone’s flaws are also their defining and most seductive characteristics, you just have to accept the consequences.

The futurist, universe-shaping elements of my father’s creative output had been growing ever since he took a college class from a disciple of the iconoclastic futurist Buckminster Fuller. In the weeks before Barbara and Morgan blew out of Portland, they lived in a one-room apartment in a building slated for demolition. In a fit of creativity, he delineated the future of mankind and the universe on the apartment walls. “I drew a dome around the moon and began to map out the parsing and cutting up of the sun for energy extraction,” he remembers. “I converted the sun into a combustion engine and the whole solar system into a vehicle, then spelled out the chain reaction of humans as they moved though the galaxy, eventually consuming it.” He also included a detailed description of what is now called nanotechnology, based on self-modifying DNA. A few days later, he and Barbara were watching the Apollo astronauts land on the moon from a borrowed apartment in New York.

Broke, Morgan wangled a job at JFN, then one of the world’s largest corporate planning firms. When you’re in your early twenties and your secret goal is nothing less than the colonization of space, it’s easy to exude more confidence in the corporate world than one’s experience warrants. The president of JFN, Doug Nicholson, was impressed enough to take a huge chance on Morgan, making him lead designer on the firm’s top project: the trading floors for Salomon Brothers’ new offices at №1 New York Plaza. “I was terrified,” my dad recalls.

Even now, when he speaks of his New York days he can’t quite believe he pulled it off. But he did. At a time when interior design still meant specifying a desk, chair, and credenza out of a catalog, he designed what were probably the first true electronic work stations, modular units that integrated multiple phone lines and internal wiring for computer terminals. He was a phenom. In addition to designing futuristic furnishings, he was known around the office for hijacking meetings with his gripping monologues about the direction of technology. Buckminster Fuller himself once visited the office, and sat listening for over four hours to one of my father’s visionary rants, from the miniaturization of electronics to noninvasive medical scanning devices.

Brimming with arrogance and charm, my dad left JFN, and with funding supplied by Nicholson, started a spinoff called Symmetry Inc., where he was president and CEO. Symmetry was responsible for the design of a significant number of trading rooms between 1969 and 1971, including those of Oppenheimer, Lehman Bros., Morgan Stanley, and Merrill Lynch. In 1971 my dad received an award from Industrial Design Magazine for a fixed-base chair that could swivel in any direction.

Don Burke, then an 18-year-old high school grad who had been driving a cab and studying photography, was one of the company’s first employees. “The atmosphere at Symmetry was busy and alien,” Burke told me recently. “Morgan was buzzing around in the background, waving his hands. With all the money being spent there, I was expecting more of a well-oiled machine. But here instead were all these goofy people.”

During those brief New York years, my dad popped in and out of Portland. On one visit, he drove a Ferrari 275 GTB longnose, a silver car that was as close to a spaceship as you could buy at the time. My brother Din and I started attending private school. I was seven years old.

Then, as suddenly as it had all happened, the whole operation went south, mismanaged into the ground. Din and I went back to public school, while Morgan, divorced, came limping back to Portland, moving into a small, dank basement apartment. I saw my dad’s world shift: One day he was high and confident and driving a Ferrari, and the next he was grinning like a skeleton and living in a cellar. But I didn’t question the brilliance of his mind or the greatness of his inventions. In that cellar were wall-sized drawings of incredible machines meant to transport us through the next century and beyond.

The words “paper millionaire” stick in my mind from that period, irreverent and jocular like the title of a bittersweet song. It was how my father described what had happened — or rather, what had not happened — to himself and to us.

He wasn’t in Portland for long. An artist friend tipped him off to a job that required a degree in fine art, research skills, and management experience, but it was in Denver. He was hired by the Western States Arts Foundation to head up a study on its artists in the schools program. Living in Denver and working 9 to 5, Morgan became the proverbial basement inventor, a guy who tinkered in his spare time on various pie-in-the-sky projects: a device for moving oil drums around loading platforms, a hyper-legible typeface for backlit signage, a modular construction system for low-cost housing. While working on one of these projects, he discovered he needed a particular kind of circuit board. When told he couldn’t buy one, he immediately set about designing his own.

