Network: The Digerati - `Talk about human potential'
Chan Suh founded the Internet consultancy Agency.com in 1995. Last year it made more than pounds 80m
Monday 27 September 1999
Taking stock nearly 20 years later, he recollects his early fascination with the nature of things; an urge to take apart clocks to see how they worked, to assemble mechanisms and to achieve a sense of freedom through his own creativity.
He thought that liberation would come through writing fiction, but the dream never delivered. Instead, his liberal arts degree led him into the Time corporation, where he worked in publishing for 10 years. In 1994 he became the marketing director for Vibe, a Time Warner magazine aimed at hip-hop loving urban youth.
For Suh, who was born in Seoul and lived in France before coming to the US in 1976, computers were always a curiosity. "It was like learning a new language, French or English; I tinkered with them."
He became addicted to the bulletin boards which preceded today's Web. "Someone posted something about Echo, a community which wasn't based on technical things. What people knew as the Web didn't exist then - it was just text."
Echo was where Suh met his Agency.com business partner, Kyle Shannon, an "anarchist actor" who needed help to build a website. Suh had taught himself HTML in the summer of 1994, using his knowledge to increase Vibe's readership with an unauthorised website.
"Mosaic came out and that really was an eye-opener for me," he recalls. "I saw it as a communication medium in a fuller sense. As they say, a picture speaks a thousand words. I'm fairly average in terms of what I like, and I reasoned that there would be a lot of other people who liked this."
He anticipated that the Internet would spawn a host of tribes of its own, transcending class, race and money. "I saw that it would be a transforming technology, rather than an add-on technology. It wouldn't be like black- and-white television giving way to colour television. It was going to be a fundamental transformation of everything - culture, economy,everything."
Few others saw it that way. "I tried to make a place where I could work like that within Time Inc," says Suh, "but they didn't agree." In fact, he and Shannon were later asked to help plan Time Warner's online strategy, named Pathfinder. But they were already way ahead of the game, and soon left to pursue their own inclinations.
They originally wanted to provide content for the Web - a literary site - "but within 10 minutes we realised we wouldn't make a living out of that". Once they had relinquished that passion, they glimpsed the real crock of Internet gold; expert advice for companies that wanted to make a credible virtual impact.
And so Agency.com was born. "Everyone in New York wants to start their own company," says Suh. "I hadn't really considered it seriously, but I saw the advent of the Internet and I thought, the time is now or never. We gambled on the fact that there would be lots of clients who wanted Internet-related work."
The gamble paid off. The consultancy, which made a $500,000 profit in its first year, now brings in $80m and employs 700 people worldwide.
Personal enthusiasm became the engine driving Suh's intuition that American societal mores were on the move. He believes this paradigm shift was as integral to the growth of the Internet as the technology itself. "It wasn't until American culture moved that the Internet became an important part of our lives. Now it's America's largest cultural export," he says.
"People are demonstrating certain characteristics from their interactions: a desire for ubiquity, transparency, more information, constant availability. It's like the story of the phone - people thought it would only be used for emergencies and the stock market, and were surprised when it was used for talking about nothing.
"But I think we underestimated the speed with which it would catch on. When we first went to banks to get a loan to start our company, they shook their heads and said: `We have no idea what the Internet is and we don't want to talk to you.' We thought we would be toiling in obscure darkness for a while."
Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computer, inspired Suh with his sheer perseverance. "He's had such a life. He got fired from the company he created and now he's back on the board and better than ever. And I like Einstein; I love the fact that he was a patent clerk. Talk about human potential!"
That eye for potential has shaped Suh's approach to Agency.com. "Training helps, but I think that desire is even more powerful. I have capitalised on the passion people have, and it's worked out well so far. I try and look at things from an unexpected angle, and innovation is one of the hallmarks of the company. I love the fact that we are here to change the world and we've seen bigger footsteps."
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