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an evening with the
barons of the beltway

part 2: the barons

Jim Kimsey—Gee, That Sounds Exciting

Thank you, Esther. "Barons of the Beltway." It sounds like a yuppie motorcycle gang. And most of us don't qualify, except for Russ. Sorry, Russ.

What I thought I'd do is mention some things about the little-known genesis of America Online (AOL) that might be of interest to you. It may be relevant to how you think about cyberspace and the opportunities that are being presented here and how you might take advantage of them.

AOL’s unlikely beginning occurred on the banks of the Colorado River when a college classmate of mine and I were taking our sons on a trip, and he told me about an investment that he was making here in the Washington area in a company that downloaded video games over the telephone. At the time I had very little knowledge of high-tech companies and I said, "Gee, that sounds exciting." And I invested.

Because of my geographical proximity to this company, and as it got into more and more trouble because it caught the wave of the video game craze at the peak, I became embroiled in this venture. While it sucked up $200,000 of voluntary and involuntary contributions, I was with a group that was taking a bank holding company public, and I got a questionnaire from the SEC that asked, "Have you ever been involved as a board member or officer of a company within two years of its going bankrupt?"

I thought, "Oh, no, I'll never be able to answer ‘no’ to that again," so I became very motivated to keep this company alive. I tried to sell it to Apple, but at that time Steve Jobs and John Sculley were rolling around on the floor and I couldn't get their attention.

So I went to Commodore. Maybe some of you can't remember this far back. This was in 1984, early '85, and at that time, Commodore was a billion dollar company and the major presence in the home computer market. Luckily, I hit it off with a guy that ran Commodore. He was too smart to buy this downloading company, and he suggested that we start a new company, use the old technology, marry it up with some new technology, and use Commodore as a distribution vehicle.

In those days, as I said, Commodore was a big high-tech company and we were very happy to get their sponsorship. Today, Commodore does not exist. It was liquidated for the benefit of creditors.

High-tech is indeed a slippery pole. It turned out to be a fortunate thing for us because we had solely tied our fortunes to Commodore's wagon. We were then forced to deploy ourselves across an array of platforms and become much more accessible to those who would distribute us.

There was another lesson learned in all of that. Prodigy—then known as Trintex before CBS dropped out—had started a year ahead of us, backed by IBM and Sears. Everybody used to ask me, how on earth are you going to compete with IBM and Sears? And here we are 12 years later.

I started AOL and Quantum, which became AOL, in 1985. Prodigy has sucked up at least a billion and a half dollars of IBM’s and Sears' money, maybe a little more when you count off balance sheet financing, and they have somewhere under a million subscribers.

We burned $10 million in venture capital money and have 8.5 million subscribers. It’s not because we were so smart; it’s because we didn't have any resources. IBM and Sears had tons of resources. We had a very tiny amount of money, and so we were forced to use our wits and creativity to achieve our goals. We were forced to figure out how to leverage other people's resources for our own benefit. If we had all the resources that Ted Papes, the founder of Prodigy, had, I'm sure we would have had big board rooms, hired a bunch of people, had committees and done all the things that big companies do. Big companies have a hard time competing.

Little companies compete well because they are wiry, they are slim, they haven't beefed up on overhead. They are like little speed boats so when they see something change, they can change quickly. Changing quickly is the big challenge for big companies. So I always like to recall our beginning, because this is the answer, in retrospect, to how we were able to compete with IBM and Sears.

Now AOL is one of the top 25 media companies, we are the major brand in cyberspace, we have 7,000 employees, and the challenge we face now is the same challenge that IBM and Commodore faced. You get big. You get arrogant. Arrogance is success's evil twin.

The minute you think you know everything is the minute you are going to die, because you don't. You never know everything. And the challenge of keeping a big company moving like a speedboat and able to anticipate challenges, respond to them, and keep the entrepreneurial spirit is a huge one. Very few big companies are able to figure that out, and it's a challenge that renews itself daily.

There have been many interesting milestones along the way when AOL looked like it would not get past the next bend in the road and we were forced to "huddle" down in the basement.

We were lucky because we had great people. I was lucky because one of the early folks hired was Steve Case, who started out as a marketing intern and, it turns out, always believed in this concept that pretty soon everybody would be communicating by computer. He had a vision. He eats, sleeps, breathes, thinks this vision. He has perseverance. I was very fortunate to have somebody like that.

