Feature - February 25, 1998

Young Entrepreneurs
Five Princetonians reject conventional careers to start their own businesses in computers, publishing, healthcare, and travel

  • Earth's Biggest Bookstore
    Jeff Bezos '86's Amazon.com sells 3 million titles on the Web

  • Looking for Loot
    Maria Betancourt '86's classified ad sheet boasts an international flavor

  • Thoughtful Style
    David Getson '94's ICON magazine explores the many guises of success

  • Women's Healthcare
    Physician Donnica Moore '81 aims to do well by doing good

  • Explorer Ventures
    Clay McCardell '85 runs a dive-boat business from dry land

  • Earth's Biggest Bookstore

    Jeff Bezos '86's Amazon.com sells 3 million titles on the Web

    Jeff Bezos '86 has built one of the Internet's biggest enterprises around a simple premise: That a very old communications technology - the book - is uniquely well-suited to commerce via a very new one. "Three million different book titles exist in print at any given time," says Bezos, who left a Wall Street career to launch Amazon.com in 1994. "For sheer volume of different products, the only industry anywhere close to books is music, and that has only a tenth as many unique titles. With the Internet, we can have infinite shelf space. It's possible to build a store on line that could not exist any other way."

    Billed in its ubiquitous online advertisements as "Earth's Biggest Bookstore," the Seattle-based Amazon.com is the No. 1 retailer on the World Wide Web, with $81.7 million in sales through the first three quarters of 1997. Overall, Amazon.com is one of the 30 most popular Websites on the Internet, according to PC Meter, the Nielsen ratings of the Web.

    Amazon.com customers can't thumb through pages or sip cappuccino the way they might at a conventional bookstore. But Bezos uses computers to perform customer-pleasing tricks that would be impossible off-line. One is the price discount. Unburdened by the cost of expensive real estate, Amazon.com offers discounts of as much as 40 percent; even with the cost of postage, customers find it's usually cheaper to buy a book through Amazon.com.

    In addition, Amazon.com has developed a form of artificial intelligence software that creates a customized experience for each customer. Every time registered users return to the site, they're greeted by name and a list of recommendations based on what they've purchased in the past. The more someone buys, the more Amazon.com's computers "learn" the person's reading personality. "The hardest thing about buying a book is figuring out which book to buy," Bezos says. "But with the resources we make available, it's not such a needle-in-a-haystack situation."

    Users can also read reviews and author interviews and search for titles by writer, subject, or ISBN number. If they're gift-shopping, they can punch in the recipient's age, sex, and chief interests and get back Amazon.com's recommendations in a matter of seconds. To complete the purchase, users fill out an electronic form and give a credit card number. (People concerned about credit-card security - they needn't be, Bezos stresses - can call a toll-free number instead.)

    Unless it's a hard-to-find title, the book usually arrives two days later from the Amazon.com warehouse in Seattle or the recently opened distribution center in Delaware. To supply books not in stock, Bezos relies on a network of book distributors.

    Though free from the expense of maintaining and staffing a chain of stores, Bezos's operation is hardly low-maintenance. The company has more than 600 employees and is investing heavily in advertising and promotion as well as technology. Thus, Amazon.com has yet to show a profit despite an explosion in customers in 1997. Investors, nevertheless, have been eager to get a piece of the action. Amazon.com raised more than $50 million with its initial public stock offering last year, wowing Wall Street and exceeding its target by 80 percent.

    Despite its soaring popularity, Bezos doesn't see his virtual bookstore as a threat to the real-world retailers. "I still buy half of my books from regular bookstores," Bezos says. "It's a different experience. I think both methods are going to continue to do extremely well."

    -Tom Krattenmaker

    Looking for Loot

    Maria Betancourt '86's classified ad sheet boasts an international flavor

    Late-night host David Letterman liked the following ad from Loot, the New York weekly composed of free classified ads, so much that he read it on his Late Show program: "Chimpanzee: I will pay $100 if you will let my daughter play with your pet monkey for her 40th birthday. About an hour's worth. She has always wanted to do that. Call 212-...."

    For Loot's general manager and editor Maria Betancourt '86, such publicity helps attract those 50-word free ads (call 212-274-9111 - they really are free!) that get readers to plunk down one dollar for the weekly, which debuted last year as an offshoot of the original Loot, based in London.

    "We're in the business of free ads. The more, the better," says Betancourt. The paper carries about 5,000 in each issue, with a press run of 12,000 copies. She is aiming to double the number of ads. There is also a Loot Website, www.lootusa.com.

    Both the New York and London editions of Loot belong to a network of 137 free-ad papers in South America, Europe, India, South Africa, and Asia. An ad can run one time in any one paper for free, and in all 137 papers for $75. The resulting ads lend Loot an international flavor that helps set it apart from the other weeklies battling for New York City's readers.

    The cross-border aspect of Loot fits well with Betancourt. The daughter of Cuban immigrants who settled in New York, she majored in comparative literature at Princeton and spent her sophomore year studying French in Paris.

