Charlie Crystle is passionate about music, nonprofit institutions and entrepreneurism. He has founded several companies including his current effort, CircleDog. His past ventures include ChiliSoft, which was purchased by Sun. He focuses on product usability, economics and policy, all of which are themes which can be found in each of his successful ventures.
SM: Let’s go back to your beginning. Where are you from? What kind of family did you grow up in?
CC: I am from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. My father was a doctor. Lancaster is largely a farming community but the town itself is 60,000 and the county is 450,000, so it is not too small. It is a religiously conservative part of the country. I went to public schools there, after which I went to St. Andrews.
I started my first business out of my dorm room. We could not get any junk food so I would go and buy cases of Coke and whatever and became a distributor. I was the guy selling the Twinkies for the boys’ dormitory. I did it on an honor system, and I would say it was honored about 80% of the time.
I went to college and was also a songwriter. I wrote lyric-based self-indulgent folk rock. I always wanted the record deal. I was studying English, although I think I had three or four different majors. When I was enrolled, my parents’ aspiration was to enroll me in business. I switched to music, but after six months I realized I did not have the discipline for proper musical training and I really just wanted to be in a band.
SM: Did you have natural talent?
CC: I had played the piano since I was four or five. I had played guitar since I was 12. I did most of my playing by ear and did a lot of improvisation. I am not a refined musician by any means. My mother could read music, but my father was a lot more like I am and could just pick out any tune. He could only read the melody line but would play by ear.
After college I pursued music while I worked as a proofreader for $7 an hour. There were no benefits because I was working as a temp. I was proofreading SEC filings from fax machines. It was shitty but it gave me a chance to do a couple of things. I was working on a script for a 13-part series on East Coast ship wrecks. I had some part-time work helping a local video shop, the owner of which is a guy named Smokey Roberts, a natural treasure that a lot of people don’t know about, but he was one of the original underwater cinematographers. I had this audacious idea that we pitch A&E on a documentary series.
I had no idea what I was doing. The guys in the studio and video shop where really down on it and did not like the fact that I was helping Smokey because they felt that it was their project, even though they had never actually done anything with it. They asked me who would narrate it and I told them I was thinking about Noah Adams from NPR. They didn’t think I had a chance so I got on the phone, dialed NPR in DC and asked for Noah Adams. They put me through and he answered. I pitched him on the spot and he said he was interested in doing it. As a result the guys in the shop fired me. They told Smokey I was not doing the work and let me go.
SM: How did you get that project going?
CC: I couldn’t do anything with it, and they didn’t either. They have all left since then. He is in his early 80s and has about 60,000 feet of underwater film. I just got a call from him recently, which reminded me about this story. I think I will try to help him pitch a 13-part series on it again. The point is that I have always seen opportunities where others do not.