My job was to make sure to remember business 101. You have to have more money coming in than going out. Sometimes people forget that. They get caught up in the elegance of it all and think the masses should love this. We love it. We sit down in the basement playing with our stuff. We think, "Isn't this great. Everybody's going to love it." Well, maybe they will, maybe they won't.

You must find out and make sure. The lifeblood of all entrepreneurial projects is money, and figuring out where to get it and how to keep it coming in. It's a lesson you can't ever forget. So I'll leave you with that.

Our next speaker is Bill Melton, who is on the board of AOL and has been a great board member. Bill has started many high-tech companies as you can see in your brochure. As you well know, he has recently started his own company, CyberCash.

Bill Melton— The 90 Degree Rule

I can say thank you to Jim for more than one thing. When I joined the AOL board, I decided that to keep myself interested, I should put a little money on the table. So before I could get caught up in insider trading problems, I bought a few shares of stock. It's been very worthwhile. Thanks, Jim.

I'd like to talk about three things. The first is creating efficiencies. The second is coping. And the third is a kind of Russian Roulette, or what I like to call the "90-degree rule."

In the Internet, here in this netpreneurial world, we are creating efficiencies. We are figuring out how to manage with one-tenth the resources it used to take. And anytime we can figure that out, we have an opportunity to take the $9 that we save and pass three, four, or five of it back to the consumer, pass two, three, or four of that to the people who financed us to get started, and hopefully to put a dollar or two in our pockets.

Creating efficiency is about cutting away any surplus. This is what determines whether you are going to be successful or not.

But enough theory. What entrepreneuring is about most of the time isn't such high-minded, philosophical things as creating efficiencies. It's about coping, and this is the second thing I’d like to talk about. How do you get through today and tomorrow? How do you meet payroll on next Friday afternoon?

Back in 1972 or 1973, I started my first company. I was going to automate the databases and the telecommunications systems for a company, a series of franchises known as TeleCheck. TeleCheck was a check guarantee business. Of course, being a young entrepreneur, I had no idea how much it was going to take to actually build the computer system that I promised. I was just thrilled that anybody would give me any business of any kind.

But I was willing to give a price. So the guy at TeleCheck asked, "Can you automate my system?" and I said, "No problem." He said, "How much will it cost?" I said, "Thirty thousand," which to me was such a big number that I couldn't imagine spending all that money.

About a year and a half later, having spent well over $120,000—and the system was not delivered yet, of course—we were behind schedule. I was in violation of every agreement that I had ever signed with the guy. He called me into his office one day and he said, "You know, Bill, you are a nice guy, and I really appreciate how hard you are working, but," he said, "I'm going to have to sue you. You have broken every promise. You haven't delivered. The contract is a worthless piece of paper. I'm a responsible businessman—I just have no choice."

So now this is an opportunity to cope. His name was Don. I'll never forget his name. Nice man. I said, "Don, I'll tell you what." I reached into my pocket and I pulled out my 1967 Volkswagen keys and I laid them on the tabletop. I reached into my other pocket and I pulled out my checkbook. I had $87. I laid that on the table. I said, "Don, you can have my Volkswagen, you can have my checkbook, and I will sign a piece of paper right here that says you can have every other earthly thing that I own on the face of the earth except my wife and kids, and you won't have to sue me. I’ll save you a lot of money. It's in your interest, Don—and I'll go out and get a good job someplace else."

"Alternatively, Don, if you like, you can pay me $1,000 so they won't shut off my electricity, and I'll go back to work." He wrote me a check for $1,000.

That was when I started my first company. Then there was another company called VeriFone that some of have you heard about. That company was started back in 1981 and was started by a partner and myself. I didn't know my partner very well. Be careful of partners. He was going to bring all the money and I was going to bring the marketing and technology. Unfortunately, two weeks after we started the company he had a stroke. He became a vegetable. And then I found out that he was bankrupt, divorced and being sued by three former wives.

Meanwhile, I had made the commitment to get the company started, and I had a lot of people who trusted me, so I had to continue. No problem. I went out and I sold some stuff. Of course, I hadn't built it yet, but I sold it.

