JIM CLARK Digital Entrepreneur
The world changed on Aug. 9, 1995, and not just because Jerry Garcia died. That was also the day the initial public stock offering for Netscape Communications, a company that had yet to turn a profit, instantly garnered an astonishing $2 billion on the strength of one idea. The idea was the World Wide Web, and its gatekeeper, for the foreseeable future, is Jim Clark.
Conquering the light-speed computer industry means leaping ahead one cognitive generation and landing in the right place. Few entrepreneurs turn this trick even once; at 52, Clark has done it twice. In the early '80s, as the industry's initial generation of mainframes (see IBM) gave way to a second generation of desktop PCs (see Apple, Microsoft), Clark saw a way to put that data-crunching power to work visualizing information ranging from aircraft fluid dynamics to rampaging velociraptors, then founded the company that made it happen. Fourteen years, 7,200 employees and $2.2 billion in annual revenues later, Silicon Graphics rules its own lucrative roost.
Clark, however, moved on. By 1994 the desktop generation was yielding to the networked, interactive generation. But while his peers were debating how to build the Infobahn, Clark decided it already existed. He'd met Marc Andreessen, who as an undergraduate programmer had helped create the then obscure browsing software Mosaic, which made it easy to navigate the World Wide Web. Navigating the infant Web, which transforms the Internet's isolated, text-based sites into one vast, hyperlinked, multimedia-capable network, got Clark thinking--and acting. He and Andreessen founded Mosaic Communications (soon renamed Netscape) and built a business around an improved Web browser. The result was one of history's headiest corporate ascents, as the ubiquitous Netscape Navigator browser helped spawn the world's startling online stampede. "The Internet was the information highway everyone was looking for," says Clark. "They just hadn't recognized it."
Clark and Andreessen did, and today they find themselves riding the decade's giddiest economic bubble, counting their stock options and cutting deals with everyone from telephone companies to Hollywood. Virtually the entire data-intensive world--which is to say, virtually the entire world--has concluded that the Web is the future of communications, and is now retooling to stay in lockstep with Netscape (and vice versa: Netscape perpetually updates its browser to accommodate new Web applications). "The list of businesses being transformed," says Clark, includes "broadcasting, publishing, software, finance, shopping, entertainment services, consumer electronics...It's a massive, massive change. We just happened to see it first and set the commercial agenda."
And to the agenda setters belong the spoils. His peers were skeptical when Jim Clark decided to colonize the Web. Well, today Netscape's value has jumped to $5 billion, Clark's own net worth stands at $1.3 billion, and he escapes often to enjoy the last laugh while sailing to sun-drenched paradises like Tahiti. He has earned the lush life twice over, even though others share the high-tech glory. After all, Columbus may have discovered the New World, but it was Isabella and Ferdinand who persuaded the royal court to put up the money.
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