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Learning From Failures: IMVU Founder Will Harvey (Part 1)

Posted on Sunday, Aug 1st 2010

Will Harvey is a serial entrepreneur who began writing software at a very early age. He wrote Music Construction Set, which was the first music sheet editor for personal computers, when he was fifteen. In 1995, he founded Sandcastle. In 1998, he founded There, Inc., which was a virtual 3-D social world. He founded his second virtual world, IMVU, in 2003. He has also been associated with a series of video games, many of which have been published by Electronic Arts. He earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in computer science from Stanford University.

SM: Will, where are you from and what is the beginning of your personal story?

WH: I am a California native. The sequence of events that led to IMVU began when I was a high school student and wrote one of the first products for Electronic Arts. It was the first music sheet editor for personal computers. That ended up becoming a popular selling item, similar to the first word processor for computers.

SM: How did you sell it?

WH: Electronic Arts at the time, in the early 1980s, was a publisher that published third-party games. Much like an author would publish through a book publishing company, authors of video games could reach out to Electronic Arts. Most of their authors were adults, but I did not know any better and it seemed that I was able to write a program as good as those other people were selling. I managed to get them to pay attention to me even though I was a kid.

I decided to write Music Construction Set because I had just written a video game and I wanted to put music into the video game. The problem was that I did not know how to read music because I am not a musician. I wrote this music editor so that I could go to a music store, buy some piano sheet music, and reproduce visually on the screen what the sheet music looked like, and the program could then convert that into a sequence of musical tones. I wrote the program for my own interest, and it turned out to be a program that a lot of other people were interested in. It’s funny how things work out.

When I wrote the video game I was just fifteen. I did not know any better, so I wrote this video game that I thought was as good as any other game being sold at the time. I wanted to find a publisher but I was only fifteen, so I did not know anything about publishers. I went to a local computer shop, looked at the back of the boxes on the games in the computer shop, and found the one that had the best package artwork. That is how I picked my publisher. The company was Serious Software in Sacramento.

I called them up and introduced myself. I asked to talk to the president and since I did not know any better, they said OK. I explained what I had done and offered my code, and he told me I could bring it over and demonstrate it. The next weekend I took the Greyhound bus to Sacramento and brought them my game. That was the first step. They were not as excited about the game as I thought they should have been, so I took the game to some other publishers. Electronic Arts was one of them.

As I was talking to Electronic Arts, they found out about the music program and became very interested in it. The music program was a new genre of “creativity” software. The video game did not end up being a giant success, but the music program did.

This segment is part 1 in the series : Learning From Failures: IMVU Founder Will Harvey
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