The day he was formally honored by Inc. magazine for operating one of America's 500 fastest-growing companies was momentous for Paul Allen -- and not just because it gave him and his business, Infobases, a place among the country's corporate elite.
It was momentous because it was the day he finally became a businessman."Up until that time I didn't really have an interest in the business side of our company," Allen said of the successful computer software operation he established in 1991 with his partner, Dan Taggert. "I was totally into the content of the infobase material we were accumulating.
"To be honest, I was mostly interested in making the content available for myself so I could learn stuff. That's what drove me: learning. I wasn't particularly interested in the business side of things."
Even though the business side of things was doing well at the time.
From a homemade CD-ROM scripture package that was sold out of the back seat of their cars, Infobases had grown to a state-of-the-art software company providing the latest in LDS-oriented information.
"One of the first things we learned was that we didn't know anything about business," Allen said. "So we hired someone who knew their way around a spread sheet, and then forgot about it. Making the company work was never a big deal to me. I was only interested in creating the product. We were information-driven, not viability-driven. We weren't looking at how to make a good business. We just wanted to make a good product that we could use ourselves."
As a result, the company had more than its share of fiscal ups and downs. "We didn't know how to build a successful business," Allen said.
"We hired people. Then we'd find out we couldn't afford to pay them, so we had to lay them off. It was very painful, very difficult."
Then came 1994 -- "an incredible year," Allen said -- and the ascendancy of Infobases to the Inc. 500. "I went to Philadelphia to receive the award," he said. "I met all of these people who were doing all of these different businesses. The one thing they all had in common is they were all successful. I heard speakers talk about how to make a business work and how to grow a business. I was excited about what I was learning. For the first time, I realized that there is truth in learning how to grow a business, and truth we can learn from business."
Allen calls the experience his business "epiphany."
"Suddenly I was an entrepreneur," he said. "I never really thought of myself as a businessman up until that point. But after that, I started reading business and marketing books. I learned how to write a business plan, how to strategize. I attended business conferences. I searched for truth in business just as I had searched for truth in other arenas."
Eventually Allen and Taggert left Infobases to focus their attention on Ancestry.Com, one of the businesses Infobases had absorbed. They are excited about it because they find the work interesting, and also because they think it will be an excellent business opportunity. And this time, they're building a business as businessmen, with a clear entrepreneurial perspective.
"We even have a written business plan," Allen said, smiling. "Actually, we have a strategic document and a business plan."
Which proves what they say about entrepreneurs: some are born, some are made.
And some have entrepreneurialism thrust upon them by Inc. magazine.
Paul Allen and Joseph Walker are both associated with the BYU Center for Entrepreneurship. They can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]