Infonautics alums recall their start

Posted: June 14, 2012

With our smartphones, on-demand video and Twitter feeds in 2012, it's hard to relate to the challenges that confronted the team that started Infonautics Inc. in 1992.

No one was getting online back then, unless you were a devotee of CompuServe or Prodigy dial-up services. Information was not at our fingertips instantly.

Infonautics cofounders Marvin Weinberger and Josh Kopelman aimed to change that with a subscription service called Homework Helper, a pre-Internet reference service that provided full-text access to articles from more than a thousand newspapers, newswires, magazines, books and TV and radio transcripts.

What sounds like a simple Google search today was a maddeningly complex process then as Kopelman and nine other "Infonauts" described at an event, presented by Seed Philly and Novotorium at the University City Science Center Tuesday morning.

To handle such a service required an expensive data center, which Infonautics built in Wayne, complete with diesel backup generator. To provide access to all sorts of articles meant that the company had to gain permission from more than 200 print publishers. To offer access digitally meant that Infonautics first had to send whole libraries of printed matter to the Philippines for scanning.

"It was really expensive to get in the game," Kopelman said.

Cloud computing and open-source tools of all kinds have lowered the cost of starting an information technology company today. But in the early ‘90s, Infonautics chose its hardware platform based on the best deal (think: free) it could get. (Thank you, Tandem Computers Corp.)

Kopelman, who was a Wharton School undergrad when he started Infonautics with Weinberger, said the company spent $6.7 million before its first product was shipped. In contrast, half.com Inc. — his subsequent venture — spent $2 million in 2000 before shipping its first product. In 2004, antispam technology firm TurnTide Inc., which involved Kopelman and fellow Infonautics alum Lucinda Duncalfe, spent $1 million prior to shipping.

Now, Kopelman's seed-stage venture firm First Round Capital routinely backs startups that burn through just $100,000 to $200,000 before their first product gets into customers' hands.

I didn't recall any of the 10 Infonauts using the world "failure" in connection with Infonautics. The fact remains that the company, which once employed about 200 people, is no longer around.

Infonautics raised about $29 million from its initial public offering in 1996, but found itself unable to adapt to the rapidly evolving World Wide Web. By August 2001, the last piece of the company was acquired by a Canadian firm called Tucows Inc.

Judging by the comments about the outrageous work hours, ever-present Pop-Tarts, and occasional violin-playing (by Weinberger), it was clear that the culture of 1990s' Infonautics made an indelible impression on all of the speakers.

From the most buttoned-down (Rich Gallagher, now at Yellow Book USA) to the self-described "fifth column" (Edwin Watkeys, now a product designer at ActionX in New York), I was struck by how many either started their own firms or joined other startups — often in the Philadelphia region.

Besides TurnTide, Duncalfe has helmed other local startups, including Destiny WebSolutions and ClickEquations.

Now general manager of the Novotorium incubator in Langhorne, Mike Krupit left Infonautics (where he was one of several technology directors) to join CDNow, another local Internet darling in the 1990s.

For his part, Weinberger said he considers Kopelman his second son and "my best first hire." He's proud of what his Infonauts have accomplished in their second and third acts even as he misses the days when his company was the place to work in Philadelphia.

Contact Mike Armstrong at 215-854-2980 or marmstrong@phillynews.com, or @PhillyInc on Twitter. Read his blog, "PhillyInc," at www.phillyinc.biz.

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