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Business

Social Networking Means Business for introNetworks

Co-founders Mark Sylvester and Kymberlee Weil made a chance connection, and then hundreds

Before there was Foursquare, before there was LinkedIn, even before there was the ubiquitous world of Facebook — there was Santa Barbara’s introNetworks.

IntroNetworks co-founders Mark Sylvester and Kymberlee Weil had an idea — and almost immediately they got the ultimate social-networking break they were looking for.
IntroNetworks co-founders Mark Sylvester and Kymberlee Weil had an idea — and almost immediately they got the ultimate social-networking break they were looking for. (introNetworks photo)

“We are 7½ years old now, which in the world of social-media networking makes us ancient!” joked introNetworks CEO and co-founder Mark Sylvester.

Since early 2003, introNetworks has been at the vanguard of innovation in the ever-growing social-networking landscape. The company’s goal is to create customized online communities for professionals to improve communication and productivity between employees, clients, members and prospects.

The company was formed as a collaborative effort between Sylvester and president and co-founder Kymberlee Weil, after a chance meeting brought the two together at a Santa Barbara technology event run by Sylvester in 2002. It didn’t take them long to realize they shared many similar ideas, especially related to the untapped power of the emerging use of social media for business professionals.

“Mark had just left his company, Wavefront Technologies, and was working on some other really innovative software projects, while I was running a technology conference at the time,” Weil said.

“I had this idea for a new software application that I wanted to create, and I shared the idea with Mark, who really liked it, and put his own spin on it. Literally after just one meeting, we both knew this was something we wanted to pursue.”

Almost immediately after their initial encounter, fate intervened to give the pair just the kind of opportunity they were looking for. That year, Peter Goldie, vice president of marketing for Macromedia, and one of Sylvester’s closest personal friends, told him that Macromedia was being given the opportunity to sponsor the inimitable Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) Conference. Goldie was in the midst of trying to figure out what kind of experience his company could create to present to the thousand-plus TEDsters who would be on hand for the event; Sylvester instantly recognized a great opportunity to present Weil’s idea.

So Sylvester and Weil wrote up a creative brief and pitched the concept to Goldie, who loved it so much that he, in turn, pitched it to Chris Anderson, the curator of the TED Conference. Anderson saw genius in the duo’s software plan, and greenlit the project — a mere eight weeks before the start of the conference.

“We had never worked together before, we had no team — we were just a couple of technology geeks who honestly, at a restaurant, wrote this back-of-the-napkin idea, and we had eight weeks to present this software in front of the world’s thought leaders,” laughed Weil. “No pressure!”

The two got to work immediately, e-mailing the best designers and developers in the country, many of whom Weil already knew from the national conference circuit. The e-mail’s subject line read simply, “Wanna Play?” And apparently they did. After reading the body of the e-mail, which outlined the challenging opportunity ahead, every recipient responded with a resounding yes.

The designers traveled to Macromedia headquarters in San Francisco — coming from Chicago, Portland, Texas and, of course, Santa Barbara — to begin the eight-week journey.

After a two-month approach that Sylvester described simply as “no sleep,” the small, newly formed team sat together doing last-minute coding in a hotel the night before TED, discussing what their idea of success would look like throughout the conference. It was agreed that if 30 percent of the attendees tried their smart social-networking software, they would have succeeded. By the conclusion of the conference, 78 percent of attendees had tried the software, and Weil and Sylvester were already fielding on-site orders from corporations such as Sony, Polaroid, the United Way and many others.

IntroNetworks was officially formed soon after, based on the overwhelming, and somewhat unexpected, response from the leaders of technology at TED.

“One thing about TED is that it challenges everybody to think outside of their normal sphere,” said Sylvester. “Well, about a week after the conference, there was a write-up of TED in Forbes.com and NYTimes.com, and mentioned in those articles was this software that the attendees used to connect one another, and matched you based on interests, and no one had ever seen anything like that before.

