Tonight in a private room at Clyde's in Vienna, 50 chief executives, chairmen and presidents of local technology companies will gather for their first MindShare class. Over the next year, they'll share war stories and hear speeches -- this evening's theme is leadership -- before they "graduate."
MindShare, now in its ninth year, always provides a look into the types of companies being started in the Washington area. And now that it has more than 300 graduates, MindShare also has generated its own network of technology executives.
MindShare was founded in 1997 through conversations between technology lawyer Harry Glazer, who's now with Sherwood Partners Inc., and Anne Crossman, president of a technical services company called Completed Systems Inc. in Vienna. Now, 13 members representing different companies choose the new entrants and run each class.
Duffy Mazan, now chairman of software and networking company SolutionWorx in Chantilly, graduated in 1997 when he was chief executive of Electric Press. Mazan calls MindShare's informal alumni association an "accidental network." He doesn't go out of his way to seek out other past participants but says, "A week doesn't go by that I don't run into a MindShare alum in some business or social setting."
As with other clubs and groups, the alumni help each other and do business together. The most successful part of MindShare may be the 300-plus-person listserv, an online community where e-mails fly back and forth every day about executive searches, advice about compensation and other issues. When someone gathers enough responses, he'll post a summary of what he learned.
MindShare's in-person networking works too. Jonathan Rosen, class of '01, was running search engine start-up BigSofte when he met top AOL executive Ted Leonsis at a MindShare event where Leonsis was speaking. Now, Rosen is in charge of strategy for AOL's search engine division, and he credits that meeting for his job. Jeff Payne, chief executive of Dulles software security firm Cigital Inc., met MindShare board member John May through the program. One of May's angel investing clubs, the Washington Dinner Club, invested in Cigital. Payne says 10 hires at Cigital have come through MindShare connections.
The classmates also tend to do business together. Payne buys software from fellow '99 class alum Frances Craig, president of Unanet Technologies Inc. in Sterling. Edwin Miller, chief executive of information technology company Infodata Systems Inc., is also a Unanet customer after meeting Craig at a MindShare reunion.
A big reason MindShare works is that no one company or organization owns it. It's not incorporated, doesn't have a Web site and is funded mostly by yearly fees of $350 paid by the students or their companies. The organizing board members, who include bankers, lawyers, accountants and others in the technology arena, also put money into the pot and serve as a panel of experts and hand-holders. They benefit by getting a first look at new companies that could become clients. "It's market research among like-minded people," says board member Gene Riechers, a venture capitalist with Vienna-based Valhalla Partners.
For the class of 2005, says Riechers, the average age of the chief executives and their years of experience have gone up. That changes the focus of the meetings. "They're not going to want to hear CEO 101, but CEO 401," Riechers says. For example, one of this year's students is William Raduchel, chief executive of digital entertainment firm Ruckus Network Inc. in Herndon and a newly appointed director of online education company Blackboard in the District. Raduchel was once AOL's chief technology officer. Another is Tony Fascenda, now chairman and chief executive of Bethesda-based wireless security firm KoolSpan. Fascenda took his first company, Dataspeed, a wireless timing system for auto racing, public in 1982 and sold it to Lotus in 1985. He has since been on the founding team of several other companies, one of which was sold to Motorola Inc.
Early graduates of MindShare include webMethods Inc. founder Phillip Merrick, OTG Software founder Rick Kay and Jim Condon, then chief executive of CyberCash. A look through the alumni directory shows that while most graduates are still involved in the technology industry, many have moved on to a different companies. Scores of the start-ups crashed, some were sold and some flourished.
The social conductor of these connections is Kathy Penny, MindShare's "alumni director." Like all others on the board, Penny has a day job too. She is a business manager at Voice over Internet Protocol company SunRocket in Vienna. Like most of the graduates, Penny has deep roots in the local tech community. She worked previously for a venture capital firm, for a start-up that crashed and in the technology practice of a law firm. Penny put together the listserv and in 2003 began to send out a quarterly newsletter, the MindShare Missive, to keep everyone up to date. "I never thought it would go this far," says Penny, because the group has been so informal.
MindShare's classes have always had the feel of what many term an "Entrepreneur Anonymous" meeting, as each member stands up to tell a bit about his company and its successes or woes. Brian Williams, founding partner of Web consultant Viget Labs in Falls Church and a graduate of last year's class, says it is "a great resource of people facing similar challenges to what I face who can offer direct, frank, practical advice."
Through good times and especially through bad times, members got to know each other well. Tom Kohn, now chief executive of Bethesda online bill-paying company Transactis Inc., says going through MindShare in the class of '00 when he was running auction site Bid4Assets.com was like experiencing the Great Depression in the '30s. "If you went through that you would always remember the bad times," he says, "and who you went through it with."
Shannon Henry writes about Washington's technology culture every other Thursday. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.