By annie shum | November 17, 2009
Often in business and life, an important conversation, a made or missed connection, or even an intrusion of pure fate redirects our thinking and actions for years afterward. Forbes is asking leaders in business and other fields for their “Ten Minutes That Mattered.” Share your thoughts and stories in the Reader Comments section below.
Brewster Kahle is the great librarian of the Internet. His company Wais Inc. scanned and listed the content of computer servers, and was sold to America Online for $15 million. A second project, Alexa Internet, logged Internet traffic patterns and recommended sites. It went to Amazon for $250 million. He is a founder and leader of the Internet Archive, which stores a huge number of books, recordings and images for free access. His most recent project, Bookserver, is a distributed publishing, lending and sales tool for digital books.
In the 1980s, I was at MIT studying under a graduate student named Danny Hillis. I was trying to understand how to put a digital library on this Internet thing that was starting to happen. There were so many pieces I needed to get done, interfaces and such that didn’t exist then. What Danny suggested was, “Think big, Try to get the whole thing done. If you take a chip at a time, you may not actually get there.”
I found that if I could describe the whole architecture, people figured out where to fit in. People that do the architecture stuff don’t usually make much money, and that’s OK. It’s the people who are doing the components that make money. But someone has to describe the whole thing. Tim Berners-Lee did a brilliant job of that in setting out the World Wide Web. Richard Stallman sort of re-architected how software and computing was going to work, in terms of business structure with open source.
Danny also introduced me to Apple Computer, Dow Jones and Pete Marwick, to try to put together this whole system called WAIS, which was one of the precursors to what became the Web.
People don’t think they’re up to thinking big. What I’ve found is really helpful is to go and tell everybody your idea, over and over and over again. More people want to help you than hurt you. And so it’s a net win to go and have other people get a big, broad idea of what you’re trying to do, not just sneak around, and do this small component.
I never wanted to build a company. I wanted to build an industry. An industry requires lots of people winning, and going off in their own directions, competing away to try to make something bigger happen. You know you’ve got a really big idea when other people say, “Go faster. That can help me in this way that you hadn’t even thought of.” And they’ll say, “How can I help you?”
And it’s only because other people help you that you win. There’s sort of this idea that you’re in your corner, fighting for yourself in a Darwinian world. I don’t buy it.
-Told to, and edited by, Quentin Hardy