This Old House

A closer look at four of the companies that found space in a Boston-based incubator
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the October 2000 issue of . Subscribe »

The gorgeous structure to the right is the Ames house, named after Massachusetts entrepreneur and railroad tycoon Oliver Ames, for whom the Boston mansion was erected in 1881. Forty-five years later, the National Casket Co. transformed the abode into an office-and a lavish "showroom." Its hundredth year saw further refurbishment to achieve its full office-space potential. But not until early this year-when i-group HotBank, a Northeastern incubator for Internet entrepreneurs, adopted the house (and its gym, espresso bar and atrium) as its headquarters for emerging start-ups-has the house seen such energy.

Jennifer Chrisler of i-group says the Ames house was chosen not only because it's "just over the bridge" from MIT and down the road from Harvard Business School, but also because "we wanted to keep the brain power of Massachusetts local, as opposed to letting them go off to Silicon Valley."

Incubating six to seven companies every six months, the house, says Chrisler, is "a great place to inspire, gather and talk about how new technologies can change the economy." Have a look inside . . .

As founder of i-group's premier incubated company, ClubTools Inc., which provides Web-based club management services to student-run organizations, Paul Ognibene, 29, understands flexibility-he worked amid hammering and fire alarms as the incubator was fine-tuned. Aside from the mansion feeling "spooky" at night, it's perfect for the Harvard Business School alum: "We couple innovative technology with good old-fashioned customer service," says Ognibene, now nearing graduation from the incubator after a 10-month stay. A typical day goes as such:

8 a.m.: Paul arrives, sifts through e-mail and voice mail, outlines the day.

9 a.m.: The team arrives, and Paul shifts gears in order to assist with various assignments, taking customer calls, cold-calling prospects and helping employees fill tough orders-inflatable sharks, for example.

Lunch: People eat lunch at their desks to maximize work time. Paul often misses lunch altogether.

2 p.m.: Paul realizes he hasn't eaten. Once a week, he meets with his i-group advisor, who assists with matters like hiring and deal negotiation. More customer service follows.

5 p.m.: Agendas are discussed at a weekly management team meeting.

7 p.m.: Employees leave; Paul really checks his e-mail and returns calls.

8 p.m. to midnight: Dinner is ordered in. Paul focuses on writing proposals, devises new strategies-and tries not to mind the creaks upstairs. The day ends at midnight. Luckily, his home is two miles away.

Since provides cutting-edge online solutions for online sales (sellers bring wares to a pack-and-ship location, where digital imaging and fulfillment are taken care of at a set fee), chief marketing officer/co-founder Paul Royka, 30, finds it ironic that the Ames house was partially funded by providing shovels to the Industrial Revolution-era railroad industry. Royka notes that myEZsale grew faster than the two auction-site start-ups he'd previously worked with-so fast that it outgrew its space in the mansion within one month. "But we [have continued to] use it as an anchor," says Royka, "and for marketing and promotional activities and high-level meetings."

Gidon Wallis, 34, could've chosen other incubators to help grow, which lets computer technology and electronics e-tailers offer customers no-nonsense service plans-and he probably would have gotten more money and shares if he had. But when i-group managing director Jordan Levy understood the business plan "in 20 seconds," the match was clear. "Anything I needed, i-group [helped] me," says Wallis, who now works from a full-grown office in New York City. From Levy's daily e-mails to recruiting to sales introductions ("When Jordan phoned gigantic companies, you got the meeting the next day"), i-group proved itself an invaluable resource.

At 24, Hugo Barra is a tech buck who, with his Lobby7 employees (average age: 22), provides consulting and custom wireless application development services to businesses entering the mobile Internet space. Seeing as how Barra and his team have a handle on the aforementioned, i-group's hands-off policy (if you want it that way) regarding tech matters is appreciated, while its business guidance is welcomed.

Among the perks that sold Barra on i-group rather than the 627 existing incubators recognized by The National Business Incubation Association were its "expertise and contact network"-and, of course, the house. (Suites are pre-decorated with "top-notch furniture"...and Lobby7's has a fireplace.) "For a professional services firm, it's the best," notes Barra. "It's amazing to see clients' [expressions] when they come in." He does agree the house is scary at 2:45 a.m., however. -Michelle Prather

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