Hero Worship

Internet Evangelist

Marc Andreessen

Co-founder of Netscape Communications Corp.

Launched: 1994

"Right now, today, with a little luck and brains and timing, any kid with a computer can do what Netscape has done. There are no barriers to entry anymore. Any kid can spark a revolution." --Marc Andreessen

To some, Netscape Communications Corp. co-founder Marc Andreessen is a cyberspace folk hero whose programming savvy made the vast resources of the Internet's World Wide Web available to anyone with a computer and modem. To others, he's little more than a computer hacker who rode to the top on the accomplishments of others. But no matter how his supporters and detractors feel about him, Andreessen is indeed a visionary, whose dream of creating an easy-to-use Web browser clearly revolutionized information technology, sparked the Internet boom of the 1990s and laid the groundwork for one of the fastest-growing companies in U.S. history.

Born in rural New Lisbon, Wisconsin, in 1971, Andreessen seemed destined for a career in computers. At age 8, Andreessen began teaching himself the BASIC programming language from a library book. By the time he'd reached the sixth grade, Andreessen had created a virtual calculator to do his math homework. By the seventh grade, he was writing his own games and playing them on the family computer.

During his senior year at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne, in 1992, Andreessen took a $6.85-per-hour programming job at the university's high-tech think tank, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). It was there he first gained access to the Internet, which at that time was a crude, text-based network accessible only through primitive interfaces.

Andreessen immediately saw a potential market for an easy-to-use Internet browser, and in one sleepless weekend, he hacked out a crude prototype. He showed his prototype to his friend, gifted hacker Eric Bina, and in just six weeks, Andreessen, Bina and several other NCSA colleagues built it into a fully functioning browser called Mosaic. They made the program available free of charge over the Internet, and within a year, more than two million copies had been downloaded.

After graduation, Andreessen was offered a job with the Silicon Valley firm Enterprise Integration Technologies. Just a few miles from where Andreessen worked, Jim Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics (SGI), had recently left SGI and was looking to start a new venture. Wasting no time at all, Clark fired off an e-mail to Andreessen. As soon as Andreessen explained the World Wide Web to Clark, the pair knew they should go into business, making browsers and servers for the Internet.

Using $4 million of Clark's money, the duo founded Mosaic Communications Corp. in April 1994. (Six months later, they changed the name to Netscape, after the University of Illinois claimed it owned the rights to the name Mosaic.) Andreessen's first move was to recruit some of his former colleagues from NCSA, including Bina. By year-end, Andreessen's "dream team" had created a more powerful, more polished version of Mosaic, which they named Netscape Navigator.

In a brilliant move to generate a user base, Navigator, like Mosaic, was launched free of charge on the Internet (the company eventually began charging for the program, offering free 90-day trials instead). The browser immediately ruled the Net, claiming nearly 75 percent of the browser market.

With the success of Navigator, the company grew from three to 200 employees. To keep the start-up from growing out of control, Clark and Andreessen hired former FedEx senior executive Jim Barksdale to serve as CEO. Netscape also expanded its product line to include high-end, high-priced software tools that companies could use to create and maintain their own Web sites, and they established virtual stores to conduct secure transactions over the Net.

By 1995, with $16.6 million in sales but no profits, Netscape went public. Initially offered at $28 per share, Netscape's five million shares of stock immediately began trading at $71. When the stock market closed, Andreessen, then just 23, was worth $58 million. By December, the value of Andreessen's stock had risen to $174 million.

Microsoft eventually usurped Netscape's dominance by bundling its own browser, Internet Explorer, with Microsoft Windows. As a result, Andreessen and Netscape drastically changed their strategy. Rather than focusing solely on the Internet, Netscape turned its attention to intranets, producing software to run within corporate networks.

As Netscape lost its market dominance, Andreessen faded into the background, and Barksdale emerged as the new face and driving force of the company. Barksdale brokered a deal with AOL in 1998 to sell Netscape for $4.2 billion. Under the terms of the buyout, Andreessen was named chief technology officer of AOL, but his actual role and responsibility within the company remained vague.

Wanting to play a more active role in the evolution of the Internet, Andreessen joined the board of directors of Accompany Inc.--the first Internet-based buying network to offer products and services in real time--in 1999. He eventually stepped down as AOL's CTO.

The legacy of 29-year-old Marc Andreessen is firmly entrenched in the annals of online history. He set the standard for Internet browsers, providing an "on-ramp" to the Web for computer users and changing the way businesses access and use the Internet--paving the way for e-business and e-commerce.

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This article was originally published in the March 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Hero Worship.

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