Then I took the orders and I went to my bank and I got a letter of credit that I could take to a manufacturer in Hong Kong to build the stuff that I had sold. I got to Hong Kong and gave the letter of credit to a manufacturer there, and they went ahead and built it and I went back to the United States to try to sell some more so I could get the next letter of credit.

Of course, I had forgotten, being the young entrepreneur, to make sure my insurance was in place and all these business details.

At 2:00 a.m. about a month later, I got a call. The entire load of stuff that I had bought from Hong Kong was on a plane going through Alaska, and the plane had crashed on the runway. The pilot had bailed out, but all the cargo was burned.

Of course, with a letter of credit, as you understand these things, they already have the money over there. The people expecting the product are over here, and they have a very limited sense of humor. So what I had was another opportunity to cope.

I called the manufacturer in Hong Kong and I said, "What about insurance?" And he said, "Well, you know you signed a contract that said it's freight on board, and that means once it's on board, it's not our responsibility anymore."

"Well," I said, "you know that line of stuff that you have on your manufacturing process out there? How are you going to get paid for that?"

"Well, aren't you bringing a letter of credit next week?"

"Oh, I was," I said, "but I can't anymore, not unless the insurance comes through. Look in your drawer and see if you can't find an insurance policy that will cover that."

It was covered. And VeriFone went on to be VeriFone. I think the opportunity to cope never stops. Even after the companies become the size of an AOL or they become the size of a Friedman, Billings, Ramsey, there is something called quarterly analyst reports. And you cope.

You know, I have often thought that entrepreneuring, to people who haven't been through it, must seem like nothing but fun and games. I sometimes compare it to playing Russian roulette. You spin the cylinder and you pull the trigger once, and nothing happens. But you know, next quarter comes around, and you get to spin that cylinder again, and the odds don't change. Every time it's the same odds and it's continual coping, coping, coping. Obviously, that's the challenge. That leads me to what I call the 90-degree rule.

Jim gave you some stories about starting his company and he ended up very differently from where he started out. Every single company that I have been involved in ends up being rather different than what we started out to be. It's like the old honeybee that goes out to get pollen and all the honeybee knows is "I want pollen" and he doesn't think anything else. The fact that he ends up creating a lot of honey turns out to be a side business, 90 degrees off from what he set out to accomplish.

If you start out for fame, for glory, if you start out for anything, you are not going to get it. You are going to end up getting something else 90 degrees off to the side. Basically, business is one large social experiment, a social experiment with yourself, and a social experiment with those that you work with.

If you start out doing what is really fun for you, what you really like to do, you probably are going to do it better than the next person who’s not having fun. If you really do what's fun, like the honeybee, hopefully you'll create some honey. Thank you.

I get to introduce Mario Morino. Mario is a legend. Anything you say about him is redundant. He has been there. He has done it all. He has created tonight. The man is a nonstop creation machine. Mario.

Mario Morino— The Right Place at the Right Time

Thanks, everybody, for being here. The theme I'd like to weave through this short talk is the right place at the right time. We are at the very beginning of a new frontier, and from my perspective, one that is dramatically different than what I stumbled into when my career began in the 1960s. I believe we are at ground zero in the Greater Washington region.

We are at a place of convergence that is making us different because we are sitting in the middle. The fact is that communications (the pipes), computing (the process) and content (the information) are all converging, and they are converging nowhere in the world better than in this region.

To illustrate how opportune the timing is, I'd like to quote from an article entitled "Sampling of Start-Ups Shows How the Internet Inspires," from the June 4, 1997, Wall Street Journal. "There has rarely been a more fertile time to start a company. Communications breakthroughs, including the Internet, have lowered the entry bar and inspired new ideas. In the first quarter of this year alone, venture capitalists invested in 281 start-ups, up 45% from a year earlier, according to a Price Waterhouse survey. Meanwhile, the survey found, funding soared 75% to $929 million."

I want to go back in time, and I hate to say this, but some of you weren't even born yet. This is a pretty disturbing fact for an about-to-be-54-year-old Italian.

In 1954, I took a course in systems design. At the end of the course, the instructor made a comment to the class. He said, "Congratulations on finishing this class in systems design. I wish you all luck, but the trouble is that none of you are going to need it. The good part of this class is that half of you are going to be really successful. The bad part is so will the other half."

