The Colgate Scene
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|Warren Adams would keep us all in touch|
|by James Leach|
One fall day in 1996, Warren Adams '88 stood before a small audience of college
administrators gathered in a classroom. Adams looked exhausted, as though he'd
been up all night preparing to defend a term-ending thesis or present a case
study to a masters' class at his other alma mater, Harvard Business School.
Those earlier presentations had, in fact, been preparation for this moment, which was the real item. Adams was trying to convince Colgate to endorse his new internet service that would help users keep in touch with their circle of acquaintances and groups. And Adams had been up most of the night, a practice that he says became a habit over the next two years as he developed his business -- PlanetAll (www.PlanetAll.com) -- from the germ of an idea into an enterprise for which the online e-commerce giant Amazon.com paid $100 million in stock just two years later.
Adams told the administrators in that classroom that it first occurred to him as a Colgate junior how handy it would be to have a summer directory of his classmates. "I came back from a sum-mer and I realized I had lost contact with almost all my classmates," he recalls. "We kept having these conversations: `You were at that Springsteen concert? So was I.' or `You were on Martha's Vineyard? I was there with my family.'"
What a service it would be, he thought, to collect the summer plans and addresses of his classmates and publish them in a directory that he would distribute through their mailboxes. So did he try it? "No."
Years later, in graduate school, the problem had compounded. Adams had lost track of some of his Colgate friends. His business and graduate school contacts were swelling his paper address book. Every chance encounter with an old friend on an airplane or walking down a city street reminded him of the directory idea. Still the thought languished. When he graduated from business school, Adams took a job with a management consulting firm -- the Mitchell Madison Group -- and moved to London.
Eight months later, in June 1996 Adams returned to Colgate for his eighth reunion. "At least 15 people came up to me that weekend and said, `Warren, I wish I knew you were living in London. I was there a week ago.' or `I was there a month ago.'" Adams says that was the weekend that pushed him over the edge, and on his 30th birthday he quit his job and ventured out on his own. He would start his directory, and the internet would now let him expand the scope beyond his immediate circle of friends. He would provide a service that allowed anyone, through the internet, to keep track not only of friends' addresses, but of their travel plans and important dates.
Adams recruited a Mitchell Madison Group colleague -- MIT graduate Brian Robertson -- as co-founder and chief technology officer for the new company. As Robertson and a handful of friends spent the summer in a cabin in Canada building the prototype of the technology that would run the PlanetAll system, Adams managed the business side, arranging financing and developing business relationships.
The financing started with his own savings, some creative use of credit cards, a loan from his sister, and investments by friends, former classmates and professors. (Early investors' money has earned returns of seven- to eightfold.) Angels stepped forward with $1 million in commitments, and venture capitalists put up another $4 million.
From Colgate Adams received encouragement, but no direct link to the database. The college announced the service to alumni and created a link to PlanetAll from the alumni pages on its web site, but held to its standard practice of not releasing alumni names and addresses. "Colgate was extremely helpful," Adams says. "That level of support let us go to other schools and say, `Colgate is thinking about this, why don't you?'"
The experience soon developed into conversations with the organizations that sell class rings and alumni directories to colleges and universities, and ultimately a partnership with Harris Publishing, through which PlanetAll has signed up more than 150 universities. At the same time, Adams was talking with internet services such as Microsoft, GeoCities, Lycos, Four11 and WhoWhere -- "major companies who could drive thousands of people per day into our system."
Even as Adams made his presentation at Colgate, he was feeling the urgency of his project. The challenge was to get his concept capitalized and operating before another entrepreneur came into the market with a similar idea and challenged for the base of subscribers who are all-important to PlanetAll's appeal. "Our highest objective was and is to get big fast."
The five people who formed the nucleus of PlanetAll when it launched had grown to 15 within six months. A year into the venture the company was employing 30 people. In spring of this year, Lycos bought in and with a handful of other investors boosted the company's capital by another $7 million, all of which has been invested in the people, hardware, software and support to build the business.
By the time Amazon.com stepped forward with its offer in August, PlanetAll had grown to 45 employees filling both floors of the two-story parish just off Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge where Adams had originally started out in a one-room, 'round the-clock office. Today PlanetAll serves nearly 2 million users, and Adams says the number grows by more than 5,000 a day.
As the organization grew Adams added experienced management and technical help: a CEO lured away from ZDNet, a director of engineering, vice presidents for marketing and sales, and a senior product manager. "I try to recognize where we can use help and hire people who complement our strengths," said Adams. The average age of employees soared, from 25 in that first year when Adams was the senior member to (by his estimate) 30 today.
Still, opulence has yet to strike this operation. Granted, Adams has moved most of his clothes and running gear out of the closet in his office, and the futon is now used more often as seating for visitors than as a place to crash in the middle of an all-night excursion into yet another business challenge. But Adams' desk is still an old folding table strewn with various computer parts, and the makeshift plastic shelves of personal necessities are still perched atop the dorm-sized fridge in the corner. Sport shirts, khakis and jeans are the corporate look at PlanetAll, and everyone's focus is clearly straight ahead on product development.
Warren Adams recognizes opportunity. As a kid, he and a friend would rise before dawn to sell pastries and freshly-brewed coffee to motorists waiting in line during the 1978 gas shortage. They would make $50 before school.
PlanetAll grew out of Adams' love of keeping in touch. It was an interest he realized many of us share. He worked so hard at making his idea succeed that during its initial months Colgate friends nicknamed him Dead Man Walking. "I had no idea it would be that hard."
Today, though there's still the occasional late night, the schedule is more sane. Others share the load. As long as the challenge of growing the business remains, Adams says he'll stay on to realize a dream.
But there is no denying he breathes the air of possibility.
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