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Wed., March 11th, 1998

Netpreneurs Energize Smithsonian Crowd

(Washington, DC--March 12, 1998) It's the hunt for Moby Dick, a roller coaster ride, Jolt Cola and Twinkies. It's Darwinism on steroids.

It's how five of our region's up and coming successes described what it's like growing a Net-based business to a packed house at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History last evening. Describing their pioneering efforts in the new digital economy were Susan DeFife, founder, president, and CEO of Women's Connection Online (WCO); Raul Fernandez, founder and CEO of Proxicom, Inc.; Nat Kannan, founder and CEO of UOL (University Online) Publishing; and Rob McGovern, president and CEO of CareerBuilder, Inc. at "Networking With The Netpreneurs," a joint production of The Smithsonian Associates and Morino Institute.

The fascinated crowd came from both the netpreneur community and The Smithsonian Associates membership to hear the tales these adventurers had to tell about their triumphs and challenges. Mara Mayor, Director of The Smithsonian Associates, hailed the joint presentation and its importance for The Smithsonian Associates.

"Energy," Esther Smith proclaimed as she introduced the panelists, "is the one word that describes the netpreneur experience." And the panelists went on to energize the audience.

DeFife's Women's Connection Online (WCO) is the premier portal site for professional women. Her start-up story was "a super roller coaster" ride, she said, taking the listeners through a year of peaks and valleys with which many in the audience identified. Coming from within a few short weeks of closing down, WCO has grown 2300% since last year and is growing at 30% a month. Today, WCO is the leader in their space and is engaged in corporate partnerships with IBM, among others, and in many collaborations, including two of the other panelists. Collaboration is key in the culture that's evolving, she pointed out, and the other panelists echoed that sentiment.

Kannan reflected on the Smithsonian setting as he explained that his inspiration for his uphill struggle, what he called his "pathological commitment," was Moby Dick. "If you only pick the right whale and you chase long enough, either you will find it . . . or you will get killed in the process. The whale I was chasing was transforming education worldwide," he said, and the clear success of his young business shows that he is on the right track.

Like the search for the great white whale, or like Kannan's role models, the explorers Lewis and Clark, "Netpreneurs seek success in an unknown hostile environment." No one can forecast what people will buy and one faces a preponderance of naysayers. Simplify was his message. "The simpler the idea, the easier to communicate, the better it is."

An idea that is valid in Northern Virginia, he pointed out, should be valid in Kazakstan. Ideas can be scaled globally. "Anything that can be digitized can be used to create wealth," he noted. Twelve trillion new dollars will be created in the next twenty years as a result of the Net, he opined. "Inventories are worthless until someone clicks an icon. It's an amazing way to do business."

"Looking at my own experience," he continued, "I have decided that my own philosophy of entrepreneurship is that it is really an art form. A dynamic art form." Given the rise of Net-related success stories, is a one person billion dollar business possible? Kannan thinks so. That is his next big challenge.

Fernandez's message was to befriend change. "Change needs to happen every day," because each day business changes radically. He started with a boutique systems integrator that was similar to many. He decided to change by using the Net to communicate and, in the course of doing so, he gained industry-wide recognition. In 1996 Proxicom was awarded a Clio, the advertising industry's version of an Oscar. Traditionally the competition had been dominated by Madison Avenue until Proxicom's Web site designs came along.

His embrace of the power of the Internet only began with communications. Soon he realized that the corporate clients he was pursuing would ultimately need a full range of Web-based products and services which he then positioned his company to provide.

"Darwinism on steroids. Evolve or get eliminated," is Fernandez's take on being a netpreneur. He shared five lessons:

  • listen: to employees, investors, support organizations and the community;
  • planning: the implementation of a plan is never what is expected;
  • money: always ask for it when you least need it;
  • passion and drive: do it!
  • technology: it's about people using it, not the technology itself.
McGovern, a software industry alumnus, traced the history of his life on the Internet as a story of Jolt Cola and Twinkies. He also shared some lessons: business is about fundamentals; all business is cash business; "free" is still the most powerful word in the English language; and, what's easy pays minimum wage. He explained that he is gaining perspective, "At some point, history will render netpreneurs obsolete. Make the most of great things now."

