Getting to the Grid: Shaun Coleman — Wonderkind

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Shaun Coleman, technology entrepreneur, investor, addicted racer!

In the early 1990s, when Michael Schumacher, a 22-year-old future seven-time Formula One World Champion exploded on the scene, the worldwide media and establishment called him ‘Wunderkind’, or ‘Wonder Child’ as it translates in English from German. Child prodigies are far from common, but they entrance in us what the human mind is capable from an early age. While not an F1 driver, the same can be said of Shaun Coleman and his career in technology — which has afforded him the hobby of collecting vintage race cars and getting to the grid as a racer. His passions have driven him to solve complex problems in the business world and feed the ever perpetual addiction of roaring motors and racing at speed. He is a person whom peers measure his accomplishments in “dog-years.” Shaun Coleman has a more complete resume than people 20 years his senior: He is 40.

From a very young age, Coleman found satisfaction from problem solving. "I’m not enamored by computers."

From a very young age, Coleman found satisfaction from problem solving. “I’m not enamored by computers.”

Coleman was 26 when he founded a company, that just two years later, would be acquired by security software behemoth McAfee. The most intriguing aspect of his seemingly early success was that he already had nearly 15 productive years under his belt in the world of technology. Do the math… This was essentially a “middle point” on the timeline — and he has done much more since, and still, by his own admission, has much to do. His passion for problem solving began at a very young age — at a time where “personal technology” was uncommon.

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There was nothing overtly remarkable about Coleman’s upbringing. He had a very normal and stable childhood. His father worked for 40 years at Pacific Gas & Electric as an equipment operator and his mother was a real estate agent. However both his parents were very encouraging in whatever seemed to interest their young son. “I was my mom’s first IT guy,” Colman reflects. “Everything I learned about computers, I learned while supporting my mom’s real estate business. At 5 and 6 years old I was setting up computers for her.”

Motorsports was always an interest. Pictured here with his dad, Bob Coleman a former drag racer.

Motorsports was always an interest. Pictured here with his dad, Bob Coleman a former drag racer.

However, it could be said that motorsports found a way into his heart at an early age too: “My dad was a drag racer in the ’50s in Oakland — he raced Corvettes. I remember being a kid and my dad would go up into the hills of Livermore to race people. I remember being in our Dodge 440 and dad going over a hundred miles per hour. Some of my earliest memories were of dad racing those 70s-era MOPAR cars through the hills.” Those cars could conceivably have had a bearing on the types of cars that the then impressionable young Coleman races now. But his knack for problem solving has always taken pole position.

“There were four of us that started bulletin boards at the same time. We started in a computer club together in Kindergarten.” One of Shaun’s close friends from that group is Matt Ayres, founder of Lithium Technologies, which is the amongst the most commonly used customer community engines (bulletin boards across all websites) in business today. Coleman had a genuine head start in his interest of solving problems and incorporating technology: “Because we lived in Livermore, and had Livermore National Labs there.” Livermore National Labs is considered the ‘home of computing’ and the ‘birthplace of the internet.’ Coleman recalls, “Our schools had computer labs as early as 1980 — and it was a part of the curriculum.”

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“My first computer was a Commodore 64. Computers (back then) did not do anything unless you programmed them. To know how to program them, you also had to know how they worked,” observed Coleman. “We took them apart, we replaced memory. I remember soldering on a PC board at 7 or 8 years old. I was fortunate to transition from mainframes to early PCs to what we have today.”

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Age 17 at Sandia Labs, Coleman helps assemble a 100,000 pound test stand for aircraft wings and aerospace parts.

In the early 1990s, long before there was Facebook, LinkedIn, SnapChat — and so many other social media platforms — the world on the internet gathered on bulletin boards. Taking lessons from the gathering of his on-going grade school computer club, by the time Coleman was 14, he had founded and developed the technologies surrounding OrionBBS. Headquartered in a spare bedroom of his parents house, OrionBBS was one of the largest Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) in the San Francisco Bay Area between 1991 and 1996. At its height, OrionBBS had more than 10,000 active users throughout the world.

