One man's voyage to the future

Jim Clark is the only person in the world to have founded three billion-dollar corporations. He's already outflanked the entire computer industry - and now he has Bill Gates in his sights
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The Independent Online

Last week, Stanford University in California received a very nice present indeed. It was cash, an extraordinarily large amount of it. A former professor in the computer department had given his old campus $150m - the largest donation made to the university, with the exception of its founding grant that came from Leland Stanford in 1891. It will pay for a biomedical research building.

Last week, Stanford University in California received a very nice present indeed. It was cash, an extraordinarily large amount of it. A former professor in the computer department had given his old campus $150m - the largest donation made to the university, with the exception of its founding grant that came from Leland Stanford in 1891. It will pay for a biomedical research building.

The one-time professor was Jim Clark. His motives for signing so generous a cheque can easily be guessed. Not a man noted for looking back - indeed, his whole being is dedicated to looking into the future - even he may have some nostalgia for Stanford. Within its walls he and his students engineered a chip that was to launch him on the career that made one of America's richest businessmen. And, surely, he gave the money because everyone likes a philanthropist. Giving is admirable. Or Mr Clark may have simply felt in need of public recognition.

Alongside Bill Gates or Larry Ellison of Oracle, he is almost invisible. He is a not a magazine cover boy. But Mr Clark, who is 55, has come an awfully long way since leaving the poverty of his childhood home in Texas, where he flunked in high school and was remembered primarily for his rebellious pranks, like smuggling a skunk in a box into class. For one thing, James H. Clark has that fortune, worth $3bn by the last reckoning. All right, he still trails Mr Gates. But in some ways, he makes Mr Gates seem like a stick-in-the-mud.

Mr Clark is the only man in American history to have founded three billion-dollar corporations, all in Silicon Valley. They are Silicon Graphics, now SGI, Netscape, recently bought by America Online, and Healthion. He also happens to have built a remarkable sailing schooner called Hyperion, stuffed with enough computer power to allow Mr Clark to sail it across San Francisco Bay from a keyboard in his office. That's the theory . Hyperion is no dinghy. It measures 155ft and has the world's tallest sailing mast. Mr Clark, in other words, is a thoroughly under-examined individual. Fortunately, we now have a chance to know him better, thanks to the American journalist Michael Lewis.

Mr Lewis began his adult life as a trader on Wall Street and became so engrossed in the weirdness of its culture, he turned around and skewered all who lived in it in his best-seller, Liar's Poker. Now, he has just finished another, not entirely dissimilar marathon of reporting. It is called The New New Thing and has been published in the US, to mostly glowing reviews.

His chosen locale is Silicon Valley. If Wall Street was the place in the early Eighties where the money was being made, the Valley has been the place in this decade. In fact, those young bucks of the Street of almost two decades ago were making chump change alongside the mega-fortunes minted every day in the gentle hills south of San Francisco.

The challenge for Mr Lewis when he approached the project was how to capture what the Valley is and how it has changed the way all of us live. Many before him have tried only to find that the lucky folk who make all that money can often be fearfully boring. Geeks are not usually fodder for drama. He wanted also to illustrate what he describes in the early pages of the book as the transition that has occurred from Part One to Part Two of the Silicon Valley Story. Part One had been "about engineers building machines, cheaper, faster, and better. They built them so fast and so cheap that, commercially speaking, they made themselves uninteresting". Part Two opened in the early Nineties when the "engineers had figured out they didn't need to build new computers to get rich; they just had to cook up new things for the computers to do. The thrill was in the concepts, the concepts were the recipes".

Mr Lewis's salvation came with the discovery of a man who was neither boring nor, by any stretch of the imagination, could be described as peripheral to the Valley narrative. This was Jim Clark. To Mr Lewis, Clark appeared to embody all that he wanted to say about Parts One and Two and the seismic ripples the Valley continues to radiate around the world economy.

He puts it like this: Jim Clark is to Silicon Valley what Silicon Valley is to the rest of America. The Valley has more than once jolted the American economy with so much electricity that it was never to look the same again. The chip did it, so did the PC, then the Internet. At different times, Jim Clark has similarly jolted the Valley. Most importantly, in Mr Clark he saw the energy and the yearning so characteristic of the place: the obsessive quest always for the next discovery, for what lies just beyond the horizon that only the latest technology can reveal, the new new thing that will trigger the next economic and social earthquake (and unleash yet one more tsunami of cash for all involved in harnessing it.)

"His psyche was a magic show," Mr Lewis writes of Mr Clark, "and this was its favourite trick: no matter how long he'd been around, he could behave as if he'd just arrived".

Ironically, it was tragedy - a bullet in a man's brain - that brought Mr Lewis to Mr Clark. He had heard that Glenn Mueller, one of the Valley's most successful venture capitalists and the first serious investor in Silicon Graphics back in 1981, had shot himself in 1994 because Mr Clark had refused to accept him as an investor in his new baby then, Netscape. Apparently, Mr Mueller had pleaded on the telephone with Mr Clark one more time to change his mind, to no avail.

Mr Clark told a shocked Mr Lewis the story was true. From that moment Mr Clark found himself the prism through which Mr Lewis would view his true subject, the Valley. "When I met Clark, all of a sudden it was like the discovery of electricity in my brain," says Mr Lewis. "I realised he might be all I needed as a character through which to tell the story."

Mr Clark, unsurprisingly, is unsure about the portrait that emerges from the book's pages. If Mr Lewis has him right, he is not a man many of us would choose to take along on a camping holiday. He feels irritation more intensely than most humans. Is he eccentric or, in fact, nuts? (How many corporate titans do you know who like to spend their free time building and flying toy helicopters?)

