My first lesson in entrepreneurship:
I got bit by the entrepreneurial bug early at the age of 18, while in college, when I started working for myself installing car alarms under a company that I named “CyberCircuit Security Systems”. I made my first $400 (to pay for books) in the freezing cold Chicago weather by ripping apart people’s fancy luxury cars and re-wiring them with security systems. I got paid $75 for the security system and $325 for the feature that would remotely (from inside someone’s warm house) turn on the car and the heater. (Lesson learned: people paid more for convenience than they did for security). I connected a market (very cold people) with a solution (very warm cars) and after that, there was no turning back…
[Startup 1.0] Starting Point – Internet Search Engine and Directory
Time Period: 1995-1998
My Role: Webmaster and Owner
High Point: 7th most popular website on the Internet (Microsoft was #8)
A year later, at the age of 19, working from my fraternity dorm room… I jumped into my first official startup company; Starting Point. It was an Internet search engine and directory “dot-com” (competitor to Yahoo!, we didn’t even know Yahoo! existed at the time). We were a handful of people with the mission of “organizing the Internet.” I dropped out of college, and eventually, we grew the site to be the 7th most popular website on the Internet (Microsoft was #8 at the time). We were not venture-funded (in fact, at the time, I didn’t even know what venture capital was). Eventually, the site was acquired by CMGI/YesMail.com and later sold to another public company named TechLabs.
Starting Point would also serve as the “starting point” and foundation for my entrepreneurial career (as a substitute for completing my college degree). It seems as though all five of the companies that I have been involved in, to date, somehow have roots reaching back to my first company. As a matter of fact, part of the inspiration behind my current company, StrongMail Systems (Startup 5.0), an email infrastructure company, dates back 10 years ago to Starting Point. At Starting Point, 100% of the interaction with our users/customers was via email. We had millions of interactions with users each month: no paper, no telephone, no face to face meetings, just email. We took email correspondence very seriously and used it to attract new users and keep existing users happy and loyal. Email was the primary vehicle that drove Starting Point to quickly become the 7th most popular site on the Internet.
There is no cure for the entrepreneurial “bug bite”, however, it is contagious… Many entrepreneurs start multiple companies and many people who go to work at a startup (becoming entrepreneurs themselves) go on to work for multiple startups in their careers.
Do serial entrepreneurs look at each individual company as a journey in itself? Or is each company a better version of the previous… part of a bigger roadmap?
Venture Capital Funding: $0 (profitable)
Exit: acquired by CMGI/YesMail.com
Keep it simple: While everyone was developing very complex websites with the latest bells and whistles… Our simple, clean user-interface prevailed (a strategy later adopted by companies such as Google) You can take a look using the WayBackMachine: Starting Point Website (1996) (however, it doesn’t look so impressive these days!)
Take care of the customer: Good ‘ole fashion customer service works. We had millions of users and a link on every page that said “Questions, comments? Contact the Webmaster.” We had one (yes, only one) person answer thousands of emails a day. ROI: extreme user loyalty (cost of acquiring a new customer is much higher than keeping existing ones)
…reason for success: Right timing.
…mistake: Now finding ways to grow the site more aggressively.
…challenge: Competing with Yahoo!, Microsoft/MSN, AltaVista, AOL.
IF I WERE…
…smarter: We could have been Yahoo!
…dumber: I would have learned even more. It was my first company – everything I did was dumb.
…to do it all over again: I would have raised venture capital to much more aggressively grow the business.
Next on deck: Startup 2.0… “The Internet is Coming! How will we make money?”