The Education of Shawn Lewis

Lesson #1: Hard work and an aptitude for computers can make a young man rich. Lesson #2: Some rich young men take to South Beach like fish to water. Lesson #3: South Beach is the shark. A young man with money is the bait.

Writing code gave Lewis an outlet for his intellect. The rest of his life didn't. He became bored at school and rebellious at home. "I think I was just too bright for my own good," he says. "It created a rebellious personality."

His mother agrees. "The idea that “nobody can do it as good as me' is something he unfortunately inherited from me," Platt observes. "We judge others by the toughest standards, standards we set for ourselves. But sometimes people just aren't that way.

"I used to think he had a computer for a brain. He knows the quickest way to solve a problem. The difficulty with the school system is they don't recognize that. His brain was not being stimulated, and it became very frustrating for him."

In the ninth grade, he dropped out of school and ran away from home. Neither Lewis nor his mother will discuss the details of his departure. Instead, Lewis recounts how he camped in the woods, building a lean-to fort out of sticks, showering in friends' houses, eating dry cereal. ("Of course I worried about him," Platt says. "I worried about him all the time.")

Lewis found work on construction crews and after about two months was able to rent a room at a nearby marina. "I used friends as family," he notes, something he says he continues to do to this day. "I have a huge heart, and when I go out, I take care of everybody, even before I had money. I'm like the father figure."

Mainly he worked. But even as he was hanging Sheetrock during those days, his interest in computers continued. He'd notice office workers struggling to keep track of invoices and paperwork, and he'd offer to write systems that could streamline those tasks.

Lewis's computer skills eventually landed him jobs at other construction companies, writing code that helped his bosses analyze costs. By his twenties he was a computer consultant living on Staten Island. There was no shortage of work. It was during this time that he married briefly. His ex-wife, who now lives in California with their two boys, declined to comment for this story.

In 1994 David Callan, owner of the Boston civil engineering firm Boston Survey, hired Lewis. At that point he was a techie in the guise of a greaser, right down to his tattoos -- a dragon on his forearm and a skull nestled in a bunch of roses on his bicep.

"I picked him up at the airport," recounts George Collins, now co-owner of Boston Survey. "I was like, “Whoa.' He was an interesting-looking gentleman. Here comes this guy with his hair slicked back, shiny pants, black boots. He wasn't your typical computer person." Collins pauses before continuing in his Boston brogue. "But he was the best. I still can't find people to help out here like him. He's a computer genius. He wrote the code for a land-survey program after probably ten other people had tried. We're still using the same program. If I could get him for five hours right now, it would be the best."

Collins remembers something else about the kid: "He didn't have any money. After he moved here, he didn't even have a car. He had to get rides everywhere from his girlfriend. He worked fourteen-hour days, six or seven days a week. He was not a partier."

Owner Callan was even more impressed. Eager to cash in on the tech boom, he talked to Lewis about opening a business. The partners launched Complete Internet Access, an early Internet service provider, in 1994. They also explored creating their own miniphone company, a local exchange carrier, to meet the demand for access to the Internet. The next step was obvious: funding. "We spent eight months of grueling interrogations, and I mean grueling, by the VCs [venture capital firms]," Lewis recalls. "I mean, here's a guy with a civil engineering firm, and a tech guy with tattoos asking for four million dollars start-up money."

Eventually they passed muster, and a new company, Xcom Technologies, Inc, was formed.

"All he did was work," recalls Joseph Benson, a colleague from his Boston Survey days. "Sometimes he would sleep at the office, or sometimes he would go home to shower just to return at night." In the few moments he could spare, Lewis would take his motorcycle out for rides in the New England woods.

In 1998 Xcom came to the attention of James Crowe, an Internet innovator who headed Level III Communications, a vast Internet company with grand ambitions and deep pockets. Level III bought Xcom in a stock transfer agreement that, depending on any given day in the market, was worth between $170 and $240 million.

Things didn't end pleasantly with Level III. The company contested the amount of stock the entrepreneurs were entitled to when they left, and Lewis sued Level III for $20 million in stock. "It was just business. They try to scare you with a lawsuit and you sue back. I could afford to wait two years," he says, adding that he just recently settled out of court. "I won."

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