I began my first Internet company in 1994 while still in school at Caltech pursuing my Ph.D. in Aeronautics. The story goes like this. The Aeronautics Computer Lab had just got a web server set up for the division and allowed the students to have personal web pages at ~username URLs. Some friends and I set up pages and discovered that we could watch the server logs to see if people were hitting our pages. We then began to compete to see who could make the most interesting pages to get the most visitors from the most countries. Quickly, we decided to pool our resources and put all of our work under the teaching assistant's account at "~ta" but to make the initials more interesting, we rechristened T.A. to stand for "The Asylum" and gave the pages insane look and feel.
At The Asylum we created many "firsts" on the web, including a public bookmarks repository (precursor to del.icio.us), a public writing forum (precursor to wikis), and a web based Lite-Brite emulator and gallery (sort of a primitive, single-celled ancestor to Flickr!).
We gained a lot of attention for these sites and soon film studios and record companies were calling the lab tracking us down to hire us to build dynamic websites for them. It was certainly awkward to get phone calls from Universal Pictures while your Ph.D. thesis advisor was in the lab so we started "Creative Internet Design" and opened an office with a phone number of its very own.
We spent a few years building custom websites in Perl/CGI while getting our degrees (which we all managed to do, take that you Yahoo! millionaire Stanford dropouts!). Slowly the stress of building websites from scratch in Perl wore us out and the company disbanded. I looked back at the websites and realized that many of them were very similar, so I began offering standard web components to my clients. Meanwhile, Philip Greenspun was running Photo.net and getting many requests from people wanting the code the site ran on. Philip assembled his friends to beef up the Photo.net code and together we founded ArsDigita and open-sourced our code as ACS (ArsDigita Community System), comprised of standard web components and written mostly in Tcl. We used ACS to get exposure amongst poor developers, which led us to be found by rich companies who wanted customizations to the toolkit. Unfortunately, venture capitalists also eyed ArsDigita and once we accepted their money they also had influence.
I took a bit of a break from starting companies after the ArsDigita experience, and spent a few years consulting and writing a book about Ruby On Rails. In 2007, I was lured back into the startup world by my friend from GALCIT, Eric Cummings. Along with several other Caltech friends, we demonstrated Cool Earth Solar technology and landed 21M in funding from Quercus Trust. I left Cool Earth Solar in September 2011.
Caltech invited me back to be a speaker and panelist at the GALCIT Entrepreneurs Forum. I delivered a humorous and hopefully informative presentation about my experiences as an entrepreneur. Below, is a video clip where I am giving suggestions to upcoming graduates of GALCIT interested in starting businesses.