What he was trying to say is something that is with us today—that we are at the beginning of a new frontier. The frontier back then was computers in business, and where there was fear, uncertainty and doubt, opportunity would be infinite. I can't emphasize enough how true that was in that era. In those days, if you could walk, talk, chew gum and speak computers, you were going to make it. We were at the right place at the right time. It’s similar to where we are today.

Today success is about business and interactivity and it's about a whole new consumer marketplace. The possibilities today are far greater in size and scope than ever before. None of us can possibly comprehend what the future is going to hold. The important message for you is not that you are going to be a netpreneur today, tomorrow or even a year from now, but that you step onto the field and get into the game, because your time will come. And the time in which you have this opportunity will not pass quickly.

Opportunity alone never breeds success, but the netpreneurial zeal will. It will increase your opportunity.

I want to go back and illustrate what I mean by "opportunity." As I said, back in the 1960s, I was riding a wave in my career. I broke into the field in 1964 at General Motors, which was considered one of the Meccas of technology in this country. It was an era that you can't even imagine. A whole new generation of mainframes was going to dominate the computer scene for the next 20 or 30 years. I had an open ticket to learn. I was there on top of that wave of opportunity, at that moment in time—at the right place, the right time.

My first entrepreneurial venture was in 1968, in the military service. A bunch of us, sailors by day, had a company at night. We tried to figure out how to manage, measure and account for timesharing concepts. We had no idea we were doing advanced work. We were just doing work.

That group jokingly became known as Morino's Marauders. It merged into a timesharing company. In that transaction I learned how painful stock options were. I got my first real test of equity, and it taught me a lot—fortunately at a very low price—and it was a valuable lesson.

From 1970 to 1972 I was part of yet another company, and we were getting an edge. We were learning something that was way ahead of the market at that time.

In 1973 I met my partner, Bill Witzel. We did really well in 1973, but there were many folks who were successful before us and even more who made fortunes after us. Opportunity doesn’t just exist for a day or a week or a month or a year – it went on for several decades! Some say that opportunity is passing us by, moving fast. That's not true. We are on a wave that's going to be 10, 15 years in position. And your opportunity is that you are getting in on the ground floor.

Whether you take advantage of your opportunities today, or two weeks from now, or next year may not be relevant. What is relevant is that you position yourself to be prepared for your opportunity when it comes. That is what's relevant to your life today—to get in the game and to be prepared.

I keep looking back in my life to the amount of good fortune I had—being at the right place at the right time. I recall multiple points in my career until that opportunity came, when I met Bill and we created Morino Associates. I argue that you pick opportune times and make your own success. This is what is relevant.

We had enormous market opportunity, but in addition, you must learn to measure and manage opportunities. People were spending a lot of money and they were looking for answers. We had a solution that the market very much needed. The technology came out of the late '60s and early '70s and it became the industry of systems management. Only a handful of firms were born in the industry then, but it became a multibillion dollar industry with no let-up in sight.

We had an edge, and we capitalized on our edge. We had perseverance. You laugh when you hear the stories about all the young companies today. I remember the number of times we worked around the clock, the number of times we ate steak and eggs at Toddle House, the number of times we did really stupid things. That's entrepreneurship, folks, because you are living on the edge. It's that small company Jim was talking about.

You have no board room. You meet in lobbies of hotels, maybe basements, maybe living rooms. You have to be aggressively competitive. We had focus. Every time we said we were going to deliver a product, we delivered it. We never missed. Most importantly, we had great people, people with talent, people who genuinely cared. One of our folks said we would rather have chewed off our right arm than let the team down. Whatever you do, that becomes your goal and role as individuals.

And now, once again, we are at the right place at the right time.

I want to give you an example of how important serendipity is. Keep in mind that we went public in October of 1986. It was September of '86 and we were figuring out our September close numbers when suddenly the locked order for $300,000 that could never go away disappeared off the books. We would now have a$300,000 revenue short-fall and miss our quarterly expectations—the IPO was going south on us.

The next day, I was walking down the hallway. One of our best and brightest salespeople was on the phone with a client and she asked me to speak with him. The guy was talking about buying $400,000 of software from IBM. Well, we got really creative really fast. We came up with a new packaging strategy, a modified licensing agreement and we closed a $400,000 deal. We made our numbers and had a great customer story.