    Meeting Betancourt in Loot's offices, where a visitor might find her dressed in the Gotham hipster's all-black outfit of short dress, shoes, and jacket, it's hard to picture her first post-Princeton gig: as a Wall Street trainee. Betancourt couldn't see herself doing that either, so she ditched the fast track for an unfettered life, moving between New York and Paris. She became interested in the idea of a free-ad paper when she considered subletting her apartment. An Italian friend, Bonita Serra (now Loot's circulation manager) told her about such papers in Europe. They started a free-ad weekly called New York Bullet in September 1994 "with no publishing experience whatsoever," Betancourt recalls. The paper struggled for a year, at which point the two assembled a serious business plan and approached UK Loot about a New York edition. After a year of negotiation, Loot rolled out in January.

    As editor, Betancourt enforces some simple but strict guidelines: "We won't print ads for weapons, ads involving endangered species or anything we deem offensive, or ads with any kind of religious or political slant." The ads pretty much speak for themselves: household furnishings, jobs, computer gear. With her literary background, Betancourt appreciates the compelling narratives suggested by some notices. A few from a recent issue: "Artificial legs, 3, patient died, legs are in perfect condition." A 1955 Brooklyn Dodger yearbook for $3,000. An ad from Japan seeking a pen pal asks, "Many people have been killed by suicide or crime, why is man's life so precious, what's the purpose of questions."

    Betancourt's round-the-clock work schedule gives her no time to enjoy New York's restaurants, movies, and art galleries. Still, the role of publisher-entrepreneur suits her well. "This is definitely my thing," she says. "It's not every day that you get to start a publication in New York with this kind of backing and have shares in the company. I couldn't ask for much more."

    -Van Wallach '80

    Thoughtful Style

    David Getson '94's ICON magazine explores the many guises of success

    What common distinction is shared by Oracle Corporation CEO Larry Ellison, shock-rock star Ozzy Osbourne, and American Indian leader Russell Means? Answer: Not much, except that they all appeared in the same issue of ICON Thoughtstyle Magazine, founded and published by David Getson '94.

    "On the surface, these are people without much in common," says Getson. "But all three represent, and raise questions about, different kinds of success. That's what this magazine does. It's not suggesting that readers worship anyone. We publish profiles for the reader to learn about the realities of ambition and where it can lead, in many different industries and sectors. The point is to explore 'success' without defining it." Other profile subjects during ICON's first year include actor/director Clint Eastwood, Sein Finn leader Gerry Adams, and boxer Roy Jones, Jr.

    In the process, Getson is creating his own success story in an industry where failure is the norm. Some 90 percent of startup magazines go belly-up in their first year, but ICON began Year Two with a 50 percent circulation jump, a spate of good press, and breakthrough advertising accounts such as Cartier and Chanel.

    ICON was conceived at Princeton, where Getson, a Massachusetts native, played football and lacrosse while majoring in psychology. Unsure of what to do with his own life, he looked around, unsuccessfully, for a central source of information about men who reached the pinnacles of their fields. "It's the universal question from hell that we all face," Getson says. "'What am I going to do with my life?'" What he really wanted was a magazine devoted to case studies of men who answered that question in vigorous, creative - and successful - ways. Why not start his own?

    After graduation, Getson moved to New York City to do just that, initially supporting himself with a grant from Princeton, money from a thesis prize, and the sale of his car. Living and working out of a classmate's apartment, he set out to raise capital. Undaunted by numerous rejections, Getson found a major investor in Jim Petrucci '87, a successful entrepreneur and, like Getson, a former Tiger football player. (Getson, who holds the title of editorial director and publisher, has three other Princetonians on the magazine's 15-member staff. Peter Bailey '94 is vice-president and associate publisher, Phil Zabriskie '94 is senior editor, and Peter Bell '94 is an editor.)

    "The amount of rejection was enormous," Getson reflects. "If you don't get off on rejection, you're doomed. I tried to filter out the 'You're going to fail' part and focused on what I could learn about how to succeed."

    After extensive research, Getson determined that young, affluent, well-educated men were a promising and unexploited demographic. The decision to write for men about men was due, in part, to careful calculation. Women, he learned, often buy men's magazines, but men will rarely buy a women's magazine. Confident that he has carved out the magazine's identity, Getson plans to begin running profiles of women as well as men in ICON's second year.

    Although the results may look good, Getson stresses that there is little glamour behind the scenes of a successful new magazine. With too little time and money for his own apartment, he has lived out of the office, sometimes getting out only to walk his dog. Even while securing the cooperation of high-profile subjects like Clint Eastwood, he has faced constant skepticism about a new magazine's chances for survival.

    "Every day brings another obstacle," Getson says. "It can be fun some of the time, but it's mainly an ugly, painful process. For a long time, it meant looking under the couch cushion for coins for the subway, and eating nothing but rice and tuna."

