Near the end of the comment thread in my recent post on entrepreneurship, Ken Thomas posted some of his experiences. With his permission, I’ve compiled  some highlights in a main page post so that more people can read them. I’ve also received and seen some other Eph experiences, which I plan to post in this brief series. Here’s Ken:

I left the world of [humanities] graduate school at Berkeley (another story, but certainly not a world dedicated to entrepreneurship of any kind) to co-found a series of companies…

Certainly that was due, in large part, to the Tripod example– and, in fact, to the very concrete examples of a month of having [Tripod founders] Brett and Bo sharing an apartment with me, and the years of tales of Tripod to follow.

It doesn’t boil, simply, down to that. There were items in Mark Taylor’s Imagologies class (Bo was taking Mark’s Psychology of Religion at the time); there was Dick Sabot’s presence; there were things in many other classes; there was, for that matter, the pure contingency of meeting someone from BBN on a train from Munich to Prague, because M——- ’95 decided to meet here [in Prague], and that this whole chain of events was contingent on sitting next to Bill Fox’s son during a busride from Williamstown to Boston to catch the flight to Munich.

I won’t spin that into a further tale of contingency and luck or spontaneity– all things that are important in the entrepreneurial world.

Another aspect of this, which seems important, are the communities which support entrepreneurship, and the details of how they work.

“In my time,” the culture of the Valley, and of its enormous creativity of all types– it still seems, to me, largely separate and alien, to at least Williamstown– at the time, certainly, to draw with a very big brush, “to the East Coast.”

The first venture I participated in, which had nothing but a smidgen of angel funding– we started with offices in a fraternity in Berkeley, and eventually had the money to move to offices in Emeryville, though I think we’d have been better off staying in the frat–

Bluntly stated, [one reason] — was that the area around UCB and HAAS was teeming with entrepreneurs and people thinking about entrepreneurship and possibility– so moving to Emeryville was a bad idea. Sure, we were next to WebVan (well!…) but it moved us away, from the center, from the culture, from the resources.

In Emeryville, the streets were quiet; you could walk down to the AskJeeves complex, part of an industrial park, and in the lunchroom, there were Jeeves and WebVan and a handful of other people–

but generally, 9 out of 10 people weren’t doing the same sort of thing, and didn’t understand a thing, more or less, about what you were trying to do.

Over at the fraternity– well, we were a half-block from the International House Café, where, on any given afternoon in those years, you could run into a group of guys (real story) with the contract to build an email system for Congress.

And you could get a job with them by simply pointing out that they couldn’t do X,Y, and Z for reasons a,b, and c, and explaining it to them.

That was the environment. That was what was critical– the — a sort of co-generation or cross-pollination.

In the business literature today, when people talk about entrepreneurs, and especially serial entrepreneurs, the tendency is not to talk about the person. Rather, we speak of the people around them– the community they surround themselves with– the resources.

In technical language that most of you might understand, what we wanted to establish was an online reverse-price marketplace for automobile sales.

In the age of Toyota and its supply chain management miracles, which mean you can go into Toyota, tell them what you want, plop down cash and/or get financing– and then Toyota takes your capital and starts building the auto and it is quite miraculously delivered to you 8 days later or so — miraculously in the sense that Toyota didn’t even own most of the parts when you walked into the “dealer” — well none of that existed then– and the idea was, that with all this sitting inventory out there on dealers’ lots, with the inconveniences of negotiation and haggling for price (which everyone hates), with the general inability to find a vehicle that’s exactly what you want (remember– no Toyota, no inventory systems except at individual dealers)–

so the idea here was that you’d go online, put in what kind of vehicle you wanted, what color inside and out, what engine (2.0l or 2.2l?), sunroof or cassette deck (we had heard of CDs– just kidding), and so forth–

and then this request would go out, a big database would find where on lots throughout the country were vehicles like this– and– best of all– the dealers would then bid downwards for your business.

Wonderful idea, right?

At this point in my life, I had gone from being a grad student at Berkeley– perhaps the most marginalized economic position in the world, short of living on the streets, which, actually, come to think of it, a good number of grad students have done– to having a significant equity stake in a company, that is talking with the CFO of Intuit about an seven-figure investment.

This took about six or seven months. That was the tech boom– and while it is important to recognize the ‘irrational exuberance’ of that boom, its seemingly insane ability to invest in projects which an outside observer would surely think, had no chance of generating revenue! —

More Eph entrepreneurship experiences to come.

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