Riding The Wave.com Featured in NYTIMES

For a Reformed Wavoid, The Play’s the Thing

By DANNY HAKIM | New York Times
Published: August 21, 2004

Jonathan Mirin says he first heard about Wave Systems from a guy named Jerry.

”This company’s selling for a dollar a share,” Jerry told him. ”In a few years, it’ll be going for 500.”

In those days — the late 1990’s — Mr. Mirin was a struggling New York actor in his late 20’s and a teacher in the public schools. The way he tells it, Jerry was a fellow teacher who told him over a cafeteria lunch one day that he had once been a big-time investor: ”Limousines, jets, the whole thing.” Yes, he had lost everything in the crash of 1989, but now he was back in the game and had a hot tip to share.

”There’s a company I’ve been watching,” Mr. Mirin remembers Jerry saying. ”They’ve got a prototype for a security chip that’s going to be in every motherboard of every computer everywhere in the world in, say, five or six years. You ever play the market?”

Mr. Mirin hadn’t, but he did, and now he has turned the experience into a one-man show, ”Riding the Wave.com,” that is part of the New York International Fringe Festival, a theater arts festival that continues through Aug. 29.

Some parts of the story are embellished — including the tipster’s name, which Mr. Mirin said was not really Jerry — but the play is mostly based on his experience of losing what little money he had, and a lot more that he borrowed, on shares of Wave Systems, a tiny technology company based in Lee, Mass.

”I felt like I had received this tip, and I’d better make the most of it, because I don’t travel in circles where I get tips,” Mr. Mirin said in an interview between performances in Boston, where his show had a warm-up run in early August. ”I was enjoying living in New York, but I felt this would be a lot easier if I didn’t have to worry about paying the rent.”

Mr. Mirin was not alone. At the height of the technology bubble, Wave Systems attracted a devoted throng of investors from across the country who called themselves Wavoids. They plowed their savings into Wave, bought vanity license plates embossed with Wave’s ticker symbol and, tongue in cheek, served Kool-Aid at shareholder meetings. They also made message boards devoted to Wave the most popular ones on Raging Bull, the financial chat Web site.

Among the faithful was Joe Trippi, who later managed Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, using his experiences of interacting with other Wavoids online to build a potent Internet-based fund-raising organization.

”That’s how I learned how strong a community can be on the Internet,” Mr. Trippi, who also did some consulting work for Wave, said in an interview. ”The Wave community, I think, is one of the reasons the company is still around.”

At its peak in 2000, Wave Systems’ stock briefly soared to $50 a share, making Mr. Mirin worth some $100,000, net of credit card and margin debt. Just as quickly, Wave deflated, and its shares now trade below $1. [They closed Friday at 81 cents.] Mr. Mirin was left in the red, struggling to meet minimum payments on his credit cards that ran as high as $1,400 a month.

His play is, among other things, a manic primer on the old saws of investing — diversification is good, borrowing money from your broker is not — that are tossed out every time the market overheats. It is also an exploration of the market mania that overtook many people in the Internet bubble.

”It was kind of an addiction,” Susan Kooperstein, Mr. Mirin’s mother, said after one of his Boston shows. ”I would say, ‘You have to get out of it,’ and he would say, ‘Yeah, I’m trying. I’m going to.”’

But he didn’t.

Mr. Mirin is a slight, pale 32-year-old whose play also describes his battle with Crohn’s disease, an intestinal affliction. On a bare stage, he portrays being caught up in a vortex of faith and stubbornness, and ultimately assigns the blame for his predicament not to Wave Systems or to Jerry, but to his own obsessive foibles.

Though he knew little about computers, he was taken with the notion of a miraculous security chip, and his belief in the company was bolstered by that of other Wavoids, who have posted more than half a million messages on Raging Bull’s chat boards, though their formerly vibrant online community is more of a ghost town now.

