From MIT Entrepreneur to Tea Party Leader: The Thomas Massie Story

5/17/12Follow @gthuang

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profitable, and that it had “good margins but not software margins.” Its archrival, Immersion, went public in late 1999, leaving SensAble a bit in the lurch. “We’re an East Coast company—we wanted a good, solid business before going public,” Aulet says.

Meanwhile, Massie was starting to feel like his work was winding down at the company. “At some point, SensAble, I think, became a market application exercise,” he says. “What I brought to the company, more than anything, was the mechanical invention, and then seeing the birth of the software that went with it.” He was also thinking about the next phase for him and his family. “I thought at some point in my life, after taking some time to farm and build my house and raise my kids, that I would go back into sort of an ‘ideas factory’ company, that I would start something like that,” Massie says. “The venture capitalists really wanted us to focus on a single idea. They don’t really like an ideas factory.”

In 2002-2003, Massie was working to take SensAble’s products down-market to consumers. While he doesn’t say so outright, it sounds like this strategy—or at least the pace he wanted to set—was not supported by the company’s board of directors, who would have needed to see a worthy low-end market to justify cutting into high-end revenues. (Interestingly, his consumer strategy might have been ahead of its time; these days the market for personalized product creation might make a low-end Phantom system quite fashionable.)

“At the end, it became obvious that the company could finally function without me,” Massie says. Plus, he had probably had enough of the business world and the Northeast (he enjoyed living in New Hampshire but says “it was just too cold”). He wanted to get back to his roots. Whatever the exact reasons, he left SensAble and New England in 2003, after 10 years on the job.

A Snake Under Every Rock

That year, Massie and his family moved back to Lewis County, Kentucky, which he calls “the freest place in the world.” They bought 1,200 acres of land, and Massie ran a farm and began building a house. But not just an ordinary house. It stands 46 feet tall, is made of timber from the trees on his property and stones from his creek, and is reinforced with steel “so termites can’t get to it,” he says. The Massies draw water from their own well. The house generates all its own electricity from an array of solar panels. “It’s designed for two generations of neglect. Our house will withstand that,” Massie says.

“If there was a nuclear bomb, that’s where you want to be,” Aulet adds.

Living off-the-grid was a major lifestyle choice, and it speaks to Massie’s deep-rooted beliefs. “A large part of it is just avoiding the moral encumbrances that come from hooking up that wire,” he says. “When I first sprung this idea on [Rhonda], she said, ‘You can build whatever kind of house you want, but if you expect me to live in it, it better have air conditioning.’ So that doubled the size of the solar array. That was our engineering constraint. It was kind of like 2.70—I understood it.” (And to help plan the construction of the house, Massie used the Phantom 3-D system he’d invented to create a miniature model of his farm.)

Their house might sound like something out of Doomsday Preppers, the reality show about survivalists preparing for Armageddon. But Massie and his family just wanted to keep to themselves and be left alone. “I raise grass-fed cattle. But it’s a job, I wish it were more profitable. My hobbies are my kids and running the farm. And firearms,” he says, with a hint of boyish mischief. “We conduct ballistic experiments regularly on our farm.”

As Massie writes on his political website, “I’m a decade-long concealed carry permit holder and Class III firearms collector. When I was twelve years old, my father bought me my first gun, an H&R .410 shotgun. In the course of hunting in the woods of Kentucky, he taught me the great responsibility that comes with ownership of a firearm. Now that I am a father of four, I enjoy teaching these same lessons to my children through hunting and target practice.”

But Massie could only keep to himself and his family for so long. One day (as he related in a talk last year), he saw in the local paper that the county was planning to implement a new property tax—in part to build a federal conservation office in the area. Massie was outraged, and he wrote a letter to the editor to protest the tax. He urged readers who agreed with him to show up at the fiscal court meeting (like a town hall) and be heard. A crowd of 200 people responded to the call, and they successfully squelched the tax plan.

That scene would repeat itself as the county attempted to pass new zoning laws and an occupation tax. Massie wrote more letters and went to more meetings, drawing more crowds. “There was no Tea Party when I started getting involved,” he says. “They called it ‘Thomas’s angry mob.’ We would show up at these fiscal court meetings. We backed them down every time they tried to do something.”

