From the November 1999 issue of Startups

Between them, Gary Culliss, 29, and Mike Cassidy, 36, have qualifications sure to make most reassess their own "achievements." Cassidy has won a 2,000-mile car race across Australia, competed in marathons and studied jazz piano at the esteemed Berklee School of Music. Oh, and the Harvard Business School grad co-founded and sold a company before starting Direct Hit Technologies Inc. with Harvard Law School alum Culliss. (Who, by the way, wrote code at age 12, was a registered patent agent with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and invented the technology that would drastically reduce the pain of Internet searching.)

The innovative technology of which we speak is the Direct Hit Popularity Engine, available at partner search engines like HotBot and Lycos, or at http://www.directhit.com. During his patent-agent stint, Culliss realized the most efficient way to perform patent searches was to ask colleagues where they'd found needed information. The co-founder (who saved Direct Hit $50,000 in legal fees with his patent expertise) thought, Why not create an Internet search engine that would list only the most popular and relevant sites, as chosen by other users?

Culliss developed and entered the Direct Hit business plan in MIT's 1998 $50K Entrepreneurship Competition, the hotbed of networking and collaboration that brought Cassidy (who'd won the 1991 competition) and Culliss together. The newly formed team didn't just take the grand prize--within a month, they also secured their first round of $1.4 million in venture capital from Silicon Valley investment giant Draper Fisher Jurvetson and gave their $30,000 prize money to fellow finalists. Cassidy recounts the funding miracle: "We walked in, pitched them at 8:15 a.m., and at 4:30 p.m., they said `OK, here's your deal.' "

It's not always that easy. If you're new to business, building an advisory board of experienced entrepreneurs beforehand helps. "When we made our pitch, we had everything to start the company except the money," explains Culliss. "They jumped at the opportunity to fund a company ready to go."

Now the Wellesley, Massachusetts, company, whose other partners include Apple, LinkExchange, LookSmart and ZDNet, looks to go public and unveil its shopping engine this fall (its full search engine launched this summer); expansion to Europe and Asia is also in progress. In this crazy world of Internet company mergers, Cassidy adds, Direct Hit's destiny changes daily: "You're just about to make a deal, and then oops, the company gets bought by someone else." Well, at least life never gets boring.

Threads For Tots

Four years of corporate strategic planning for Disney, Laurie McCartney is all about consumer satisfaction. In the fashion of fellow Disney alums who've started "ventures" like eBay and eToys, she plans to head an empire of sites that cater to the $100 billion-plus market spanning health, beauty, fashion and home decor.

An empire has to start somewhere, so McCartney, 32, commenced with a Web site, http://www.babystyle.com. After leaving Disney, she spent 1998 researching the expectant/new mother market. Realizing it's worth $12.5 billion and being pregnant, she didn't require a ton of persuading.

"I wrote the business plan while I was pregnant, got venture capital funding while I was pregnant, and started the business [in November 1998] after my son, [Jack], was born," says McCartney, who expects her business, eStyle Inc., to exceed $1 million in sales this year.

From McCartney's Web site, moms can peruse the offerings of more than 100 vendors touting stylish (yes, stylish) maternity wear, infant wear (including Euro-imports), baby gear and nursery furnishings. To ensure product appeal, eStyle employs "ambassadors" in major cities who ask for opinions in Lamaze and Mommy and Me classes and do grass-roots marketing to boot. An added plus: Her customer service reps are moms, too.

You'd think bringing up baby and business would be trying. (Playpens and toys are standard at the company's Los Angeles headquarters.) Says McCartney, the youngest of seven children, who likes to bring order to chaos, "Jack is very much the inspiration, [and is] integral to the business, [so it's] easier to balance."