"Let me show you how I'm getting even with the universe, man," says Jeffrey Jonas, as he darts across his windowless office near Las Vegas's McCarran International Airport. Jonas is a lean and natty 40-year-old, dressed in a dark shirt and a flowered tie, with a shiny bald head and a neatly trimmed goatee. Though he retains the mellow surfer-dude cadence of his California youth, he burns like a man shot out of a cannon.
An entrepreneurial whiz kid, Jonas dropped out of high school to launch his own software business. He hit it big early, then figuratively and literally crashed--going bankrupt and becoming temporarily quadriplegic after a car accident--all before the age of 25. He recovered, and then some, rebuilding both his body and his business. He is now one of the major high-tech players in town.
After he had worked with casinos and detective agencies to help bust cheats and assorted bad guys, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) approached Jonas in 1998 and asked him to speak at a conference about software that he'd developed that might also help the government detect insider threats. The Central Intelligence Agency's venture capital funding arm, In-Q-Tel Inc., in Arlington, Va., eventually caught wind of Jonas's wares and ended up funding his company, Systems Research & Development (SRD), in 2001. Last year, he sold the company to IBM and stayed on as an IBM Distinguished Engineer and chief scientist of IBM Entity Analytic Solutions, in Las Vegas. Now, when he's not racing in triathlons, he's leading a high-tech chase for Sin City's biggest swindlers--and the world's most wanted terrorists.
At the moment, however, he's rifling through a file cabinet, seeking something personal: a fat, tattered manila envelope that holds his key to good karma. "This is my bankruptcy folder," he says, squeezing together the loose papers, "I've had it next to me for 20 years." Inside are the names of 56 people and organizations he promised to pay back after his company went under when he was 20. Two years ago, flush from his success, Jonas computed 3 percent compounded interest and, checks in hand, began tracking down his old creditors. "There are 11 left I can't find," he says with a sigh.
But, as Vegas cheats have learned the hard way, if anyone can sniff a person out, Jonas can.
Like a lot of guys, Jonas was awestruck when he cruised the Las Vegas Strip for the first time. "I thought, 'Man, what goes on behind those walls?'" he recalls.
The year was 1987, and Jonas was driving through on his way to a Colorado rafting trip. The 22-year-old was in the throes of resuscitating his business--and himself--from the depths of despair.
He'd been fascinated by computers since he was 15 years old. As a high-school sophomore, Jonas, with his computer lab teacher's help, created one of the first word processors to run on the Commodore PET computer, and this, ironically, brought an end to his formal education. To his surprise, the Los Angeles Unified School District bought the program for US $400, not much but enough to lead him to drop out of school and follow his dream. "I said: 'This is my passion; this is what I'm going to do.'"
For a short while, he lived his dream, big time. By 18, he was running his own small company, Preferred Programming Services, in Santa Rosa, Calif., which designed custom inventory and accounting programs for small businesses. But he suffered from the one affliction that plagues many tech entrepreneurs: Jonas had no idea how to run and manage a business. By the time he was 20, he had declared bankruptcy. He socked away the folder of creditors, vowing that one day he'd make good. He just wasn't sure how. "The question is," Jonas says, "you're 20 years old, you're running your business out of your car, and you just went bankrupt yesterday. How do you get any new business?"
First, Jonas made a commitment to himself: to write a detailed plan for each project before diving into it. Under the new banner Systems Research & Development, Jonas went around looking for custom software projects that were failing or had already failed. Then he made his prospective clients an offer they couldn't refuse: for a fee of $600 per day, Jonas offered to pick up the doomed projects, with the promise to pay back $100 for every day he was late. From building a system to prioritize grants for a philanthropic fund to coding one of the first online multiple listing systems for real estate, Jonas never missed a deadline, and he was back in the black by the end of the first year.
Jonas was on top of the world again, but not for long. In 1988, a car salesman took him along for a BMW test drive and ran off the road, leaving Jonas with a broken neck. "I was completely paralyzed," Jonas says. "The doctors didn't know if I'd walk again." But once more, Jonas defied the odds and limped out the door 18 days later to spend four months in rehab. "My life has been a series of miracles," he says. And he headed for the miracle town: Vegas.