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Idealab founder kicks off Stanford E-Week, with advice for student entrepreneurs

By Solly Mirell | 23 Feb 2011

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Idealab Founder Bill Gross speaks at Stanford University's Entrepreneurship Week

Before a packed auditorium, serial entrepreneur and Idealab founder Bill Gross offered advice on staring new companies and spoke about his latest solar energy firm, eSolar, on the opening night of Entrepreneurship Week at Stanford University.

Gross, who began his first mail-order solar cell company Solar Devices while in 10th grade, reflected on his 15-year foray into software development beginning with CPA+, HAL and other Lotus programs before beginning his own company Knowledge Adventure. Inspired by Multimedia Beethoven, Gross said he knew “[that] if a product could move me that much, I could probably do that with children and educational software.”

Originally, Knowledge Adventure was unable to generate significant sales until Gross and other “weekend warriors,” who individually sold the software at retail locations, realized customers were confused about the age appropriateness of the program. After rebranding their software for specific one-year age ranges, Knowledge Adventure sold 20 million copies of the JumpStart Series and secured retail giant Walmart as a distributor.

“We would never have realized this without being in the store physically moving the product ourselves,” Gross said. “Focus is always better, unless you pick the wrong focus.”

Realizing his interests lay in a variety of industries, Gross formed business incubator Idealab in 1996 with the goal of participating in different fields while maintaining a “laser-like” focus on target markets. Some of the incubator’s notable successes include Picasa, Overture and CitySearch as well as the pay per click advertising model used by Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!.

“Equity is a great driver for innovation,” Gross said. “We’re manufacturing a new 100% equity pool for each project. You unlock human potential when you give everyone an equity stake. Even the secretary gets a share.”

Gross attributed many of Idealab’s failed ventures to immature markets. “If you have something that’s really great, try and survive until the market is ready for you,” Gross said.

Emphasizing the balance of complementary skills needed in business, Gross identified four elements crucial to the perpetuation of new companies: the entrepreneur, the producer, the administrator and the integrator. Without such individuals a business would likely fizzle out over a short time period,” he remarked.

Gross also spent a majority of the talk discussing global energy needs and the solutions available in solar energy. However, he noted that “solar energy is a novelty unless it can compete with fossil fuels with no subsidies.” His proposed solution, a new company called eSolar, involves the use of cheap microprocessors and hundreds of prefabricated mirror mounts to automatically direct sunlight toward large solar towers to generate steam and provide electricity. Gross’s aim for the company is to provide such plants at a cost that is competitive with fossil fuels without the need for government subsidies.

“It’s not just about climate change, but also about resource wars,” Gross commented. “It’s very hard to compete with fossil fuels with subsidies, but it’s possible and we’re within three to five years of equalizing their cost.”

Currently, eSolar has a plant in Southern California and has contracts for additional energy farms in India and China.

Stanford University’s Entrepreneurship Week continues through March 2. A schedule of events can be found at https://sen.stanford.edu/e-week.

 

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