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According to Coleman, “OrionBBS was the Facebook of the 90s, with 15 nodes at its peak, with 28.8k baud modems, and SLIP/PPP ISDN Internet connectivity, users could download shareware, chat with fellow users, play door games and discuss topics like space and the meaning of life on message boards.” Simultaneously, Coleman was recruited and hired by Sandia National Laboratories, the nation’s premier science and engineering lab for national security and technology innovation — at the ripe old age of 16! Interestingly, a paradigm-shifting moment with Orion’s bulletin board ultimately would put the budding programmer/analyst on the map in the ultra-sensitive world of cyber-security and Coleman would be considered a ‘disrupter’ for the common good.

“On December 6, 1994 I caught a young 13-year-old hacker who tried to take down the bulletin board. The subsequent prosecution of this hacker ended up being the first time California hacking law was used and one of the first computer crime cases prosecuted in the United States.” At a very young age, Coleman was suddenly a sought-after computer security expert. “The government hired me because I caught ‘bad people’ on my bulletin board system and I prosecuted them for hacking my website.”

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Coleman sits in his first (imaginary) racecar.

“The best time I had in my career was working at Livermore National Labs (at age 20), getting to tear stuff apart, program computers to tear that stuff apart. I worked on a lot of things related to space and aerospace with the top scientists of that era. Edward Teller, the inventor of the Hydrogen Bomb worked just a few doors down from me and we used to talk about Star Trek…”

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Coleman would go on to found additional companies — that ultimately became acquisition targets — and also work and invent innovations — including the first encryption for cellular telephones — in several others. He brings a unique perspective to every business he gets involved. Coleman comments, “I was always interested in technology and making it better. Computers continue to frustrate me to no end. It drives me to start companies to solve issues of complexities that other people create. I’m not enamored by computers. I do not particularly enjoy them — they are a tool. What has made me successful is that I am adept at breaking them, finding their faults and developing solutions. My passion is solving problems!”

Coleman has invested and become very involved in aerospace start-up Vector Space.

Coleman has invested and become very involved in aerospace start-up Vector Space.

In joining and investing in companies, which most recently includes Vector Space with Jim Cantrell, another subject of this “Getting to the Grid” series, Coleman is very proud of his contributions, “I am very involved in the companies where I invest. I tend to invest in companies where I can help and solve problems.” He laughs, “I tell them, you could not pay me to do the things I do when I invest in your company.” Most recently, Coleman has bought and has begun a business in another of his wide interests: a winery called Alamitos Vineyards.

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“The first time I turned a wheel on a race track was 1997. I had a 1995 BMW 318ti with an automatic, and a friend of mine at the software company had rented a racetrack called Thunderhill. This was before it was the Thunderhill we know today. It had the track, but there was really nothing there. I drove the (318ti) on the track, and spun a few times (laughs). I never had any instruction, but that was the moment I caught the bug for driving a car fast on track. After that, I went a little crazy and bought a lot of cars.” Coleman then went to Jim Russell Racing School and joined BMWCCA. “My first racecar, I built, was a BMW M3,” recalls Coleman. One of the great thrills he enjoyed was racing the car in enduros with the late-legendary Trans-Am, Formula 5000 and IMSA Champion, Tony “a2z” Adamowicz.

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During his career, Coleman did a stint in Europe, while working on cell phone encryption. He further fed his new-found addiction for racing by renting Lotus 7s and small bore formula racing cars at places like Brands Hatch, Zolder and Silverstone. The track time at the legendary European circuits just continued to fan the flames of a growing passion. Coleman laughs, “Racing is ‘diminishing returns’ but it is such an amazing experience. Interestingly, that too is where finally I learned to drive stick shift!”

Coleman’s racing has been a family affair, which he appreciates greatly. “My Mom (Sue Coleman) was my first crew chief. She torqued the wheels, she put the fuel in, tightened the belts. She wasn’t a car person per se, but she learned — and I could not do all things alone. Both my parents go to every one of my races. Dad (Bob Coleman) helps quite a bit at the Winery.” They had to dig a large trench on the property — and incorporating a career of running heavy machinery — he hopped right into the backhoe. “He was in his element,” said Coleman.

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Coleman partnered up with the late multi-champion race driver, Tony Adamowicz in BMWCCA racing.