Think of how fortunate that was. Walking down the right hall at the right time. The right salesperson on the phone at the right moment. That IPO would have gone south and we would have had a different future. Realize how fickle and tenuous the world is. Being at the right place at the right time—and being prepared to act—is a very key element of success.

I'd like to leave you with some other lessons that I believe I learned the hard way.

  • Make sure you are in the game. There is no excuse for not jumping in. Whether you are going to be a netpreneur today, next week or next year, be ready when that opportunity comes. This is not about getting to a destination. This is a journey. Every step of the journey, you need to figure out what you are learning that will make you better equipped. Your next step may not be a netpreneur. It may be to a company with the right job so you can become a netpreneur the step after that. You have got to be on the edge.
  • You must have something that makes you unique or you have no way to differentiate yourself in the marketplace.
  • You must have a hunger to out-work those you can't out-think, because there will be a lot of people smarter than you. You need to learn in the marketplace, not the office. The worst systems are developed at the office. Experiment, try things. Be ready for the unexpected.
  • Again, as Bill and Jim both said, respect the serendipitous nature of business. Your life should be responding, reacting, changing quickly. Surround yourself with people of ethics, opinions, talent and a great will to succeed. It sounds corny, but you are going to live and die by that creed. Someone is going to give a damn about you, and you are going to give a damn about them.
  • Love what you are doing, be the best you can be and have fun doing it. Thank you for the chance for all of us to share this. We very much look forward to the dialogue that follows.

Now it's my turn to introduce a legend. Russ Ramsey is the president of Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co. In the past several years, I have gained an enormous amount of respect for this company, seeing an investment banking firm come out of nowhere and take on national presence and national promise. I think it's an amazing testament to the style they are engaging in and the direction that Russ is setting for them—taking such a meaningful position in this whole new world of information technology and the Internet. With that, I'd like to introduce Russ Ramsey.

Russ Ramsey—The Sun, The Moon and the Stars

I feel very honored to have an opportunity to speak in front of a group of aspiring entrepreneurs, particularly entrepreneurs in the area of cyberspace, because I never really thought of myself as an entrepreneur or as someone who would ever have an opportunity to talk about my successes. I just focused every day on how I could get up and make a difference and try to pay the bills.

I come at this discussion from a capital markets perspective, both worldwide and domestically—how we find ways to capitalize and to provide the fuel for these businesses to move beyond the idea stage, and beyond implementation. This clearly requires having a little bit of a knowledge and an understanding of what's really happening in the bigger picture.

So, as I contemplated what I could share with netpreneurs who were looking to tackle cyberspace, I thought I'd go to the only place I knew, which was maybe beyond cyberspace, and talk a little bit about the sun, the moon and the stars, and about a kind of celestial alignment.

In life, you look at early childhood and at the formative years, and then you look at where you sit in history, you never quite know where you sit. In my work environment, for example, today was another extraordinarily powerful day in the markets. The Dow Jones closed for the fifth straight day at a record high, and the index—well, you have an incredibly powerful capital market and everyone in the business I work in is asking "When is it going to stop?"

We have had a tremendous year of unparalleled economic prosperity—an era when equities have done well, when interest rates are low or falling—and when will it come to an end? In my judgment, it’s important to sit back and try to understand where we are today as it relates to both the Internet space and particularly this region and the people in this region. It’s important to take their talents and to move them beyond an idea into a real capital formation and a real fungible enterprise.

I want to share with you just a little snapshot in history as I look at FBR, because we, like most of the people who start businesses, at one point were too embarrassed to admit that nobody would finance us. Finally, we leveraged what little bit we had. We hung out our shingle and we went about trying to start a business.

This was after toiling together for literally a decade, trying to build a business, trying to figure out a way to exploit the capital markets and compete against the giants in a business, in an environment where no matter how good we were, no matter how smart, no matter how hard we would work, no matter how good our ideas, without some macrochanges, we probably would never have the opportunity to be successful.

One of my partners gave a talk recently regarding this concept of the sun, the moon and the stars coming together in a simultaneous alignment of the market.

