Q&A With: Jack Hidary
A founder of two successful Internet start-ups spoke with Spectrum Online about today's entrepreneurial environment, Net technology, and being your own boss
PHOTO: JACK HIDARY COLLECTION
Jack Hidary is currently an entrepreneur and philanthropist, through the Prism Fund and the Hidary Foundation, respectively. As the former cofounder and chairman of Vista Research, he continues as an advisor to Standard & Poor's and Vista (now a McGraw-Hill company). He has also served as the former CEO and chairman of EarthWeb, an Internet software provider, based in New York City.
Spectrum Online: As a leading Internet entrepreneur, how would you describe the current environment in which those who would like to start their own technology company find themselves?
Jack Hidary: The environment for starting a company is better than it has ever been. The fact is that you can start up with far less funding than in the ’90s, because you can outsource and use hosted services for all your technology, for infrastructure, outsourcing call centers, and customer service—you can really start up a company very quickly, and the usual time to market is really cut by almost 80 or 90 percent. So, first, it's a much better environment. In terms of funding, we may not be as awash in funds, but there is still plenty of money out there, billions of dollars looking for good companies right now.
SOL: Where do you see Internet technology going—where are the new opportunities?
JH: In terms of Internet technology, I would really have to answer that in two parts. The first part would be about technology that we see and the second would be about technology that we don't see. More and more technology is getting embedded in other devices, in other areas, and the best technology is technology you never see. Yes, there is technology that you do see, and eBay is part of that, and Amazon and those many different Web sites that make our lives easier, but there's a lot of technology that is getting embedded in all sorts of devices. I just read about a new oven that one can direct via the Internet to make sure the meal is cooked and prepared on time, and it actually is a refrigerator as well. You put your meal into the refrigerator/oven in the morning and make sure it's cooked by 7:15 that night—you control it by the Net. So with Net-enabled devices, WAP-enabled phones, the convergence of cellular technology with the Internet is a critical development. One example of that convergence is going to be MP3 with cellular technology. The MP3 players such as iPod are really a detour off the main highway. The main highway is really cellular platforms that include MP3, because that has four functions—download, purchase, playing, and feedback (voting and things like that)—whereas an iPod does only one thing: you can just play it. So the cell-based mobile entertainment platform really is where the Net is going.
SOL: What makes the task of starting a new technology business different from, say, a financial one?
JH: Interesting that you should ask that. I've done both. Any business today certainly needs technology, so there's no escaping technology—that's a commonality. But I would say that if you're in a technology business for technology's sake, where you're actually producing technology, there I think that the traditional cycle of data and then product releases really is going away. Even Microsoft is going away from that. The traditional nomenclature of definitive dates and releases is really something that I think will fade into history. I think what we're seeing more are clusters of users, each using products in different ways, each at different stages of the product, and with the hosted platforms now becoming the predominant form of software delivery. The idea of a rollout (in terms of actually delivering software and downloads) I think again is a vestigial portion of the software industry.
SOL: What does it take personally, in your opinion, to be the CEO of a start-up?
JH: The CEO of a start-up must be one part crazy, one part obstinate, but also one part visionary. So it's really a funny combination of somebody who has a vision, and is willing to suspend their rational self for a few years because any rational person looking at this would say, "How are you going to start this company and go against XYZ big operator, big gorillas?" But, of course, the CEO through their vision is able to suspend that rational self and say, "No, somehow this tiny little David will beat the Goliath," and more often than not that's what happens.
SOL: What's the worst part of being your own boss?
JH: The most challenging part is that you really have to prioritize your focus, because when you have a normal job and a boss, your priorities are pretty much set by that framework. But when you're your own boss, your real challenge is time, not money. A lot of entrepreneurs are obsessed by money and capital and "Do we have enough capital?" Time is actually the critical enemy, and that's what you have to focus on. I've seen so many entrepreneurs go astray when they decide that their Internet company, or their financial company, or whatever their start-up is, can do just one more thing and one more product or one more service as opposed to an almost death-ray focus on just one core area or product. I think lack of focus is what kills most start-ups or endeavors in large Fortune 500 companies, and it is only through focus that we are able to succeed and persevere. If we look at the monumental effort of the allies in World War II, they actually started behind in the war, but they had the ability to mobilize logistics and oil and they got support through an enormous focus, through the woman back on the home front who took the job of the man who went to war to logistics on the battlefield itself. So this is something where start-ups are like war: you need absolute focus, and those people who are their own boss and lack focus will not succeed in that environment.
SOL: What's the best part?
JH: The opportunity of being your own boss—and a lot of people don't even take advantage of this—is to really sit up every day and ask yourself: "If I were to start with a clean slate today, and put aside all my sunk costs of time and money over the past two years in whatever start-up I'm in or whatever endeavor I'm in, what would I do right now?" If you can truly ask yourself that question, you may be surprised what the answer is. The answer may not be just "Let’s move ahead with what we did yesterday." You have the opportunity to start a new track and say, "Hold on. Instead of going to the North Pole, we're going to the South Pole," and that might be the better way to go. It is those people who can get themselves out of their daily grind, and out of their daily rut, and lift up the periscope and say, "What is out on the horizon?" Those are people who will capture the vision and have a chance to get to that horizon line.
About the Author
Kieron Murphy is the freelance Web editor of Spectrum Online and a freelance writer, in New York City.