As a cautionary tale Coleman is foreboding: “Never build a racecar on your own. It cost me a whole (bunch) of money versus buying one. I could speak volumes on that topic.” Since then, Coleman has built up quite a collection of racecars — some requiring repair — but never “ground up” builds. “I spent more than $60,000 building the car and ultimately sold it for $18,000.”

Coleman's first forray into Vintage racing was this 1992 GT1 Oldsmobile -- that was raced as a Buick in the 1980s. Coleman has since restored it to original.

Coleman’s first foray into Vintage racing was this 1992 GT1 Oldsmobile – that was raced as a Buick in the 1980s. Coleman has since restored it to original.

After having a very bad personal experience with the politics of the BMWCCA by way of an outsider technical director who “tore the car apart and forced us into a class where we couldn’t be competitive,” he was infuriated and disenfranchised. So he sold all of his BMWs — the racecar and his collection of street cars. The club would later apologize, but Coleman had already headed down a new path. “It made me go back to the American cars of my childhood that made a lot of noise, smelled and wasted a lot of gas!” Growing up, Coleman was very equal opportunity when it came to cars. “Like my dad I don’t have a particular affinity to a brand. We had Fords, Dodges and even Toyotas when I was growing up. My parents still have their ’82 Trans Am — I remember listening to ‘Miami Vice’ in that car going 100 miles per hour.”

Sue Coleman is not only Shaun's mom, but also his crew chief!

Sue Coleman is not only Shaun’s mom, but also his crew chief!

“I ended up buying a 1991 GT1 IMSA Oldsmobile. I did a lot of research on the car and found out, to my surprise, that it had quite a bit of history and had raced in a series called ‘The Kelly American Challenge.’ The car was originally a 1985 Kelly Challenge & Trans Am Buick Somerset driven by Dick Danielson and Troy Waldron.” The car has since been re-bodied back to its original red and white #65 Buick Somerset. The Kelly American Challenge was a category specifically for US built cars run as a support race to the premier GT series that ran from 1977 until 1989. Coleman races this particular car in historic racing events.

Another of Coleman’s Kelly American Challenge cars, a Buick.

As he spent more time researching and meeting many of the drivers from that era, “I went out a and bought as many Kelly Challenge cars as I could find. These were the cars I grew up with and could relate,” chuckles Coleman. “Along that same path is when I got into the stock car stuff. Both classes of cars were very closely related as many of the Kelly cars were built by stock car guys. In the ’70s and ’80s, many of those associated with Kelly, had some association with NASCAR. So I went head-first into that too!”

That has led to his “barn-finding” and restoring an ex-Roy Mayne 1965 Impala Grand National car and purchasing, restoring and campaigning an ex-Harry Jefferson 1972 Mercury Cougar with Winston West history. With other interests, Coleman also has a growing collection of vintage fire trucks! At the peak of his racing hobby, Coleman participated in about 10-12 race weekends per year. Currently because of the large amount of time dedicated to several business ventures, he is hopeful to get out two to three times in 2017.

On success — and getting to the grid — Shaun Coleman’s laughs out loud as he says, “I think from the moment I drove a car on track for the first time, subconsciously, everything I did in business had to be successful so I could race! Its kind of a means to an end. We are not defined by our jobs at the racetrack, despite that it got us to the racetrack. In every other aspect of our lives, we are defined by ‘what we do.’ But not in racing. We are more defined by our car and our driving. There is very few places to go experience what your heroes did!” His advice for getting to the grid for the rest of us? “Do whatever it is that defines success for you. What drives you? Money is not the thing that drives most successful people. It is making their mark on the world. I would never impose on another the definition of success. I think it is more based on the individual.”

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Coleman’s 1965 Chevrolet Impala Cup car.

About the author

Tom Stahler

At eight months of age, Tom Stahler sat in a baby stroller in Thunder Valley and watched Chuck Parsons and Skip Scott win the 1968 Road America 500. He has had the car bug ever since. He has won several awards, including the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor Award and the International Motor Press Association's Gold Medal for his writing and photography. When not chasing the next story, Tom drives in vintage road racing events and spends time with his wife and three daughters in Orange County, California.
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