Call it a turning point, a pivotal moment. Every company has at least one.
For PriceInteractive Inc. of Reston, the first such moment came in 1996 when it entirely switched gears, giving up the singing-telegram business to pursue the less sexy (though hopefully more profitable) alternative of voice-activated phone systems.
The second may be a deal the company plans to announce next week.
PriceInteractive and mega-mapping company MapQuest Inc.--which America Online Inc. recently said it would buy for $1.1 billion--have together developed a new system that allows customers to get driving directions from any phone. The companies say the system will be available in the spring.
Most people who are lost in their cars don't have immediate access to MapQuest's Web site. So users will be able to dial a toll-free number and the system will ask where they are and where they're going. Then it sends the information to the online version, and comes back via phone with the answer.
"You're taking the power of the Web and giving it to anyone who has a telephone," says PriceInteractive chief executive Dan Price.
The MapQuest-by-phone system also uses the speech recognition technology of Boston-based SpeechWorks International Inc.
As Web sites proliferated, PriceInteractive was plugging away at voice-activated systems. The company built a call center network that can handle up to 250,000 simultaneous calls.
For example, the company set up a phone system for United Parcel Service that screens job applicants to determine whether they should be given a personal interview. Another system, for laser-vision-correction company Visx Inc., lets people locate the closest place to get surgery.
Price, who now has 70 employees and brought in about $19 million of revenue in 1999, says the next step is voice-enabling Web sites. "The Web world lacks telephony expertise," he says.
Price imagines a Web where auction sites like eBay will have voice descriptions: "I wore this pearl necklace to my high school prom in 1962."
He also predicts that online advertising will include "speech banners."
PriceInteractive has come a long way from the company's beginning as Send A Song Corp., trying to get people to pay to have a song like "I Just Called to Say I Love You" delivered via telephone.
As MicroStrategy Inc. gets bigger and its executives grow richer, each party the Vienna company throws becomes more extravagant.
First there were the black-tie Oscar parties, which now seem, well, rather low-key and simple. Even then, we had a clue to chief executive Michael Saylor's love of a big bash: He told his assistant to find several larger-than-life gold-colored Oscar statues. Somehow she did.
There was the glitzy 10th anniversary bash at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. And then there was the annual company cruise. This year's trip for the first time required MicroStrategy to lease an entire ship to fit 1,700 employees.
For this year's Super Bowl, though, Saylor is outdoing himself.
MicroStrategy has rented out FedEx Field on Super Bowl Sunday, Jan. 30, paying "hundreds of thousands" of dollars, according to Vice President Mark Bisnow. The thousands of invitees will be shown the game on big screens and be given free food and beer.
The company is especially excited about this year's game because it paid $2.5 million for five Super Bowl advertising spots; four will air pre-game and the fifth during the event.
MicroStrategy sent out about 6,000 invitations on Redskins stationery, to politicians, media figures, high-tech and low-tech folk. Partygoers may bring their families, too. Bisnow says it's impossible to predict the exact cost or attendance, which he guesses will be about 5,000 people.
The Redskins like the idea of renting out the stadium for events, says Bisnow.
And MicroStrategy officials say they love the idea of hosting a gigantic community event, where people from different parts of Washington will mix.
The company will sponsor a raffle during the Super Bowl event to benefit the United Way, and has promised to contribute a minimum of $10,000 to the charity.
Bisnow says that with AOL becoming a New York-based company--if its acquisition of Time Warner Inc. goes through--there will be an opening for a large tech company to become Washington's favorite corporate citizen.
"We have aspirations of stepping in," says Bisnow. "We don't want to wait, like AOL, for the community to come to us."
Not everyone needs venture capital.
Raj Khera founded GovCon.com, a site where people can bid on federal contracts, in 1995 with three partners. Now he has sold the Rockville company to VerticalNet Inc. of Horsham, Pa., for an undisclosed amount. But he will say that each of the four founding owners is a new millionaire.
David Coakley, president of GovCon, will become an executive at VerticalNet.
Khera says he'll spend his time now working on his other site, the Business Resource Center (www.morebusiness.com), an information clearinghouse for small-business owners. Khera, who was born in India, already has 12 people working on the Business Resource Center site there and seven here in Rockville.
Send tips and tales of the digital capital's local people, deals and events to Shannon Henry at email@example.com.
CAPTION: Brothers and PriceInteractive founders Dan (standing) and Tim Price.