I remember the moment when I became an entrepreneur, or at least when that critical epiphany happened that planted the seed. It was the early 90’s, and I was working in my first ‘real’ job after college as a tech professional in a major industrial electronics manufacturer. As a defense contractor, they were connected to the Internet. The Internet wasn’t the big, pervasive, commercial thing it is now. It was mostly universities and government labs and the like. The Internet backbone was still funded by the National Science Foundation, and commercial traffic was barred from it. Your average person had never even heard of the Internet.
But that was changing. The move to commercialize the Internet was already in motion. I was ‘the Internet guy’ where I worked, in charge domain name services and email accounts etc… so when this group called CommerceNet came around to talk about the commercial future of the Internet, I was invited to the presentation.
That’s when the light bulb went on for me.
It wasn’t a terribly flashy presentation. They showed off a prototype e-commerce web site, a first ever on-line store where a person could buy networking cables and adapters and similar gadgets. It was crude by today’s standards, but what it represented was huge. The restrictions on commercial traffic still made something like that impossible, but when that was lifted, the floodgates would be open. And I could SEE it. Not just shopping, but the broader adoption of email, the downloading of news and entertainment. The utility and advantages of connecting to the Internet was so great, nothing would stop the juggernaut once it started moving, and I knew I had to be part of that. I wasn’t sure how, but I was convinced that’s where my future was.
It didn’t happen immediately, but with the seed planted, it didn’t take long. One of my jobs included managing Novell Netware file servers, so I participated in some Netware specific technical forums (on something called Usenet… google it). The World Wide Web had just become a thing, and no software existed yet to turn a Netware server into a web server. I thought, “how hard can it be?”. As it turned out, not that hard. A few hundred dollars in software tools, a cobbled together server assembled from spare parts, and a couple weeks of late night development time, and I had a prototype.
I posted a request for beta testers on Usenet. My email inbox quickly filled with eager participants. I began taking pre-orders, and sales took off like a rocket. The growth was exponential. I quit my day job to dedicate myself full-time to my new business.
Those were heady days. I was running a global business from a spare bedroom. I hired a couple friends to do customer service, found a graphic artist to design packaging and promotional materials, and farmed out development of e-commerce features to two different external developers. I was running ads in magazines and renting booths in trade shows. My customers ranged from small mom-and-pop outfits to fortune 100 corporations and foreign governments. It was a niche market, but I had it all to myself, and the money rolled in.
It couldn’t last.
Web servers were becoming a ubiquitous commodity. In most other operating systems, web server software was bundled for free. Unix had the open source NCSA server. Microsoft was bundling IIS. It was only a matter of time before Novell woke up to that reality and included one with Netware. My worries were confirmed when I received a phone call from Ransom Love, then an executive at Novell. He made some cautious inquiries about purchasing the rights to my software. He also let slip that they were talking to a company called American Internet that was in the process of porting the NCSA server to Netware. I had beat American Internet to market, but they had far more people and resources than me, so in the race to become Novell’s preferred vendor, they had some serious advantages. They won that race.
But I at least had enough warning to reposition myself. I co-founded one of the first Internet Service Providers in Milwaukee, eventually sold my half of that, then redirected my software company toward consulting services. I’ve been making a decent living at that ever since.
But looking back, I can see the missed opportunities. I was a kid barely out of college making the leap into running his own global business. I made every mistake in the book and probably invented some new ones. It was a combination of crazy market growth and blind luck that kept me from crashing and burning. I had stumbled into an untapped, very profitable market niche, and I could see the need to diversify away from it, but I wasn’t able to leverage that into the sort of massive success that others did during the dot com boom (despite being ahead of the curve in many respects). I sometimes wonder what the result would be if I could go back and relive those early days of runaway Internet growth with all the business experience and confidence I’ve built up over the years. I think back to that day in a presentation about the commercial Internet when the light bulb went on for me, when I could SEE the inevitability of it even if I lacked the experience to fully capitalize on it. I’ve wondered for a while when the next Internet scale opportunity would present itself.
And then… a few days ago… that long dimmed light bulb burst into brightness again.
I’m not exactly ahead of the curve with this one. People have been talking about the inevitability of this trend for some time. Heck, it’s been a fixture in science fiction and popular culture for decades. But it wasn’t until I was playing with a friend’s Amazon Echo and marveling at recent advances in speech recognition that it struck me. We are reaching an inflection point with Artificial Intelligence. Decades of slow and steady progress are giving way to exponential growth in both the capability and deployment of A.I. At some level I’ve always known this was coming, but I never really internalized what that meant, both for the world and myself as a computer professional. This will be as transformative as the Internet itself. And I need to be part of it.
That’s really what the light bulb was about, not a realization of where the world is heading… I think I already knew that… but the part I need to play in it. Suddenly I feel the same about Artificial Intelligence as I did about the Internet in the mid 90’s. This is the way the world is moving. And while lots of big money and large market segments are already on the move, there is still a lot of opportunities out there. Because while the Amazons and Googles of the world might see the potential, I think most people don’t really get it.
We are not really wired to recognize disruptive, exponential trends. We tend to see the future as only a slightly shinier version of the present. We play with these clunky, early versions of speech recognition, read stories about self driving cars, but it’s hard to fully internalize what the technology is evolving toward. The world is changing, and we all need to change with it. And I think my future is in helping people make that change. Just like I previously helped companies understand and embrace the Internet, the future will be about integrating Artificial Intelligence into our lives and business models.
I’m ready for that change.