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Jun. 13, 2012 11:00 am

Infonautics: legendary 90s-era Wayne infotech IPO was ‘just too early’

Founded in 1992 by then Wharton student turned sage early-stage investor Josh Kopelman and his dreamer mentor Marvin Weinberg, Infonautics is legend in Philadelphia's investment and entrepreneurial communities.

Nearly a dozen former Infonautics employees gathered for a panel during the Entrepreneur Summer Camp.

From left: software engineer Edwin Watkeys, former HR director Alan Preston, former CFO Ron Berg, former product management director Lucinda Duncalfe, education division director Rick Mosenkis, co-founder Josh Kopelman, co-founder Marvin Weinberger, IT director Andrea Michalek, another former IT director Rich Gallagher and another former IT director and event organizer Mike Krupit

In above photo from left: software engineer Edwin Watkeys, former HR director Alan Preston, former CFO Ron Berg, former product management director Lucinda Duncalfe, education division director Rick Mosenkis, co-founder Josh Kopelman, co-founder Marvin Weinberger, IT director Andrea Michalek, another former IT director Rich Gallagher and another former IT director and event organizer Mike Krupit

Timing is everything. Internet pioneer Infonautics learned that the hard way.

Founded in 1992 by then Wharton student turned sage early-stage investor Josh Kopelman and his dreamer mentor Marvin Weinberg, Infonautics is legend in Philadelphia’s investment and entrepreneurial communities.

Sparked by Weinberg’s idea to make information accessible pre-World Wide Web, younger Kopelman’s business strategy and a cast of startup characters, the Wayne-based venture created an online library before the likes of Google and Wikipedia. Spanning the decade, it offered membership products like its consumer-facing $9.95 per-month Electric Library subscription. It had its IPO in 1996 — a $130 million valuation on just $500,000 in annual revenue in those heady days — but struggled to find its purpose and failed to reach the full potential many in the region thought it might, before eventually being acquired in 2001.

When trying to account for the shortcoming despite all its hype, several Infonautics alumni said the timing just wasn’t right. So when was the right time?

“For technology, we were two years too early,” said Novotorium general manager and former Infonautics Director of Technology Mike Krupit, referring to the early 1990s Internet rollout and the move to the browser-based open web. “On the business side, we were trying to monetize content, so maybe we were 30 years too early there.”

At Tuesday’s Entrepreneur Summer Camp inaugural event, organized by Krupit’s Novotorium and SeedPhilly, nearly a dozen so-called Infonauts held court in a panel discussion turned reunion, discussing the firm’s struggles, successes and all the milk and cookies they ate — Weinberger always insisted on the snacks during meetings, Kopelman said.

Another reason for Infonautics’ coming short of a bigger draw was an inability to change with the fast moving times, echoed a handful of the team’s former executives.

“We weren’t nimble enough to adapt,” though the firm never grew beyond 200 employees, said Kopelman, who left the company in 1999 to found the Half.com that was soon sold to eBay for $350 million in stock and later launched respected early stage fund First Round Capital, over which he now presides. (Infonautics sure did try though, raising $40 million in venture backing through its decade of existence, an eye-popping sum by today’s Web 2.0 standards of open-source, cloud-based and cheap infrastructure services. In comparison, Kopelman noted that it took more than $6 million to get their first product to market, something that can now can be done for tens of thousands of dollars.)

And yet, the former “Infonauts” speak fondly of the culture and the passion at their former office.

Edwin Watkeys, former Infonautics producer and software engineer, said he’s spent much of his career trying to recreate the experience he had at Infonautics. Watkeys is now the vice-president of NYC customer acquisition startup ActionX.

Still, Weinberger said working at Infonautics was, at times, incredibly difficult and emotionally taxing. His former colleagues said they could tell when Weinberger was in a bad state — a former professional violinist, he would shut the door to his office and play the instrument. Despite its many successes – more than a dozen patents, cultivation of talent, becoming a regional powerhouse –and shortcomings, Weinberger said it’s the team that really mattered to him.

