Network: Care in the wired community

At university, Bo Peabody wanted to bring people together. Now he's connected - and it's made him millions. By Steve Homer
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The Independent Culture
There is a certain symmetry to the life of Bo Peabody. A charming, affable guy, he is another of the Internet's guru children. A mere 28, he is eight years into the development of his multimillion dollar business. Peabody's fortune is based on creating communities - and a need for community, for home, lies at the heart of his family history. Today he should not feel alone. The community he founded, Tripod, has more than 3.5 million members.

Bo's real name is William. A somewhat weary smile passes over his face when asked to explain the reason for the nickname. "It's a very, very long story. There is war and death, but it is complicated," he says with a resignation that suggests not a lack of openness but futility. He has tried to tell the story often in the past and seen too many eyes glaze over. But, with encouragement, the story emerges.

Peabody's grandfather, William, was killed in the Second World War. His father, William Jnr, was adopted by Wilbur Peabody of a well-to-do Massachusetts family. Wilbur's nickname was Bo. So it was decided that he would be christened William but called Bo. It might have confused teachers at school, but his father managed to honour the father he had never known and the adopted father whom he loved.

You cannot help but feel, a generation on, that a little good has come out of a family tragedy. The desire to bring people together, to create a sense of community, burns brightly in Bo Peabody. And it has made him rich.

He started Tripod when he was still at university. "In 1991, all my peers were using computers much more than they were watching TV," he says. He was using computers himself to send e-mails and write course work. He felt that he had a good idea where things were heading. "I thought that the PC would soon become the centre of entertainment and communications for a lot of people, so I looked at what was needed to help make things happen."

In 1991, there was no Internet as we know and love it today, so Peabody spent much of his time developing proprietary solutions. He set out to create a youthful community. "It was to be AOL for the young," he recalls. It would carry information on jobs, health, entertainment and much more. But as he was developing his proprietary solution, the Internet was beginning to explode on to the scene. The business model had to change. When the proprietary route that he had invested so much time in looked untenable, he abandoned it.

By the time that the Tripod site launched in 1994, Peabody had managed to raise $2m of venture capital funding even though he was still only 23. The idea behind the site was that it should be a community, serving many different needs. At the heart of Tripod was supposed to be the content created by the company, but it quickly became clear that what was really important was the free web space and free e-mail.

"We thought that we would create about 75 per cent of the content and that our members would contribute about 25 per cent, but we got it completely the wrong way round. Very, very quickly it was them contributing 75 per cent and us trying to keep up."

Tripod members use the free web space to create sites that match their interests. By harnessing people's natural enthusiasm, a huge resource has been created. But what Tripod really does is impose a little order on the chaos, helping to bring people of similar interests together. Someone who has scoured the Internet for pictures of Robin Williams, for example, will be helped to link up with people who have fan sites for Robin Williams and other film-star photo pages. As the sections develop and become unwieldy, they are grouped in "pods". In the United States, there are some 200, in the UK so far just eight. This does not mean that the British site has not been a success. In five months, Tripod.co.uk has attracted 130,000 members and its rate of growth is outstripping that of the US site.

Peabody is not surprised. The US is quickly reaching Internet saturation. He believes that within a year or two the numbers signing up in Europe will outstrip the numbers signing up in the US. The problem to be faced will be keeping the local communities local.

"You know, there may only be eight pods in the UK so far," he laughs. "But the most popular one is on clubbing. We don't have a clubbing pod in the US; there is no demand for it. It is incredible how different communities can be."

Peabody has trenchant views about some things that he views as holding back further development of the Internet in Britain and Europe. In the US, people can stay online for hours because calls to access the Internet are free. "Phone charges need to change, but there are massive changes afoot in the telecoms sector," he says. "I don't know about the specifics, but merger and acquisition activity always suggests that some kind of change is coming. The European telco [merger and acquisition] activity is building up to a critical mass, so a business model change seems to be coming up.

"I think one of the things that just has to change is the cost of calls for Internet connections. They are just crazy," he says.

In general, he also worries for Europe's entrepreneurial future. "You do not have access to ready funding over here nearly as easily as funding is available in the United States. There is no Nasdaq or equivalent over here and the liquidity generated by Nasdaq has been crucial for Tripod and many other Internet companies."

In fact, nurturing entrepreneurial flair is taking up a considerable proportion of Peabody's time. He is particularly interested in helping other young entrepreneurs and sits on many company boards but says he does not want to be the CEO of any more enterprises.

However, developing more communities has certainly not been forgotten. With Lycos, which bought Tripod in 1998 for $58m, he has been setting up operations all around the world. He is currently helping to set up Tripod in Korea, Japan and Latin America. The company's eyes are also focusing on Asia's biggest prize - China.

Further down the line his attention is taken in what many would consider an unusual direction. "The next big opportunity is the education market in the US. There is a big push to privatise education, to have a market in education, and it is a market that will make the Internet look paltry."

While the money is the important, again there is an echo from his family past. You feel his grandfather, a life cut short, pushing this young man forward. Pushing him into areas that don't just make him rich but also into areas that bring people closer together.

"Our schools are terrible and we will need highly skilled people to keep our society functioning properly," he says.

But don't think that Bo Peabody is all heart. He hasn't forgotten the bottom line. Ask him how much he is worth and he just laughs.

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