On a holiday visit to Denver when I was 12, I began to experience the first twinges of anxiety and doubt. The fantastic universe I’d always known my dad to inhabit was nowhere to be seen. Denver was the blandest city imaginable. And there was my father smack in the middle of it, as disembodied as Schmidt: He lived in a nondescript condo complex, drove a Honda, ate roast beef and macaroni at Furr’s Cafeteria, and was married to Carol, a psychotherapist. Their dark chocolate wedding cake was essentially black, which I took to be a bad sign. It was. The problem was that Carol was a stable person, with a healthy concern for financial security, a woman whose idea of the American dream included things like home ownership and retirement planning. Morgan, to put it mildly, is not the kind of person who makes decisions about his employment status based on the availability of a 401(k). To him, money is a useful tool that humans will discard along the way, like the adz or the sword. After all, no one on the bridge of the starship Enterprise carried a wallet in those tight pants, did they?

In 1983, when I came back from my junior year abroad, I got off the plane in Denver and discovered that my father no longer lived there. Carol picked me up from the airport and explained that he had moved to Silicon Valley and started a technology company with funding from Crosspoint Venture Partners. She was soon set to follow him. The story of Morgan’s first meeting with Crosspoint is now family lore. “Without patents, a business plan, or even a team, I was given a million dollars within 20 minutes of walking in the door,” he says, an event so unusual even then that it was reported in the San Jose Mercury News.

While I was conjugating verbs in Avignon, my dad had gone from working for an arts foundation in Colorado to marketing a revolutionary way to create laser-programmable multilevel printed circuit boards and semi-custom chips in Silicon Valley — the very circuit board he designed in his basement in Denver. The new company, called Laserpath (my father was founder and chief scientist; my mom designed their logo), aimed to provide manufacturers with prototype chips in five business days, instead of the industry standard turn-around of 12 weeks.

I decided to finish college in San Francisco, in part to be closer to my dad. I wrote my first novel that year, and when it was roundly rejected, I felt more depressed than I ever had in life. On Morgan’s recommendation I moved to New York — “Everyone should live in New York at some point in their lives” — where I wrote another novel and another. After three years working as a legal secretary, it occurred to me that I might never be anything else.

I tried to discuss this with my dad, but he was recently divorced from Carol, and in a state of frozen panic over the imminent demise of Laserpath. When Laserpath folded in 1987, the company was shipping product successfully to clients like Intel, IBM, Rockwell, Hughes, Honeywell, and Compaq. It also had an enormous marketing staff and a burn rate of $550,000 a month.

According to Don Burke, the former teenage photographer who had joined my father at Symmetry and later at Laserpath, the company had tried to grow into a $100 million company way too fast. Or as Morgan put it, “We simply ran off the end of the runway.”

When laserpath went under, my dad again retreated to Portland. He patented a new series of inventions, and set up a stripped-down company called Prototype Solutions, focusing on rapid chip prototyping and emulation. But I noticed a marked shift in his personality. His creative output remained at full throttle, but his running dialogue no longer referred to the big picture. The level of intensity with which he lived remained undampened, but his sense of scale had changed. It was as if he could no longer look the infinite in the eye.

The new company obtained a $1.5 million government DARPA grant and began developing a quick-turn, multichip module for the NSA. But again, the company was dogged by fundamental disagreements between Morgan and management. The real root of the problem was probably that my father’s way of inventing things, which was to work on the fly, sometimes scrapping months’ worth of work at a moment’s notice, even changing the company’s core product for another if that seemed to make sense during the course of a meeting — frustrated his CEO, Stewart Elder, a brilliant ex-IBM lab director who was also one of Prototype Solutions’ primary investors. Elder felt strongly that the company should stick to its guns. Period. To my father, the idea was always to change the world, not to start a company.

“The problem Morgan has always had,” Don Burke says, “is that he’s too good a salesman for his own good. His presentations are visionary, but they’re also incomplete. And the people who respond to that tend to be incomplete themselves. He attracts people who are receptive to the cultlike aspect of his personality, the very thing that scares away the green-eyeshade guys, the get-things-done types.”

The end of Prototype Solutions was less dramatic than the end of Symmetry or Laserpath, but it took far longer. The company still exists and holds a license on the original technology and is currently looking for funding. When Morgan finally walked away from Prototype Solutions the ’90s were over and my dad was facing his 60th birthday.

By this time Morgan was married to wife №4. He had always been smitten with Judy, a former Yell Queen at Klamath Falls High School, but to me the two of them seemed to have nothing in common except the fact that they’d known each other all their lives. I felt that, by marrying a fourth time and starting and leaving yet another narrowly focused technology company, my father had turned into nothing more than a wind-up toy marching dumbly in place against a wall.