His sense of mischief sometimes seems like pure peevishness. There was, for instance, the deep dislike harboured by Mr Clark for Ed McCracken, brought in from Hewlett-Packard to run Silicon Graphics. One day, Mr Clark removed the name plaque from Mr McCracken's office and replaced it with another that read Ed McMuffin. It made Mr Clark feel better.

Ultimately, it is impossible to resist the conclusion that what really drives Mr Clark is greed - for more billions. "It's very difficult to see myself in print," he said after looking at the book. "It's not a flattering portrayal, but I suppose it's balanced and reasonably fair. I think Michael is an incredibly funny, talented person. He is so bloody observant that you can't spend time with him and hide who you are."

The wealth began in the lab at Stanford, nursery for Mr Clark's firstborn, Silicon Graphics. With his students he developed a chip he called the Geometry Engine. This was technology ahead of its time - the chip allowed someone at a computer keyboard to create three-dimensional objects on the screen. As someone later wrote, it was akin to reinventing the radio to emit not just sounds but aromas.

With his students, he tried to sell this amazing technology under license to companies including IBM and Xerox. Nobody was interested, so he created Silicon Graphics. It was dedicated to producing work stations fitted with the "Geometry Engine". The phenomenal success that was soon to be Silicon Graphics was fueled in part by the special effects experts from Hollywood. Mr Clark's gizmos brought us the all-dancing dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and the space ships in George Lucas's Star Wars. The quest to recreate living things on computers - virtual reality - has driven Mr Clark since. But by the early Nineties, he had been sidelined in his own company, largely by "McMuffin". And he found distraction in an ambitious project to build what he called the Telecomputer.

He envisioned a world where every US householder would have a new kind of television that would be interactive. A set-top box, equipped with his chips, would give the viewer the ability, for instance, to communicate with broadcasters and order up what he wanted to see and any particular time.

Mr Clark found some funding from Time-Warner, but the millions spent on the Telecomputer were wasted. The consumer was never interested and in December 1994, Mr Clark gave up on Silicon Graphics and walked out.

Then came the really crucial moments. At about the same time, he made contact with a 22-year-old graduate from the University of Illinois named Marc Andreesen. With other students, Mr Andreesen had written a piece of software called Mosaic that could roam around something called the Internet. "All of a sudden it was clear to me when I looked at the Internet I was looking at the personal computer in 1985," says Mr Clark. "It was this slow, clunky technology but people were using it. And it would get faster. I realised this was the thing I had been groping for."

He also knew a certain Bill Gates, up in Washington State, had yet to experience the same epiphany. This was his opportunity to get a jump on Microsoft. He took it by forming what he at first called Mosaic Communications then renamed Netscape. The browser wars were beginning.

As Mr Lewis relates it, with Netscape, Mr Clark leaped headlong into the brave new Internet world and left the industry running down the wrong tunnel, towards his doomed Telecomputer. "Within six months, he had made them all look like fools," Mr Lewis writes. "It was one of the great unintentional head fakes in the history of technology."

Eighteen months after starting Netscape - helped by $3m of his own money - Mr Clark did something that had profound historical importance. He demanded Netscape be turned over to the public in an initial public offering or IPO. Mr Lewis says that spawned our current obsession with Internet IPOs and overturned all the old rules of capitalism and market flotations.

Netscape had not made a bean of profit. But Mr Clark became the first to see that in this new world, it was not past performance of a company that would attract investors but the promise of what was to come.

In this entirely new paradigm "the perception of success led to success", says Mr Lewis. "You had to show you were the company not of the present but of the future. The most appealing companies became those in a state of pure possibility". Look no further than

By the end of 1995, Mr Clark was moving on again, leaving Netscape to his anointed CEO, Jim Barksdale. And something else important happened to him then - he was diagnosed with a rare blood disease that took him back to hospital every few weeks or so for treatment.

Mr Clark was shocked by the extent of the bureaucracy that ruled hospitals. With every visit there were more forms to be filled out. From that experience was born his next corporation, Healthion. Healthion provides the software enabling everybody in the health industry - doctors, hospital administrators, insurers and patients - to streamline all the information they need using the Internet, cutting costs massively. It was a need to finance Healthion that drove Mr Clark to insist on the rapid flotation of Netscape.

British readers will be intrigued, if not infuriated, by Mr Lewis's description of the first attempts made last autumn to sell Healthion to investors. The effort flopped, although Healthion floated with phenomenal success at the second try this spring. The first attempt, began with an IPO roadshow (when the company tries to sell the deal to institutions) that started off in Europe. That allowed the team to warm up before returning to America, which really mattered.

"Europe was a place to open not because it had a lot of money managers dying to invest in new technology companies but because it didn't," says Mr Lewis. "Europeans were famously clueless about new things, not mention new new things. You could flop in Europe and Europeans would never know."

Healthion is still finding its way, but once again, the money from its IPO in his bank, Mr Clark is moving on. His project is called and has to do with helping the extremely rich manage their wealth using the Internet - to become richer. Which is what Mr Clark has been doing through this parade of IPOs.

Mr Lewis says he once reminded Mr Clark of his promise to retire once he had reached one billion. Mr Clark said he had changed his mind.

"I want to make more money than Larry Ellison. Then I'll stop," he said. What about overtaking Bill Gates? "Oh, no," says Mr Clark. Then he paused. "You know just for one moment, I would kind of like to have the most. Just for one tiny moment." No doubt.