People started telling Massie he should run for office. So in 2010, he ran for Judge-Executive of Lewis County—a position that is the executive and legislative head of the county government. He says he was swept up in “a wave of enthusiasm” over Rand Paul’s Senate campaign out of Kentucky. Massie ended up beating the incumbent by a 2-1 margin in the Republican primary, and won the general election 3-1 over the Democratic candidate (which is typical for that county).

But things have not gone smoothly for Massie in office—and that’s just how he wants it. “When you’re stalking waste within a government office, it’s like every rock that you turn over has a snake under it,” he says. Massie has been targeting waste, fraud, and abuse, starting with … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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  • http://www.facebook.com/sdguero Ryan Bray

    I think I like this guy. :)

  • Sulfide Smolder

    can we drop romney for massie???? lets not waste the next four years

  • johnwerneken

    More power to him. Facts lend themselves to win-win solutions; ideology may be cheaper as a means of manipulating folks but the results are of a different quality. I’d rather be right than popular and I think such government as we need should be based on that principle.

  • Raymond Chuang

    I think Thomas Massie saw the following:

    1. Government has gotten TOO big with too much bureaucratic overlap, agency bloat and obsolete/unneeded regulations, all of which has resulted in record Federal deficit spending and regulations that are woefully anti-business for all the _wrong_ reasons.

    2. The American income tax system is a complicated, circa US$400 billion/year compliance cost mess that discourages savings and capital investment in the USA and is rife with corruption and serious issues with invasion of privacy (since IRS 1040 long form tax filings often require intimate details of your personal and business finances). Why do you think some economists estimate that over US$15 TRILLION in American-owned liquid assets are sitting in banks beyond US borders? (That explains why Apple has the majority of its circa US$100 billion in liquid assets sitting in foreign banks and the proliferation of “banks” in various Caribbean island nations.) Not to mention millions of jobs, thousands of factories and hundreds of corporate headquarters leaving the USA for tax avoidance reasons, too.

    This is the same problem that is plaguing most of the world’s national economies, especially Europe, where overly-generous government social services are on the verge of causing sovereign debt defaults in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy with dire consequences.

    The message of the Tea Party movement is totally correct: we need to “right size” government to be way more efficient so government budgets can be far smaller and massively overhaul the income tax system so it has way lower yearly compliance costs and encourages more savings and capital investment in the USA.

  • Bayesian Objectivity

    I’ve worked with his product.  I guarantee you 95% of his company’s revenue came from government spending.

  • alex

    He is an engineer who sees problems and fixes them–we need a LOT more engineers in Congress, because its clear politicians have had their chance and failed.

  • http://www.stumbleupon.com/stumbler/mhenriday/ M Henri Day

    The reigning model for engineers in government is the People’s Republic of China….

    Henri

    • Peakview28

      It would be Germany. Pretty well run for the most part, yes?

      • http://www.stumbleupon.com/stumbler/mhenriday/ M Henri Day

        Peakview28, you mean the place where government officials, up to and including the president, regularly have to resign when plagiarism in the PhD theses that others have written for them is uncovered ? But if you mean by «pretty well run» that Germany is better run than the United States, I quite agree – but please note that in Germany the percentage of union members in the labour market is about twice that of the United States, that regulations on the hiring and firing of workers there are far stricter, and government intervention in the economy far more frequent than in the US, while the amount of public moneys devoted to killing people abroad, aka «defense», much less, etc, etc. I believe this sort of thing is referred to as «socialism» in the United States. If, indeed, this is what Mr Massie has in mind, then by all means, the US Congress certainly needs more men and women like him, nicht wahr ?…

        Henri

  • anonymous coward

    I’m an engineer and I’m sorry to note that we’ve had 2 engineers as President.  Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter.

  • Albrecm

    He won!!

  • Suszlous

    this guy is overrated! he did not invent hapetic tech nor was he anywhere near genius! ky can keep him!

  • Suszlous

    the fact the company sold for a “FEW” accents on the word FEW million prove’s the point!

  • suzzs

    where’s me comment’s?

  • suzzy

    only from kentucky would you be considered a genius and god among politician’s just because your owned a small bit of a tech company that sold for only a FEW million !

  • suzzy

    kentucky set’s very low standard’s for it’s boy-wonder’s! haha the guy’s a fool ask any1 from mit that knew him