“It helped you pinpoint the people at TED that you really wanted to go have conversations with, that would be mutually beneficial, and that was really what set us apart from anything anybody had seen at the time.”

In the beginning, each customized system took roughly eight weeks to build. Today, Weil says they can build a system in an hour. Because the process of creating an individual system is virtually automated now, the business-minded team says it is able to zero in on more important things for customers.

“Our focus has shifted,” Weil said. “Our focus used to be on building the technology to suit our customers’ needs, but we would end up spending most of our time re-engineering it each time for different clients. Now, since that part is automated, we can focus on solving our clients’ business problems. It’s a far more consultative approach.”

The approach has worked. Today, the nearly 8-year-old company has deployed close to 300 social networks for businesses all over the world, and it received a patent on its unique software. IntroNetworks counts as a part of its expanding client base such high-profile organizations as Harvard, The Wharton School, Fortune, Intel, HP, Dow Jones, Ziff Davis, NASA, Cisco, Xerox, and many others.

The continued success of the company is even more impressive considering that it had never done any marketing — the almost decade-long buzz has been strictly word-of-mouth. In addition, the only institutional money introNetworks has ever accepted was from Adobe, one of its loyal customers. The rest has been either friends and family rounds, or customer money, of which Sylvester says there has been plenty to keep them at the top of the industry.

“We want to be in control of our own financial destiny,” he said.

In addition to its patented matching technology, which is far more profile-driven than most other social networks, customizing the aesthetics of a network for each individual business is very important to both Sylvester and Weil. As opposed to its more meretricious competition, infoNetworks takes great pride and care in creating a unique look that suits the feel of a particular online community. This can perhaps be attributed in large part to Sylvester’s many years spent as a professional chef, prior to becoming a techie.

“Our business is a matching engine at the bottom, but the whole experience is all visual,” Sylvester said. “Just as people eat with their eyes, and have a visual experience and interaction with food and with the world, everything we do, everything we’re thinking about is, ‘How do we take massive amounts of information, and make it visually pleasing?’”

For both co-founders, introNetworks comes on the heels of extremely successful individual careers. As a co-founder of Wavefront Technologies, Sylvester and his team developed software that revolutionized the way the world is entertained. He co-designed Wavefront’s flagship product, Advanced Visualizer, which was the first commercial 3D modeling and animation system. In more than a decade with Wavefront, Sylvester helped the company grow to $45 million in value. The company even won an Academy Award for Technical Achievement during his tenure.

Weil received her MBA from Pepperdine, and has spent the past seven years focusing on the social networking industry. In addition to running introNetworks, she is a nationally recognized speaker, presenting at national and international conferences and leading universities. She has also authored two books about the complex technology behind Adobe Flash.

A lifelong athlete, Weil was named an NCAA Woman of the Year as a softball star at the University of Hawaii, and holds a third-degree blackbelt in hapkido, a dynamic and eclectic Korean martial art. When Weil partnered up with Sylvester, she convinced him to begin training in hapkido, and despite his initial reservations, the discipline has become an integral part of both his personal and professional life. He is now a second-degree blackbelt, and says that he calls Weil “ma’am” when they’re on the mat.

“And I have no problem with that,” joked Weil, who has also studied Muay Thai, Kali, Jeet Kune Do (Bruce Lee’s discipline), and traditional live-blade Japanese sword training.

Hapkido is most commonly translated as “the way of coordinating energy” or “the way of coordinated power.” Considering the chosen field of business for the two entrepreneurs, it is little wonder that hapkido is their favorite martial art.

“The thing that has surprised me the most is the effect that hapkido has had on our business,” Sylvester said. “When you look at how the tenets of martial arts — courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit — bleed into how we deal with each other, how we deal with employees, how we deal with our clients, it is really a huge part of how we try to live, both as people and as entrepreneurs.”

Noozhawk contributor Kevin McFadden can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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