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 Weinberger, Infonautics is legend in Philadelphia’s investment and entrepreneurial communities.
Sparked by Weinberger’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, Weinberger 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 cofounded, where he invents such tools and gadgets to make life easier.
He says, this time, he hopes the timing is right.
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