I also had married and divorced, and I did finally publish a novel. But the life of literary adventure I’d imagined for myself never materialized. I spent the majority of my waking hours struggling to make a living. And I had somehow become obsessed with failure: my own and my father’s.

One day three years ago, my dad flew to Los Angeles, where I lived, so we could attend a microwave electronics convention at the Anaheim Convention Center. I didn’t understand anything I saw or heard at the various booths; microwave electronics is one of the more abstruse branches of technology, and its denizens are wonky in the extreme. But my ears pricked up when I overheard two guys discussing the actress Hedy Lamarr — not her role as the native temptress in White Cargo, but as a respected colleague.

My dad and I horned in immediately. “Didn’t you know?” said wonk №1. “Hedy Lamarr holds the original patent on spread spectrum frequency hopping.” In response to my blank stare the other wonk explained kindly, “You know, cell phones?”

Over the next few days my dad and I e-mailed back and forth, discussing our research into Hedy Lamarr: her Austrian childhood, her marriage to a Nazi-friendly arms dealer, her escape to Hollywood, where she quickly became known as “the most beautiful girl in the world.” But on August 11, 1942, Lamarr and her composer friend George Antheil received patent №2,292,387, a radio-controlled missile they hoped would override Nazi jamming efforts.

Lamarr wanted to quit the movies and become a munitions expert, but the government told her she was of more use selling war bonds (she reportedly once sold $7 million worth in a single night). It was the end of her technology career. It wasn’t until 1997 that Antheil and Lamarr received peer recognition, by a professional engineering society.

When Lamarr died, the obituary in The New York Times focused on her movie stardom and dismissed her participation in the invention, saying she lacked the technological background, and crediting Antheil with the “expertise.” This so enraged my father that he left harassing phone messages for the obit writer and his editor for days on end. “That’s the problem with the world!” he fumed. “‘Expertise’ hell! Experts mostly know what can’t be done, and since anything can be done, they know nothing!”

But thanks to Hedy Lamarr, my father and I began to figure out something essential about our universe: The world does not welcome innovators or artists, though not out of malice. The problem is a structural glitch. The world is set up to function as smoothly as it can, and it doesn’t recognize the difference between innovation and disaster: Either one throws a wrench into the system. Trying to make the world really better is as much a crime against society as trying to make it worse. Only small incremental improvements are rewarded and applauded. Widgets.

When the dot-com bubble burst, much of the country’s venture capital seemed to go with it. Yet my dad decided to try again. This time, knowing he could not contain or control his own iconoclasm to the extent necessary to build and sustain a traditional corporate structure, he would start a different kind of company. “I am not an entrepreneur,” he finally acknowledged. “I have no management skills. I’m really an artist.”

Morgan Labs would be an artists studio, a fount from which innovations and patents and little spinoff companies would spring. He would also take a cue from his married life and recruit people who knew and understood him. Wife №4, Judy, had turned out to be like a character out of a Dave Barry novel — humorous and sane, and not the least bit tragic, even around the edges. She has stuck with Morgan for upward of 15 years.

Accordingly, one founding partner is a former college roommate, Ron Buel. Buel is a former Nike executive, and, before that, founding editor and publisher of the Willamette Week, one of Portland’s alternative newspapers. Morgan’s lawyer is old fraternity brother Lee Kell. Kell summed up their mission nicely when he told me, “We need to form a company to protect Morgan from the world, but more importantly, from Morgan himself.”

The first of the Morgan lablets, named Octavian Scientific after the famously beneficent Roman emperor, was formed around a patented innovation for the testing of semiconductor chips. The potential market is huge — more than 87 billion chips are shipped every year, and every one of them is tested.

Octavian is in a partnership with Portland State University, the first such arrangement under a new Oregon law that allows educational institutions to co-develop technology with for-profit enterprises.

The second company, Morgan Connector, already has a staff of nine, including Buel as CEO and primary fundraiser. The core group of employees are all closer to their dotage than otherwise, except for two whippersnappers who are still in their thirties. “And we’re not quite sure about them,” my father harrumphed jokingly. The product, a new kind of coaxial cable connector, is as close to the great, mythological widget in the sky as anything Morgan has ever worked on.