The energy of the netpreneurs inspired the audience's enthusiasm for the question and answer session. Underscored were the importance of collaboration, of flexibility, and of keeping in touch with customers. For example, when asked about collaboration DeFife explained that she sought partners from the very beginning. A collaboration must make sense to both partners and both need to benefit from it. The other panelists agreed. "Competitors sometimes become partners," noted Fernandez. It's given rise to a new word, "coopetition." Doing one or two things very well on the Web encourages partnerships, suggested Kannan.

As for competing against established businesses, "Stay flexible," advised DeFife. "Spot trends, respond quickly and stay in touch with your customer base."

Mario Morino, chairman of the Morino Institute, whose career spans some 30 years as a business leader, social entrepreneur and advisor on information technology, summarized the evening's discussion. "We've seen inklings of what our future holds for us in the accomplishments and visionary uses of the Internet by Susan, Nat, Raul and Rob. Each gives us examples and clues as to how businesses must change and function; how they must keep pace with an economic transformation of enormous size and opportunity that is only beginning."

Morino pointed to five messages from the discussion:

  1. That we are at the early stage of a great economic opportunity in which a broad sector of our society will be able to participate. He noted the personal histories of the panelists—journalism, politics, consulting and software—to accentuate that the opportunity is open to all, not just technologists.

  2. That we are creating a new set of rules for how business, markets and organizations need to behave. These rules of a "networked society" may affect netpreneurs today, but they will eventually affect nearly all organizations, even the most traditional.

  3. That netpreneurs are on the frontier of this economic opportunity and are the ones helping to write the new code for business.

  4. That the Greater Washington region is at the heart of this opportunity. In his words, "Today's—and tomorrow's—most exciting opportunities are coming from a new convergence of communications, computing and content. Greater Washington is at the center of this convergence because we may well own the 'book ends'—the telecommunications/Internet and content that surround computing technologies."

  5. That everyone needs to be engaged with the Net to understand its impact and benefit from the opportunity being created. Netpreneurial innovations, he suggested, are cascading down to change how we learn, manage healthcare, govern and interact with family, friends and communities.

Morino went on to suggest some of the factors that make netpreneur enterprises different, at least today:

  • speed with the rapid pace of change and the need to act quickly;
  • the need to be flexible and adaptive in response to that change;
  • a high reliance on experimentation since there is no time to develop an empirical base of market research;
  • continuous innovation;
  • an approach where Net companies are drawing upon and integrating diverse solutions;
  • the importance of collaboration in a medium that necessitates us;
  • to be distribution-driven where branding and channels are paramount; and
  • a market niche-focus where the Net's reach and distribution opens up new market opportunities.

The camaraderie of shared experiences and the spirit of collaboration were seen clearly in the reception which followed the forum. Over 500 netpreneurs and aspiring netpreneurs mingled, networked and compared notes well into the evening . Clifford L. Brody, head of Kids Own America, an Internet-based consortium, liked the presentations because "you realize you're not alone with your problems or success." He has gained more than contacts from the Netpreneur Program's events before. At one, he even found a source of financing.

First-timer Gary Buckrein of American Visions said, "Tales of entrepreneurs are supportive...they understand what it's like on the edge. We're all in this together." And Michael Haaren, of Electronic Trading International which tracks overseas stock markets and whose first issue went online yesterday, said "For me, it was a strong affirmation of 'first principles' and a potent distillation of netpreneurial tenets. It's invaluable for Netpreneurs to get this guidance in the flesh. It was powerful."

An edited transcript of the event will be available shortly.

Networking With the Netpreneurs

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