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Interview day saw Hans Koch, the co-founder of Owners.com, celebrating with partner Jack Reibling their San Francisco "for sale by owner" home-listing firm's third anniversary as a Web service. A three-tier cake there was not--but "donut holes in the kitchen" were available for the taking. Isn't humbleness in the face of a huge near-future endearing?
Although he's proud of the kudos Owners.com has received (being recognized as one of PC Magazine's "Top 100 Web sites" from fall 1997 to mid-1998 and all), Koch's ego is in check. "We had five people [he now employs 30], and were being considered on the same level as Amazon.com," he says of the PC Magazine honor. "We don't have [their] resources, [but] there continues to be a lot of pressure to perform at the level of our publicly traded counterparts with [huge] staffs."
Koch's been into business since age 6, when he sold seeds around his neighborhood. "That company wasn't big," he says. "I think I made $1.25 that summer." His fascination for real estate began at age 9, when a year of home-schooling coincided with his parents building an addition to their house. The curious youngster hung out with the contractors--observing, making suggestions. Throughout high school and college, Koch volunteered to help planning and development committees in his southwest Michigan hometown with real estate projects. He honed his entrepreneurial skills with a car-detailing business that helped pay for college.
After gaining post-college exposure to Silicon Valley highs and lows while working for "one of the biggest retail developers in the country," Koch and engineering buff Reibling were inspired to make their mark. They sought to replace what real estate agents saw as their primary value to the consumer with home-selling tools and data available online.
Owners.com, which profits from home-selling packages and transaction fees, debuted on the Web in 1996. Working 150-hour weeks, Koch and Reibling, both 30, built the company to its current state: a listing database of nearly 250,000 homes with a growth rate of 400 percent over last year.
Says Koch, "While [real estate agents] may be, have been, will be, upset with [us] bringing services directly to the consumer at a discount, the consumers benefit. If we've shaken things up, well then, good."
It's A Small World
It was on a (then) coveted Atari computer that Eric Silberstein wrote the environmental program Pollution Simulator in the fourth grade. "I shared a [school] bazaar booth with somebody selling comic books," he says. "He did much better." But at 23, we can assure you Silberstein's now out-grossing the superheroes peddler. Direct from Cambridge, Massachusetts, this Harvard grad has his sights set on making his business, Idiom Technologies Inc., the Web-globalization company.
"In the old days, if you wanted to do business globally, you had to set up partnerships, send people there and get familiar with regulations overseas," says Silberstein. "Today, you can set up a Web site and [compete globally] with almost no effort. Idiom is going to be the company that helps get you to that position."
The 23-employee business offers software and services to help e-commerce ventures do business internationally. Its flagship product, WorldServer, lets companies create and maintain human-translated multilingual and multiregional versions of sites.
Now Idiom, the result of early in-depth meetings with co-founders at the Harvard cafeteria and $500,000 in Silberstein-family bucks (plus additional venture capital), is set to grow its technology and senior management team, which includes co-founders Ken Shan and Susan Cheng. Together, the three are poised to devise new ways of improving the content user-interface of global e-commerce sites.
On working from the ground up, Silberstein says, "You don't have to figure everything out [in the very beginning]--just a tiny portion to wedge in there and move forward."
Idiom Technologies Inc., (617) 354-1822, http://www.idiomtech.com
Owners.com, (800) 273-7322, http://www.owners.com