Don Listwin remembers the day in November 2000 when his company's bloodletting went from metaphor to messy reality. The CEO of cell-phone-software maker Openwave had seen his firm's stock plunge more than a third in a single week, and he was about to address jittery investors. But some jagged hardware on a conference table ripped the pants of his $3,000 Brioni suit--and that wasn't all. As Listwin put his hand to his hip pocket, he found it covered in blood. Now he has those torn pants framed on the wall opposite his desk. THROUGH FAILURE, reads a plaque on the frame, WE LEARN LESSONS IN HUMILITY.
A former heir presumptive at Cisco Systems, Listwin, now 44, was tapped in August 2000 to head up Openwave, a company formed by the merger of Phone.com and Software.com Initially, it was expected to profit from a coming wave of interest in browsing the Internet on the small screens of cell phones. At its peak a year later, Openwave boasted $500 million in annual revenue and a share price of $125. But by mid-2002, Openwave shares had plunged to 43¢--freighted by the telecom bust and by the firm's particular missteps. "This was not a trusted company," says Listwin. "It had a reputation for 'skip it and rip it'"--grabbing market share first and fixing bugs in the code later.
Listwin set out to fix the software, adopted a more conservative revenue model and made lucrative deals with such companies as HP, IBM, Lucent, Siemens and Sprint. In Japan, phone giants KDDI and J-Phone fed the craze for multimedia messaging--sending enhanced cell-phone snapshots to your friends--with Openwave software. Openwave's annual revenue has stabilized at $250 million. The stock is back above $2. Multimedia messaging is just starting to take off in the U.S. and Europe, via Sprint and Nokia. Analysts expect Openwave to be fully profitable in 2004. Perhaps then Listwin can afford to celebrate with a new suit. --By Chris Taylor