It's the 'pure entrepreneur' who often leads the way
Paul Cosway intends to drag the transistor radio into the Internet age. Pito Salas is developing software that collects and organizes the latest updates made to a bevy of weblogs, for easy perusal.
It's the time of year for expressions of gratitude. One of the things I'm grateful for, as an observer of Boston's technology ecosystem, is our region's concentration of pure entrepreneurs like Cosway and Salas.
Pure entrepreneurs are loopy and obsessed. They have a vision of the future, and while others are casting their lines into the water to see what will bite, pure entrepreneurs are jumping over the gunwales and swimming after the white whale.
Pure entrepreneurship, by my definition, is often driven by a belief that a major shift is coming -- and thus it's hard to find customers who already understand that they need the product a pure entrepreneur is developing.
Venture capitalists haven't yet started their inevitable lockstep sprint, racing to put their money to work. It's too early.
Pure entrepreneurship is often a solo enterprise, funded by credit cards, consulting projects, and second mortgages. It sparks revolutions and spawns big companies.
When Bill Warner started Avid Technology in 1987, he borrowed money from his dad and used the proceeds from a house he sold in Brookline to fund the development of the first system for editing video digitally. Now, the Tewksbury company rakes in more than $500 million a year, and its technology is used to edit shows like ''The Sopranos" and movies like ''Mystic River."
''Too many people focus on whether there's an established market, or whether there are funding sources for what they want to do," Warner says. Often, he says, building a prototype -- a concrete manifestation of the vision -- is a better first step than drafting a formal business plan.
''Do whatever will get you the most excited," he says, ''and your energy will be the engine for the whole thing."
When Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston developed VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet software, they relied heavily on their own MasterCards, but they didn't rely at all on market research to validate what they were doing. It would have been hard to explain new products, and new ways of working, to people who were accustomed to using calculators and paper when making financial projections. Pure entrepreneurs rely instead on their instincts.
''Something just clicks, and you say, 'This is worth doing, and I think other people will be interested,' " Bricklin says. ''It hits you that there's a need, and that pursuing it is worth the risk."
In February, he left Atlanta-based Interland, which had acquired his last company, to return to pure entrepreneurship.
When I ran into Pito Salas this month at a conference, he was eager to show off the latest version of his BlogBridge software for keeping track of the latest updates to your favorite weblogs -- and discovering new ones. So he pulled out his laptop, and we sat in a corridor as he offered a demo. (The software is available for free at www.blogbridge.com.)
Salas had been the chief technology officer and cofounder of eRoom, a company that made Web collaboration software. ERoom was sold to a larger company in 2002 for $100 million, and after that Salas spent a year at North Bridge Venture Partners, doing technical due diligence on companies that pitched the Waltham VC firm. But instead of staying with North Bridge, or joining one of the companies that passed through its doors, Salas decided to strike out on his own.
On the Net, at a site called Scriptlance.com, Salas found a software developer in Ukraine who was willing to write pieces of the Java code that would eventually make up the BlogBridge software. (Salas eventually hired him full time, paying him about $1,000 a month to work on improvements to BlogBridge. They communicate entirely by instant message and e-mail, and have not met in person or talked by phone.)
''I sometimes liken my personal approach to the BlogBridge project to writing a book," Salas writes via e-mail. ''I have a burning desire to tell this story, and am willing to forsake a conventional job to do it. This is in stark contrast, of course, to raising $5 million, hiring 20 people and racing to a liquidity event." As with writing a book, Salas has complete creative control over his project.
Salas says pure entrepreneurship often entails diving in to an area of technology that seems immature or utterly noncommercial.
''We're still in the early days of the blogging phenomenon," Salas admits. ''But something big is going on. I compare it to the Mosaic days of the Web, when we sat and wondered what people would do with it."
Salas isn't yet focused on how he'll make money from BlogBridge, just on producing software that people will find useful.
''Everybody is scratching their heads about the money-making opportunity with blogging," he says. ''But if you sit around and try to figure out how something can be a $100 million company, you'll be left behind."
Paul Cosway, the founder of Ressen Design in Somerville, is working on a device to make Internet radio broadcasts portable. His initial motivation: Cosway wanted to practice his German by listening to German-language news on the Net, but didn't want to be tethered to his PC.
''We believe that to expand the number of people listening to radio via the Internet, you need a non-PC device," Cosway says. (Subscription-based satellite radio services, from companies like XM and Sirius, are attracting listeners, but the number of channels is limited; Internet radio makes available a theoretically infinite number of channels.)
Cosway's current prototype for what he calls the ''Radeo" was built using a Sharp Zaurus hand-held computer. Relying on either an office WiFi network or the Sprint PCS wireless network, the Radeo prototype can tune in to jazz from Princeton University, archived episodes of WBUR's ''The Connection," Scottish soccer games, and German pop music.
Cosway hasn't built his first dedicated Radeo. But once he does, he thinks it would cost about $200 to $250 to mass-produce a wireless version, and $130 to $150 for a wired version that would plug in to an ethernet port. He imagines that big producers of Internet radio content, like AOL or Major League Baseball, might be interested in distributing Radeos to their subscribers.
Of course, the biggest challenge of pure entrepreneurship is knowing when it's time to switch from an inwardly focused development mode to an outwardly focused marketing and fund-raising mode. (Otherwise, pure entrepreneurship is just an expensive hobby.) When is it time to stop tinkering with the product, and start figuring out a route to the marketplace? At this point, connections become incredibly important.
Bricklin believes it's a good time to be a pure entrepreneur, and I agree. It's not ever an easy time for pure entrepreneurship, since so much of the job involves proselytizing about new technologies to prospective backers and customers who are mired in the status quo. It's just that now, with technologies like the Internet, e-mail, and wireless communications so widely deployed, opportunities abound.
''We're in a very fertile time," says Bricklin, who lately has been experimenting with digital video.
''It's easier to prototype things now," adds Warner, who is currently developing software for online mapping. ''With today's tools, you can create software yourself, without a big team of programmers. And you can print out physical products cheaply with a 3-D printer. Everything is just so possible."
Everything is possible. Not a bad aphorism for the start of a new year.
Scott Kirsner is a contributing editor at Fast Company. He can be reached at email@example.com.