The sun was this huge growth of institutionalization, the markets and this incredible amount of capital flowing ever more freely to fewer and fewer hands and the ability of FBR—as a relatively small-bit player—to reach out and grab billions, in this case trillions of dollars of investment capital.

The moon is what I would call the golden age of securitization. It's this vast amount of capital being married together with these incredibly growing enterprises and businesses that change the world.

The stars are the backdrop of this environment, in this inflationary world where you have a great environment for the economy to grow, and you have all of this coming together. For instance, in the world of IPOs. According to Standard & Poor’s, in the entire year of 1982, there were 30 IPOs that raised $1 billion. That mushroomed ten years later in 1992 to 400 IPOs and companies going public in one year. Last year, there were 730 IPOs that had new money to field this growth of $50 billion. That, in my opinion, is where we are as it relates to this Internet space and this alignment of what I would call the sun, the moon and the stars.

The major force is this firestorm of new technology that continues to sweep the world. I use the word "firestorm" to describe the rapidity of change. A firestorm starts as a tiny spark, a fire that took years to kindle and grow.

Other forces are involved: the moon—in this case, instant communication, largely fueled by the Internet; and the stars—a wide open capital market that affects growth and the speed at which this takes place. Once this firestorm begins, the change of pace continues, ultimately affecting the economy with repercussions around the world. It's this worldwide repercussion that I think is important for this audience to understand.

This new technology, the computer chip and its vast amount of computing power, suddenly has become the commodity that is most important in the world. The most important commodities in the world are not oil, copper or wheat. Instead, they are the chip, they are the personal computer, they are the vast amount of computing power and communication that works together.

I’d like to put this in perspective with what's happening today in the world that you live in, with new technologies changing every week, every day. It may mean nothing to you to have prices decline by 30% a year, but if you applied these economies to a $125,000 car, it would cost $200 to build and it would get 500 miles to the gallon. So that's the sun.

The moon is the explosion that is taking place in the ease of communications, in this vast amount of information that's available to everyone. To you, it seems like second nature. It's no big deal to you. But you have to understand the context. These changes are taking place at such a rapid pace that it is changing the landscape of the entire world.

This explosion of information and access to information is putting pricing pressure across the board—airline tickets and thousands of other services. At our company, for example, the cost of document retrieval used to run as high as $200,000 a year. Today, it's given away.

These changes are occurring across the entire planet. Finally, though, and maybe most important, is this alignment, this unlimited computing power, and this unlimited communication. This is the backdrop of the world that I live in. In the 15 or so years that I have tried to make a living in this business, I have never seen a capital market that is as powerful or open as it is today. This capital market is like a high-octane gasoline that is fueling these fires from technological change and resulting in incredibly swift application across the board.

No longer is a discussion about how much someone's house has increased in value or some antique they have purchased. Discussion revolves around mutual funds, the capital market and technology. This is a self-reinforcing model in which technology communication changes occur and they yield productivity and enhance all of these various applications.

As an example, when Guttenberg invented the printing press, there would be millions of books in circulation not 200 years later, but 20 years later. This fuel is going to continue, in my judgment, to feed the wind that's at all of our backs; that will give all of you the opportunity to capitalize your businesses, to find capital to make the businesses grow and to allow you to implement your ideas.

One quick example of that is a press release that came out yesterday, I believe, that DoubleClick—a fast-growing international Web marketing firm—closed on a venture capital round of $40 million. That's $40 million. There was literally a feeding frenzy of some of the world's best-known investors looking to capitalize early-stage money in an otherwise risky venture.

Much of this excitement is created by what this company is doing with Web marketing and the Internet. $40 million exceeds by a magnitude of probably 120 what you would have seen in this environment as little as a couple of years ago. So it is my opinion that we are sitting here ready—to take off on Mario’s theme—at the right place at the right time.

You all have an opportunity to implement your ideas, your concepts and your vision in an environment where you'll have the opportunity to make it successful. Good luck.

Part 3: The Town Hall Meeting

Statements made at Netpreneur events and recorded here reflect solely the views of the speakers and have not been reviewed or researched for accuracy or truthfulness. These statements in no way reflect the opinions or beliefs of the Morino Institute, or any of their affiliates, agents, officers or directors. The transcript is provided "as is" and your use is at your own risk.  

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