”When it started going up, I figured, well, my theories are confirmed, and my friends would say, ‘You know, Jon, everyone’s a genius in an up boom cycle,”’ he said. ”I thought that for Wave to be doing this, someone must know something.

”And then when it started going down, it was stubbornness: ‘I’m not going to admit that I’m wrong.”’

As the stock fell back to earth, Mr. Mirin tried to get Wave off his mind — and wait for a rebound — by traveling to meditation centers from the Swiss Alps to Katmandu. He met and married a woman along the way. But he found his spiritual journey disturbed by technology’s reach. Everywhere, from first world to third, there were opportunities to check on the stock, and he found he couldn’t resist.

In the play, he traces his world travels and Wave’s share-price trajectory in chalk lines crisscrossing a black stage floor.

”He said he had debts, but I didn’t understand the words,” said Godelieve Mirin, Jon’s Swiss wife. ”He was going to Internet caf├ęs, calling, doing different things I didn’t understand.”

Even during a three-week retreat on an isolated mountain in Nepal, he could not free his mind from its inner ticker, conjuring up a life of poverty or a career as a motivational speaker on how not to invest.

”The stock,” he proclaims at one point in his play, ”has become like sex, elevated to the status of every third thought. Sex-stock-job, sex-stock-basketball, sex-stock-stock-stock.”

Even by tech-bubble standards, Wave Systems was and remains a remarkable company. The company’s pitch was that, in an era of increasing concerns over computer security, it had a chip that would make computers more secure than software could. More recently, after finding no market for the chip, it has repositioned itself as a provider of security software.

Founded in 1988, Wave has never reported a profit for even a single quarter, and it has lost more than $260 million. During the bubble, profit-free technology companies often won investors’ favor, but they generally could at least boast of substantial revenue. Not Wave. In its latest quarter, it reported revenue of $6,300.

Even so, for the Wavoid true believers — a voracious band of doctors, accountants, teachers and others who thought they had found the next Microsoft before the rest of the world — giving up and selling was never an option, though in recent years some disenchantment has set in.

”$6,000 in revenue????????” read one posting on Raging Bull after the dismal second-quarter results were announced. ”Why bother opening the door and turning on the lights. Go mow lawns for more than that. A cabbie earns twice that. A laborer in a construction crew earns twice that. A New York deli does 15 times that.”

Part of the allure of Wave Systems seemed to be the names associated with it. George Gilder, the technology guru, sits on its board, as does Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari. Peter Sprague, who was chairman of National Semiconductor for almost three decades, founded the company; his son, Steven Sprague, now serves as chief executive.

”Steven Sprague has amazing passion, and he’s one of these ‘you gotta believe’ guys, even when the money is two weeks from running out,” said Mr. Trippi, who still has some Wave Systems shares, though he sold most of his stock portfolio when he joined the Dean campaign.

Indeed, the company keeps managing to raise enough money in private-placement stock deals to keep the lights on. But Wave is the subject of a formal investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission concerning public statements made by the company last year, as well as trading activity by insiders.

It is also being sued by shareholders who contend that the company overhyped deals with Intel and I.B.M. last year, bumping the stock upward and helping Wave close a $7.1 million private placement while executives sold shares.

The company has vigorously denied the accusations in its regulatory filings and financial reports. Mr. Sprague, the chief executive, declined to be interviewed for this article.

”He doesn’t see any upside in it,” said David Collins, a spokesman for the company.

Mr. Mirin jokes in his performance that for him, diversification once meant buying options to buy more Wave shares instead of just buying the shares.

”Just for fun,” he says at one point, ”I read a couple of books about investing, and they seemed to be really adamant about only two things: diversify, and don’t get emotionally involved. But I figure, ‘These must be the rules for the suckers.”’

When he declared bankruptcy last year, Mr. Mirin was allowed to keep his 3,100 Wave shares because they were worth so little. In June, he finally brought himself to part with all but a few hundred.

”After all those years,” he said, ”I was happy not to care.”