Chapter 4: Gary Kremen
Gary Alan Kremen is a remarkable man. Born 20 September 1963 in Skokie, Illinois – just outside Chicago – to two teachers, it was obvious early on that he had a prodigious intellect. A sharp, driven and inquisitive child, he used to sit for hours in his back garden looking through a homemade telescope at the stars.
At eight, he was reading physics books intended for children twice his age. At twelve, he built his first PC. While at high school, he was nearly expelled for hacking into the school's computer system. He once decided on a whim to go to the highest point in each of California's 59 counties – and he knows that there are really only 58 counties because Klamath County was dissolved in 1874. He is, put simply, the quintessential geek – highly intelligent, obsessed with the intricacies and forever looking to push back the frontiers of what is allowed.
Inevitably he was also a socially awkward boy, with just a handful of friends. Cross-country running – where the stamina and drive of the individual is paramount – was his sport of choice. But like the most famous geek in the world, Bill Gates, Gary possesses an unusual drive and determination that overrides his natural shyness. Gary Kremen decided early on in his life he was going to make it big in business, and he was going to do it at the sharp edge. And, like Gates, that meant the new and exciting world of computers.
He took degrees in both computer science and electrical engineering at Chicago's Northwestern University, graduating in 1985, and went straight into his first job, aged 23, as a member of the technical staff at the headquarters of Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, California. The corporation did a lot of government-funded research, so it was in the unique position of being one of only 200 or so bodies that were connected together by one of the predecessors of the Internet, the ARPAnet. The World Wide Web wouldn't exist for another seven years, but Kremen got to learn about the new computer networks that were breaking out while he passed his time in an extremely dull job.
Not long after, he decided to broaden his options, and started taking night classes in accounting. And then he quit to go to business school, taking a full-price place at the spiritual home of technological entrepreneurship, Stanford. He was cocky and arrogant, turning down a full scholarship from the University of Chicago because he had already decided, in his own words, "to make my millions in Silicon Valley".
It was a life-changing decision. His peers at Stanford between 1987 and 1989 became the driving forces behind a series of new computer companies that are now household names – Microsoft and Sun Microsystems being but two. Far from leaping straight into a glittering job however, Kremen left Stanford in the middle of a recession from which Silicon Valley didn't recover for another four years. He took a job as a financial controller at one of the few businesses to survive during this tough patch – bio-technology. It was well paid, although nothing special by Silicon Valley standards, but Kremen remembers it fondly because the CEO allowed him to sit in on board meetings, and it was there that Kremen suddenly realized he wanted to be an entrepreneur, spotting new business opportunities, forming a company around them, selling up and then moving on to the next thing. The Internet at the time was still no more than a few hundred computer companies, universities and government off-shoots communicating with one another, but thanks to a housemate who worked at Sun as an engineer, Kremen had full access. And it was while looking about the network one day that he suddenly came up with a business plan – one of the very first hatched over the Internet.
We now take it pretty much for granted that a computer is connected or can be connected to the Internet. But back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the opposite was true: there were hundreds of thousands of computers, but only a small percentage of them were connected to anything beyond a printer. One of the advantages of being on the early Internet was that information and files were shared freely among users, and since most of the people on the network were computer scientists, it was awash with software programs they had written in their spare time to do various jobs made freely available to everyone. Kremen reckoned that if he put together a suite of these software programs, people not on the network might be willing to pay for it. So he downloaded and tested a wide range of programs, put together about ten different packages catering for different needs, and advertised them for $99. Full Source Software thus became possibly the first open source software company in the world.
Kremen's hunch proved right, and soon he was selling $1,000 to $2,000 worth of software a day. He then expanded his small-scale enterprise by buying the rights to a series of security programs that he again sold as a complete package. His timing was immaculate: in November 1988 a previously unsuspected threat – a computer virus – appeared from nowhere and promptly infected ten per cent of all computers attached to the Internet. Internet protocols had been designed to survive a nuclear blast, but it was never considered that the threat might come from within the network itself. The antivirus market was born and Kremen, through a hunch, was one of the first onboard. Neither venture made Kremen a lot of money but they had an enormous impact on the young entrepreneur and gave him the confidence to trust his instincts about where these new computer networks were going.
And there was one thing Gary Kremen was sure about: it wouldn't be long before everyone was connected to these networks. It would mean the end of his software business model, but just imagine the possibilities if hundreds of thousands of people were all able to interact with one another using their computers. You could buy and sell stuff over it, just like you did in the real world. In fact you could buy something from a complete stranger on the other side of the country as if they were sitting at a terminal right next to you. It seemed amazing, even ridiculous, but it was clearly possible because that's what they were already doing – communicating directly, and with virtually no delay, to people thousands of miles away.
We hope you have enjoyed reading this far. If you want to find out what happens with the domain, including the legal sparring, Mexican gunfight, trashed mansion, sex industry civil war and drug haze that two of the main characters feel into, please do consider purchasing a copy. The book is available in both print and ebook formats.