For Tech's Sake: Optimism, frustration and survival

Gary Arlen

Optimism and frustration represent an unusual ying-yang, especially for technology entrepreneurs who are living through - "surviving" may be a better description - this era of unprecedented change.

In fact, surviving to find new opportunities represented the dominant theme at the shut-down "celebration" of the Morino Institute's Netpreneur program in Reston, Va., early this month. Many of the pep-talk speeches from Washington-area Internet entrepreneurs focused on the need to keep hope alive in the rapidly shifting IT and telecom environments.

Entrepreneurial stars such as Phillip Merrick of WebMethods, Raul Fernandez of Proxicom and Mario Morino, who had largely funded the six-year Netpreneur juggernaut, encouraged the 1,300 attendees to continue seeking their dreams in this transition environment. The market bottom is the best time to explore and launch new ventures, they said.

The tech evangelists pointed to the stability of the government market - accessible even by the dreamiest of start-ups. After the breakneck speed of the bubble years, the slower pace of government procurement seems glacial. But it's another factor of dealing with a more mature environment, especially amidst today's seismic, multi-level overhaul.

Bantu Inc., a Washington, D.C., developer of enterprise instant-messaging software, benefited from the government market after seeing its initial corporate and educational markets disappear within 18 months of the company's creation in 1999.

Bantu President and Founder Larry Schlang says the situation "forced us to focus on critical factors."

To his good fortune, a contractor for the Department of the Army was looking for providers of secure enterprise IMs, which were deemed vital to the Army's vast knowledge management portal, called "Army Knowledge Online" (AKO).

AKO is designed to give 1.4 million Army personnel access to information and connect with each other in real time.

Schlang boasts that Bantu scored 975 on a 1,000-point capability checklist that the Army contractor used, about 50 percent higher than its nearest competitor.

The Army contract in late 2001 paved the way for similar knowledge portal ventures with the Navy and eventually with the Air Force Portal (AFP) in 2002. Bantu has also landed a Federal Emergency Management Agency contract and other government projects that Schlang says he cannot yet reveal.

Another Washington-area start-up has not been so fortunate. Agari Mediaware successfully landed several sizable contracts with subsidiaries of the AOL Time Warner empire, and envisioned that its software could find many uses in the expanding homeland security sector.

Agari's software platform enables collaboration among entities in the content value chain, integrating applications, metadata conversion requirements, scalability, security and other factors.

But the company, which once had nearly 60 employees, lacked resources to reach into the government market-frustratingly so. Its nine remaining staffers are trying to sell off the company this month, but they still maintain their optimism with the belief that their core assets - and they personally - will find new homes.

The challenge to IT entrepreneurs - both veterans and newcomers - is learning to live with the variety of changes that are rearranging the operating landscape.

Change is rarely comfortable, especially for entrenched purveyors who know how to work under the "old rules."

IT providers have learned to be flexible, given the rapid changes in the industry's technology. But today's tsunami of business and structural revisions is unsettling to even the most flexible of suppliers.

As the Netpreneur farewell event and daily experiences are showing, the most optimistic expectations are tempered with fearful threats to the status quo.

There's no question that great ideas can be stymied or killed by bureaucratic managers who want to maintain the traditional way of operating.

Hence the angst, agony and discomfort of life in these unsettled times. IT, like other business born from entrepreneurial zeal, has always been an optimistic, opportunistic world. Frustration has been part of the package.

The challenge now comes in handling those contradictory factors during a time when the world - specifically the IT business - is being thoroughly overhauled.

Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications Inc., a Bethesda, Md., research firm. His e-mail address is GaryArlen@columnist.com.

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