After graduating from Penn in the early 80s, C.H. Low joined a local startup and never looked back.
Since then, he’s been held positions like Chief Technology Officer and VP of Product Development, building software at nearly a dozen startups in the area, including Reality Online, eMoney Advisor, StarCite and VerticalNet, a dot com legend for its $5 billion valuation with little behind it.
He’s seen his fair share of exits, including the $13.8 million sale of King of Prussia financial planning startup Reality Online [also known as Reality Technologies] to Reuters, the sale of eMoney Advisor to Commerce Bancorp and the sale of Orbius, a startup he founded, to Beyond.com.
The Bryn Mawr resident who grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, came to Philadelphia to attend Penn in the late 70s and stayed in the region ever since. Low, 53, is currently working on Gencore Systems, a telecommunications startup he cofounded with Penn professor Boon Thau Loo.
Below, he tells us about one of the proudest moments during his career, how the West Coast tech scene differs from the one in our city and what might surprise you about successful entrepreneurs in the area.
How did you get your start in the Philly tech scene?
In senior year [at Penn], we had to write a business plan. We got trained early on. One of my friends in the class started a company, Gnosis, after graduation and I joined him. I took over his shares when he decided he wasn’t going to do it anymore. [The business] didn’t work out.
Five years later, I started another company with friends from Penn [Mark Goldstein and Doug Alexander]: Reality Technologies. They hired me two years after they started the company to help pivot it to focus on consumer financial planning. Ten years later, we sold that company to Reuters [for $13.8 million].
My network just blossomed for me at that point [and led to other ventures].
Tell us about one of your proudest moments.
At Reality Technologies, I worked with a bunch of really smart impressive people. This was a period from 1989 to 1997, when things were just beginning to blossom in the computer industry. We were the first to create an online portfolio manager, the first to build web-based trading tools and an online financial information site. We built the first consumer financial planning tool, which is why Reuters bought Reality. My best moment was doing pioneering work with Reality.
How has the tech scene changed since you first started working in it?
I see a lot more students. I see more students that I want to hire but I can’t because they have their own ambitions now [laughs].
I do think that there’s a lot more people around. More startups, exits, successes. There are more resources, like DreamIt Ventures.
If you compare Philly to Silicon Valley or New York, you’re always going to say, “We’re short there. We’re short here.” What we need to do is just enjoy the other benefits that Philadelphia presents, like the cost of living here.
What are some of the differences you’ve seen between the West Coast tech scene and here?
When we talk to the VCs on the West Coast, they get the tech space. We don’t have to explain to them what the market is all about. When we say that when we are ready, we’ll come back to you, we get invited back very easily. Whereas in Philadelphia, we have to do a lot more explaining about certain types of technology like telecommunications — it’s just not a Philadelphia play.
What is a Philadelphia play?
I think Philadelphia is hot for bio. There’s a lot of biocompanies. Software applications are very easy to build anywhere. My experience has been in software in Philadelphia.
I think Philadelphia is a new ground for everything because of reasons like, you can’t afford to go to New York City because it’s just too goddamn expensive to live there. You can start in Philadelphia.
What advice would you offer to budding entrepreneurs?
Be aware that there are successful entrepreneurs in this area. The key is to not hesitate to find them. Don’t just remark that there aren’t [any successful entrepreneurs]. Don’t just post something online and hope that someone will respond.
If you, for example, have an idea and you say, “Ellen [Weber of Robin Hood Ventures], can you help me connect with someone who knows how to build software?” I’m sure my name would be on Ellen’s list. I get these requests once every month. Some I could help and some I couldn’t. With some, I end up being part of the company, like my current venture. Those things happen.
I don’t have a problem offering my time. It’s a payback period for me.
I see people whining — “I posted something and no one came to help.” It doesn’t work that way [laughs]. People will come to help but you have to earn it as well. You have to be able to find somebody and keep opening your mouth and say,”I need help. I need help.” If you go to MentorTech Ventures and say, “Can I meet with you? I don’t need money. I just need help.” The chances [that they’ll help you] are really good.