changing the face of communication, education and commerce
forever, the Internet has proven to be the ultimate way to
get-rich-quick if you have the brains and a little luck. Unfortunately,
we weren't able to discuss this with the biggest computer
kahuna of them all Microsoft founder and CEO Bill Gates
(he says he's busy with some big government lawsuit.) But,
we did talk to a few of the other folks who have found fame
and fortune through the 'Net. Hey, we even picked up a few
pointers on the way:
1) You don't need a business degree to start a business;
2) Beer and burritos are in fact "brain-food;" and
3) For some reason, going to Stanford U. helps.
Read on and learn a lesson from Gen X's digital entrepreneurs. It just might make you think twice about dropping that computer elective.
Engine that Could
It's a scene just crying out for Ben Stiller or Ethan Hawke. Six college seniors "unencumbered by reality" sitting at their favorite burrito shop in February of 1993, debating about what they were going to do with the rest of their lives.
"When senior year came around we decided we didn't want to work for anyone else," says 27-year-old Excite co-founder Joe Kraus. "We thought it would be a great time to hang out and start a company."
And why not? Kraus and fellow cronies Graham Spencer, Ryan McIntyre, Ben Lutch, Mark Van Haren and Martin Reinfried had been friends since they met in their Stanford U. dorm freshman year. So, under the guidance of then-22-year-old tech mastermind Spencer, they decided on a career plan to create a technology that would allow people to search through big databases. "We saw that there was an interesting need for this," Spencer says. "We realized more and more text was going to be available over the 'Net."
The guys scraped up $15,000 from their parents and set up shop in a garage next to the meager Palo Alto home where three of the founders lived.
It was here that the Excite search engine was born: a makeshift office consisting of stolen chairs, some computers and a dryer that heated the place when the weather became too unbearable. Subsisting on 50-pound bags of beans and rice, the young entrepeneurs spent countless days and nights punching away at their computers, while "Phone Boy" Kraus tried to sell the idea to anybody that would listen.
A year later, they got the break they'd been waiting for, a deal with a venture capital firm. "We wanted to celebrate by going to Las Vegas, but there were no flights, so we went to Denny's," says Kraus.
While the "Moon over my Hammy" may have been a treat for the guys in '94, filet mignon and caviar would be more appropriate today. The publicly-traded company pulled in close to $60 million in revenue in the first half of 1998, already eclipsing their total 1997 revenue.
"We couldn't have dreamed where it is today," Kraus says. "I think we feel like the luckiest guys in the world."
Despite their millionaire status, the Excite crew keeps things in perspective. "I don't think anything has really changed," Kraus says. "Now I can buy hardback books instead of paperback."
Jeez, we'd just like to know what books he's reading.
They had the technology, now all they needed was a company name. With their creative juices getting them as far as an acronym starting with "Yet Another," Yahoo! founders Jerry Yang and David Filo turned to the dictionary ... yawp, yaws, yaxis, yahoo bingo! While few people are familiar with "Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle," virtually anyone who has touched a computer in the last few years has seen the Yahoo! namesake.
Of course, Yang and Filo insist that they are both yahoos. Hmmm, according to our pal Webster that would make them crude or brutish. Funny, they don't seem that way to us. Well, whatever they are one thing's certain: they've turned their idea into a company valued at close to $10 billion in less time than it takes most students to earn a bachelor's.
What gives? Both were doctoral candidates at Stanford U. when they began working on the Yahoo! technology "as a hobby" from their school computers in 1994.
"The initial motivation was just to keep a database of sites we thought were interesting. It was mainly for ourselves," Yang says. His partner Filo admits that "It was a great way to procrastinate at the time."
Now, in just four years, Filo and Yang's "hobby" has become the hobby of 18 million registered Yahoo! users, and the company's financial success is something the founders have yet to comprehend."The money was just something that happened," Filo says. "It was never the goal, nor expected."
Wish we could say the same about our jobs.
in the Family
Sleeping in may have been Jason Olim's best career move. The 29-year-old founder and president of CDnow originally wanted to study physics in college, but all the classes were at 8 a.m., so Olim went with his second choice computer science.
That was almost a decade ago. Today, Olim has turned his computer knowledge and his love of music and into an on-line CD retailer that pulled in $17 million dollars in sales within three years of its inception.
Olim traces the birth of the company to Feb. 11, 1994, a night he was out with some drinking buddies. Chatting about his longtime frustrations with salespeople at conventional music stores, the Brown U. grad had a revelation. "It just dawned on me that I could build a music store on the Internet," he says.
He went to work immediately and eventually quit his full-time job as a software developer and recruited his twin brother Matt (an astrophysics major, mind you) into the mad scheme. So the two brothers and one computer camped out in their parents' Pennsylvania basement, made some phone calls and punched away at the keyboard. Today, along with a gargantuan inventory, the on-line company offers shoppers MTV/VH1, College Music Journal and Rolling Stone music news and reviews within a mouseclick. The Olims claim this has allowed them to create the most knowledgeable music "staff" on earth.
But, with 193 real people also working for the company, they haven't completely abandoned the human touch. "I don't think anyone had any idea it would get so big," Matt Olim admits.
The lesson: don't always count out the guy who still lives with mom after graduation.
Kids on the Block
Today, a group of five UCLA students hope to mirror the success of companies like Yahoo! and Excite with their contribution to the information superhighway Scour.net.
Born last October in a dorm room, Scour.net is a search engine that exclusively finds sites containing audio, video or images. This means that if all you're looking for is a picture of Monica Lewinsky, you won't have to sift through 60,000 pages of the Starr report, before finding a site that actually has photos.
"It started off as something we threw together," says Dan Rodrigues, the 23-year-old senior and president of the company which also includes juniors Vince Busam, Jason Droege and Ilya Haykinson and grad students Ryan King and Kevin Smilak.
The group hopes to cash in on the college market, since students usually have access to computers that can efficiently handle multimedia files. And whether or not the Internet turns out to be his pot of gold, Rodrigues says his experience with the company has taught him more than he could ever learn with his accounting minor.
"It's been sort of a crash course on business and financing," Rodrigues says. "It's not really until you're thrown into it that you get up to speed with this jargon."
By Jamie Pietras, Assistant Editor/Photos courtesy of Excite, Yahoo!, Cdnow and Scour.Net