A Tale of Two Cautious Entrepreneurs

Google+Back in 2008, I was finishing up my MBA at Purdue University when an opportunity presented itself. I was the teaching assistant to Scott Jones (yes, that Scott Jones) who was, at the time, teaching an entrepreneurship capstone course.

A PhD student approached me with a demo of patent pending technology that had already received $50,000 of funding and asked if I’d be interested in putting together a business plan. I said yes. We entered three competitions in the area and placed first in one and third in the other two.

Here’s the first paragraph from that business plan (from March 2008, unchanged):

iPrivacyManager (iPM) is an intelligent Internet application that allows online users the ability to manage how their information (profiles, pictures, etc.) is shared on social networking sites (e.g. MySpace, Facebook). iPM is based on patented technology invented at Purdue University by PhD student Arjmand Samuel and professor Arif Ghafoor. This technology allows users a simple but powerful approach to managing subsets of friends, conditions of access, and specific rules for sharing of personal information.

Paragraph two continued on to explain how it worked (again, unchanged from 2008):

iPM easily integrates with the existing information store of an online user profile (via the open standard XML) and uses a unique, graphically interactive way for the user to define criteria (also known as “context-aware disclosure rules”) that dictate who can see what under what environmental conditions.

Later on in the business plan we referenced Facebook and explained a key disadvantage of social networking as compared to “real life”:

Currently, user profiles posted on Facebook and other sites are potentially accessible in an identical way by a wide range of acquaintances, who are typically kept separate in real life (employers, coworkers, fellow students/alumni, friends, family, and relatives).

Sound familiar? It should, unless you’ve been ignoring tech news for the past two weeks. Google, via Google+, has essentially built from scratch the magic we were trying to bottle up in hopes of selling to social networking sites circa 2008.

So what happened to iPrivacy Manager? Arjmand and I both received offers from Microsoft (coincidentally, from unrelated business groups) and each decided to go the cautious route. We knew that we had something potentially big on our hands.

But that’s just it, we weren’t really past the potential stage, competition winnings notwithstanding. We were both married. We were both students. We were both cautious entrepreneurs.

*Update* I have been asked what the moral of the story is and thought I’d add a mini-epilogue here. For me, this is the story of entrepreneurship often untold. You have to give up a lot for the hopes of a nice pay off, and the odds are against you. But what happens when you go with a decision where the odds are in your favor?

I’m cautious by nature, so also being entrepreneurial is a bit of a paradox. But I have no regrets on this. I think being cautious worked out well for me, actually. That said, if you choose the cautious route, be prepared for someone else to do exactly what you were planning (in my case, Google!).