This is my latest interview in the Spotlight on the CEO series and must say one of the more enjoyable ones. I came across Christopher when looking for a image conversion tool for one of my previous posts and his service totally blew me away (there are apps available for both the iPhone and Android).
In the 1990’s he was a founder and senior executive at a series of successful Internet firms. These included Counterpoint LLC, an internet consultancy, Perspecta Corporation, which was sold to Excite@Home in 1998, and Interwoven Corporation, which went public in 2000.
In 2003 he helped found Baynote: a pioneering web service that provides realtime intent-based content recommendations.
Christopher is now a private investor and adviser to high technology companies and here is my interview with him.
Q: Let’s jump right in. What does it actually take to become a Internet business success story?
A: Probably the same things as any business: a good team, the right product for the right market, sufficient capital, effective marketing, loads of hard work and reasonable quantities of luck.
Q: How did you get your start as an entrepreneur?
A: I’ve always been one. My first business (a lawn maintenance service) I started at 13. Since then I’ve started a number of firms with varying degrees of success, ranging from large VC-backed efforts in Silicon Valley to small self-funded efforts. Along the way I’ve seen a wide range of outcomes, from acquisitions to Chapter-11s to IPOs.
You have been a part of many successful ventures in the past, what got you interested specifically in the area of high-technology?
Watched too much Star Trek as a kid, plus read loads of sci-fi. Always loved science and computers. Going high-tech was a natural choice. It was either that or continue with my lawn company ;}
Q: One of your recent ventures – Iaza.com, pretty cool and simple I must say. How did that come to be? More importantly, how do you plan on monetizing your traffic on that?
A: I was doing a website for a non-profit and wanted to do some creative things with a few images. So I got Photoshop.
Now Photoshop is a terrific product. But for my purposes the thing was too complicated. I kept referring to the manual and eventually resorted to buying a book for help. After reaching Chapter 8 I thought: why do I need study a book for this task? After all I was just hoping to do something fun with some pictures, quickly and easily, not launch the Space Shuttle.
So then I went into the net to find simpler online solutions. I found plenty – no lack of image conversion products on the web. But all of them were either extremely limited, or slow, or were ugly or buggy, or were filled with jumpy advertisements, or were just too stupid for words – or all of the above.
At first I was annoyed. But then I realized that herein lay opportunity. So I got to work.
Monetization. I sell versions of iaza (trademarked “ezimba) on iphone/ipad and android devices. The website advertises these products and my revenue is derived from these sales. Viewed in this way, iaza is basically a marketing vehicle for the hand-held apps. This has been a successful approach.
Q: What are your long term plans, not just with Iaza.com but your business as a whole?
A: I’ll continue to scale and deepen iaza. In particular, I’m going to introduce some value-added services around social networking, based off some old ideas from the 80’s when I was doing LAN products. I’m also going to align the branding (the iaza/ezimba dichotomy was, in retrospect, a dumb mistake – I should just use one name). And of course I’ll be equivalently extending the reach of my handheld apps.
How far can a single person get in building a global web brand? That’s the question I’ve posed to myself.
Q: Many of your ideas are out there, do you encounter a lot of skepticism with your ideas and specifically in your industry?
A: Happens all the time. Everyone’s a critic. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a naysayer I’d be out yachting with Trump.
It’s funny, because you have to always keep your ears and mind open and listen to feedback and criticism. Otherwise the echo-chamber in your head takes over. Most good ideas come from others, but there’s also a lot of nonsense out there.
So it’s a balance. Keep an open mind and listen to everyone. But also keep the skin very thick and learn to filter useful ideas from the tsunami of noise.
Q: How large is your team in total among all your ventures? Can you share with us what type of people you seek to help you in bringing your ideas into fruition? What types of companies do you typically invest in?
A: In the past I’ve run organizations with hundreds of engineers. That scale was necessary, as these were vc-backed enterprise software firms requiring large arrays of skills and manpower.
But for iaza, the team is just me. I wrote all the software and did all the design. This makes for an efficient company as my managerial overhead is zero. Staff meetings proceed quickly.
I invest in what I know – technology companies. My biggest investment is Baynote (www.baynote.com), which I co-founded a few years back.
Q: Who has been a major influence for you in your life – both personally and professionally?
A: Many have influenced me. I make it a point to carefully observe people. And some of the best teachings were negative – watching someone screw up in a major way and vowing that at least I’d never make that particular mistake.
For example, I was involved in a firm many years ago named Momenta. Strange how so many bright people could make so many stupid mistakes – it was a circus. But the experience was invaluable to me, as it gave me a crash-course in what *not* to do.
On the positive front, the two biggest role models were Steve Jobs and Jorge Santos. Steve needs no introduction – he’s simply brilliant, and I admire his creativity, non-conformism, standards, and passion for quality. Jorge was a Mexican guy who ran a landscaping business in my home town. He was Steve’s equivalent, except that his firm had a handful of people and largely moved dirt around. But his standards were equally high and he always did things right. This made a big impression on me as a kid.
Q: What are your passions? What drives you?
A: Creating good products that people value and enjoy using. I never get tired of this.
Don’t get me wrong – I also really love making money, the more the better. But that’s secondary. The biggest passion is doing quality work that people appreciate.
Q: Please share with our readers some insight and tips on what it takes to succeed and what they need to do to make that happen.
A: Love what you do. If you don’t get up in the morning just dying to get to work, itching to make things happen, then you need to find another line of work. That work can be anything, from making software to making tacos, it doesn’t matter. But you really need to identify with it and care about it. Everything else flows from that.