“What I’m proudest of is the people here,” he said, noting his regrets for leaving the firm to try two other ventures that never scaled.

Each of the 10 former Infonauts on the panel have continued to swim the entrepreneurial waters, often working with each other. For his part, Weinberg is focused now on building physical products — “touchy-feely things that you can touch and feel,” he said in discussing a line of hand tools he’s developing. He now works at Innovation Factory, a company he co-founded, where he invents such tools and gadgets to make life easier.

He says he hopes the timing is right.

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Juliana Reyes

Juliana Reyes began as lead reporter at Technical.ly Philly in July 2012. Previously, she was a city services beat reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, as part of a project called “It’s Our Money.” She is learning to drive, learning to bike (in the city) but is an expert at taking SEPTA. She grew up in North Jersey and Manila, Philippines but she left the tropics for Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in linguistics. She now lives in West Philly.

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Comments

  1. Lesson Learned: Fail Fast & Fail Cheap, Entrepreneur Camp cancelledSeed Philly / June 13, 2012

    [...] Before I explain why we’re cancelling some of the programming, first let me mention yesterday morning’s event with the team from Infonautics.  While attendance was less than we had hoped for, I still consider the event a success.   The impressive panel of entrepreneurs told their story of how Infonautics was launched, and the response from the audience of 70+ was overwhelmingly positive.  Thanks to each of the panelists and the Science Center for helping us put this event on.  For recaps, check out the Inquirer’s Mike Armstong or Technically Philly’s Juliana Reyes. [...]

  2. Entrepreneur Summer Camp gets cut for low interest: “Philly takes the summer off,” says co-organizer — Technically Philly / June 26, 2012

    [...] to less-than-expected paid attendance at its first event and weak registration for future events, organizers Seed Philly and Novotorium decided to cut their [...]

  3. Real Food Works: healthy meals subscription service launches, led by tech scene veteran Lucinda Duncalfe — Technically Philly / July 19, 2012

    [...] the 90s, she was the product management director at the legendary infotech company Infonautics. She went on to co-found the anti-spam business TurnTide with David Brussin (before his Monetate [...]

  4. CDNow: 3 lessons from one of pioneering dot-com era online music retailer — Technically Philly / July 31, 2012

    [...] Mike Krupit, (three times the number of employees as another regionally-based dot-com poster child, Infonautics) and sold $150 million worth of music a [...]

  5. Mike Krupit to leave Novotorium incubator he co-founded — Technically Philly / August 16, 2012

    [...] says Krupit, who has been a player in the scene since Philly’s dot-com days at companies like Infonautics and [...]

  6. Dorm Room Fund: $500k pilot investment for 25 Philly college startups from First Round Capital — Technically Philly / September 24, 2012

    [...] setting that has launched InviteMedia and Warby Parker recently — Kopelman, himself, founded Infonautics while a Penn student in [...]

  7. Bootstrapping in Philadelphia: why focusing on revenue, rather than investment, fits here [VIDEO] — Technically Philly / December 10, 2012

    [...] service launched with a bootstrapping-first mentality, led by Lucinda Holt, whom Krupit knew from their Infonautics days, but the team is now currently looking for angel investment for [...]

  8. Will Philly’s second tech startup community survive longer than the first?: Mike Krupit — Technically Philly / December 12, 2012

    [...] the Route 202 corridor, had a much-discussed startup community. Think of companies like CDNow and Infonautics, which had hundreds of employees before the dot-com bubble [...]

  9. PlumX: Plum Analytics launches tools to measure research impact, clients include Smithsonian and University of Pittsburgh — Technically Philly / February 12, 2013

    [...] Analytics was cofounded in early 2012 by former Infonautics employee Andrea Michalek and former technical “evangelist” for Microsoft’s Academic [...]

  10. Christopher Regan / June 26, 2013

    Infonautics was an invaluable, delightful endeavor and experience.

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