Trevor Blackwell on the lessons of Viaweb, Cambridge e-commerce pioneer


As part of my latest column, on the ripple effects of the pioneering Cambridge startup Viaweb, I corresponded by e-mail with Viaweb co-founder Trevor Blackwell. Blackwell is now a partner at the accelerator Y Combinator and founder of the robotics company Anybots.

Blackwell shared some of the lessons he learned at Viaweb, which was founded twenty years ago this month, including this: “Fundraising is not success.” Here’s our exchange, which didn’t make it into the column…

Scott Kirsner: What do you recall was the original insight you guys had with Viaweb? What was the opportunity you saw?

Trevor Blackwell: We had ordered things online as early as 1993, when there were just a few stores online all built with custom software. We loved it, and thought that everyone would buy stuff this way. We knew that big company stores would continue to use custom software, but there were more than 10,000 smaller companies currently mailing out paper catalogs and taking fax orders that would want an easy solution.

SK: I don’t feel like there was much web-based software in that 1995/96 timeframe, but were you aware of other people taking that approach? I don’t think people starting talking about ASPs [application service providers] until later in the 90s or early 2000s.

TB: We were probably the first. When we built a working prototype we were surprised that it was actually possible.

SK: Do you recall who the first customer for Viaweb was?

TB: Quantum Books, in Kendall Square.

SK: What was the biggest challenge you faced with Viaweb?

TB: Focusing every day on the few things that mattered and not getting distracted by the hundreds of things that didn’t.

SK: Are there some moments from Viaweb’s lifespan, or some lessons from it, that you still find yourself thinking about — or that shaped the way you work/think/advise other entrepreneurs today?

TB: We had a direct competitor who, we read one day in the news, raised more than 10 times as much money as us. For a while we thought we were doomed. But our product was better so we didn’t lose customers to them.

Fundraising is not success. I tell that to companies that have just raised a pile of money, and also to ones worried that their competitors just did.

SK: Why did you decide to sell when you did? Do you recall any debate around whether it was the right time, or whether you should’ve kept building?

TB: We could have made more money by building the company longer. But we didn’t want to spend the rest of our lives on it either. It was a hard decision, made without much experience or guidance, but it worked out pretty well. Startups today have better information.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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