    -Tom Krattenmaker

    Women's Healthcare

    Physician Donnica Moore '81 aims to do well by doing good

    When clients call Dr. Donnica Moore '81, they're likely to hear children's voices in the background. Moore makes it a rule to give her two preschoolers almost total access to her home office. And if Moore has to be away from home for more than three days, her children go with her.

    For someone as busy as Moore - she is president of Sapphire Women's Health Group, a women's healthcare consulting firm she founded last February, and president-elect of the American Medical Women's Association - her hands-on approach to parenting isn't typical. Nor is it easy. Balancing work and family "requires a lot of logistical planning," she explains. "Colin Powell has nothing on me."

    Family life was one reason Moore started Sapphire. Previously, she worked for Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, most recently as director of professional relations. Starting her own company was a way to "continue to be a high-powered executive and the kind of parent that I wanted to be, and that my children deserve."

    Another reason was market opportunity. She realized that companies like Sandoz, which sold prescription drugs, wanted to expand into the rapidly growing women's health market. "There was really a need for a company that had the kind of expertise I had when I put together my contractors," says Moore, a former gynecologist who earned her medical degree at the State University of New York in Buffalo.

    Sapphire specializes in bringing corporations to a specific audience - for example, a pharmaceutical company needs to get information to women, public-policy makers, the press, medical professionals, or opinions leaders. With her medical background and communication skills, Moore is seen as the ideal liaison. Other services include advising pharmaceutical or health-care companies that are setting up women's health departments, and developing public-information campaigns. Besides pharmaceuticals, Moore's clients include medical-device manufacturers and venture-capital companies. Moore says one of the best things about running her own company is getting to choose her clients. "I only work with clients who I feel are adding value to the field of women's health: companies and individuals I feel are good people, who have a respect for working with women. It gives me a tremendous amount of freedom. My clients are okay with hearing children in the background."

    Startup costs were minimal: a fax machine, computer and printer upgrades (about $5,000), and business cards (about $20). One "phenomenally valuable" resource was TigerNet's Venture Net discussion group, through which Moore got free legal, computer, and accounting advice.

    Moore did no marketing, but her high industry profile attracted clients, and she soon found herself hiring. Currently Sapphire has eight employees, all experts in fields like clinical research, licensing, and medical writing. Employees work from home offices on a contractual basis. Already, Moore's personal income is twice what she earned at Sandoz, and it doesn't surprise her. At Princeton, where she double-majored in biology and science and human affairs, she started a student travel agency, ran the beer-mug agency, and was the first business manager of the Nassau Weekly.

    Moore would encourage aspiring entrepreneurs to define success for themselves. That way, "you know when you've succeeded." For Moore, success is "being there for the kids but being able to maintain a high profile and have high financial success. If you can have a business where you can help people in society at same time, then you've really scored."

    -Tamsin Todd '92

    Explorer Ventures

    Clay McCardell '85 runs a dive-boat business from dry land

    Callers to Explorer Ventures Ltd. are daydreaming of scuba diving in turquoise waters and of watching brilliantly hued reef fish dart about and sea anemones wave in the current. They might be surprised to know that their call is going to a house about 20 miles west of Casper, Wyoming, where Clay McCardell '85 manages a Caribbean dive-boat business from a 1,000-square-foot home office.

    The incongruous location attests to the fact that you can run almost any business from anywhere these days, as McCardell is quick to admit. "All you really need is a phone and computer. And we don't have any walk-in business," he says wryly.

    As McCardell explains it, he and others in his family founded the company 11 years ago as one of a series of family businesses. He took it over, and operated out of Fairfield, Connecticut, where his parent still live. In 1994, he and his family elected to move to Wyoming, and took the business with them.

    Explorer Ventures is centered around a 100-foot-long "live-aboard" dive boat, the Caribbean Explorer, which generally rents out for a week. Staffed by a full-time crew of seven, the boat is based in Philipsburg, St. Maarten, though McCardell says dives - up to five a day, including night dives - are ordinarily done around nearby St. Kitts and the Saba Marine Park. Most patrons, he says, are experienced divers willing to shell out the basic cost of $1,195 a week, plus air fare. The boat takes up to 16 passengers and is 85-90 percent full year-round, McCardell says. To lure business, Explorer Ventures advertises regularly in magazines like Skin Diver and Scuba Diving, and markets itself through a comprehensive page on the World Wide Web, http://www.caribexplorer.com.

    McCardell began diving in the early 1980s, when he became certified; he's since obtained a dive master's rating, but is content to manage the business from afar. At Princeton he majored in geology, and when he moved to Wyoming he thought his dive-boat business might allow time to explore potential business ventures in mining. "Then I got an emergency call from the boat one day," he says, and the mining prospects were history.

    A fan of the wide-open West, McCardell says he enjoys having mountains nearby and few neighbors to worry about. The closest water is the North Platte River, a noted trout stream that he sometimes fishes. He says Explorer Ventures seemed "like an offbeat idea, and a way to make a little money." How much? He won't say. "It tends to pay the bills, though it isn't a way to get rich. But it's a good business to be in, and it opened the door to living out here."

    -Jeffrey Marshall '71