Incredibly, the staff at Morgan Connector is unfazed by my dad’s fertile and fickle imagination. They even seem to be enjoying it. “We used to date our business plan drafts by winter, spring, etc.,” Terry Davis, the vice president of sales, said, laughing. “Then we dated them by month, then by week. Now we time-stamp them.”

Morgan Connector is completing its first round of financing, with more than 20 angel investors so far.

One afternoon last winter, I sat in on a meeting at Starbucks with one of the principals of a medical equipment start-up called Hemonix who came to my father for advice on raising investment capital in a climate where few are biting. His company had patented a noninvasive method for measuring vascular pressure. Its technology replaces a procedure so risky that complications from the pressure test itself result in nearly 50,000 deaths every year. My dad can’t offer much hope. “I feel for them. They’re sitting on proven technology that would save 50,000 lives a year and lower costs,” he says as we walk away. “And they will have a tough time getting funded.” (Hemonix has since succeeded in obtaining funding.)

Some people believe that good ideas always rise to the top. They’re wrong. Good ideas occasionally rise, but just as many sink into oblivion. Success, in the technology industry in particular, has always depended on having the right product at the right time, not necessarily on having the best product. “A guy named Doug Engelbart invented the mouse, and it didn’t make it to the market for 20 years,” Morgan told me ruefully. Was the Apple a “better” PC than the IBM? Was Internet Explorer “better” than Netscape — or vice versa? The real answer is that none of them were all that great; what they were was good enough. Convenience, proximity, the politics of ideas and personalities, all play a greater role in the eventual puissance of an invention than does mere quality. So what if some guy comes up with a way to save lives, or another comes up with a way to make prototype chips in an hour? Living with a frustrated inventor for 40 years has taught me something that I didn’t learn even from the cold war, and that is simply this: The scariest thing about the future is that the future isn’t necessary.

Leaving the temporary offices of Morgan Connector Company at the end of the day, my father and I climbed into his battered Volvo with 289,000 miles on the odometer and shredded upholstery thanks to Countess Matilda, Judy’s rottweiler puppy. “When the investors asked for all this background material I said to your mom, ‘My god, I’m really concerned about having to do this, because when it comes down to it, I’ve never actually done anything.” He laughed. “She just rolled her eyes and said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ And sure enough, when I wrote it all down, it looked like a lot of stuff.”

“Well, yes,” I said, “obviously. But I know what you mean. I don’t feel like I’ve done anything with my life, either.”

He snorted. My father, to this day, goes to the J section of Powell’s Bookstore at least once a week, and if in their stacks of used books there are any copies of my out-of-print novel or essay collection in stock, he rearranges the shelf so that the covers are prominently displayed.

But I do know what he means, as we drive away in the Volvo: All of the good things that are happening hardly seem real. We say we’ll believe them when we see them, but we’ve seen them before. I am pushing 40 now, and my dad is over 60. He has a happy marriage and a new company and I have a family and a job as the editor of an alternative newspaper. But we aren’t the same people who talked excitedly about building a dome around the moon or cutting up the sun to use as space fuel, and generally reimagining the future. We are still cursed with an idiotic optimism about the world, but we are brittle and high-strung after so many years of living in a world that so easily says “No.” So we ride silently in the car together, our synapses fizzing away in the night.

The next day my dad called me from the Burbank Airport, having come out of a key meeting with a prominent biochemist at Cal Tech.

“Oh, I’d say it went pretty well,” he said airily. “The guy we met with said my stuff was exciting. But before that we were talking about his work, and he was telling us how he got a probing electron microscope to take a picture of a DNA molecule. I said, ‘Well, gee, wouldn’t you have to get around the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to do that?’ And he said, very modestly mind you, ‘Oh, yeah, but we did that.’ Now, when a man who can get around the Heisenberg uncertainty principle says your stuff is exciting, well that’s exciting!”

I hung up the phone and pinched myself. It hurt. Good. Consulting my inner clock, I found that it was indeed the eleventh hour, and here we were off to the races. I thought about Hedy Lamarr, and about Gene Allen, who did try to become an artist when he grew up, but who never really got there, and died in his forties from a variety of maladies (did they possibly include heartbreak?). And I prayed that these angels, too, would be making an investment in Morgan Johnson this time around.

Hillary Johnson is the editor of the Ventura County Reporter and the author of the novel Physical Culture. She lives on a boat in Ventura, Calif.