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Business Incubator Series: John Richards, BoomStartup, Provo, Utah (Part 1)

Posted on Tuesday, Jun 21st 2011

By guest authors Irina Patterson and Candice Arnold

I am talking to John Richards, co-founder and co-managing partner at BoomStartup, which is a mentorship-driven accelerator in Provo, Utah.

Irina: Hi, John. Where are you originally from?

John: I grew up in the Seattle area. Actually, I was born in Pennsylvania, and then my parents moved back to Seattle. I grew up in Seattle and had a long career in Seattle until I moved to Utah for the teaching position.

Irina: Where did you go to school?

John: I went to Brigham Young University (BYU). I graduated in chemistry, of all things.

Irina: How did that transition happen, from chemistry to business?

John: I was pre-med but then discovered in my senior year that I didn’t want to be a doctor. So, I finished my chemistry degree and took a lot of business courses and rediscovered my love for business. I decided to go join a small company in Seattle after I graduated.

The company was in the Yellow Pages industry. The company needed some computerization of its processes – this was the early to mid ’80s. The PC revolution was just taking hold. So, I helped bring personal computers into the company.

The company had three locations, so I oversaw the construction of a new building to unify the company in one building. It was a small company. I gradually rose through the ranks and, eventually, over a lot of years, became president of the company and the largest shareholder. That’s how I got to be a real leader in the Yellow Pages industry, especially for new technology, in a lot of the trade associations.

I discovered the Internet in 1994 and launched the first Internet Yellow Pages that was derived from a print directory. I was a print publisher who put Yellow Pages directories on the Internet. It was very early, in late 1994 and 1995, to do that. For a couple of years, most people in the Yellow Pages print industry thought I was nuts, but a lot other people who understood what was coming thought it was pretty interesting.

As a matter of fact, I showed off the first version at a Bill Gates trade show at the Westin hotel in Seattle. I got a lot of attention, written up in some magazines. So, I turned it into a bona fide business. I went out and tried to consolidate the entire [Yellow Pages] print industry under one portal website, especially the independent publishers that were non-Bell companies.

That went pretty well, and Microsoft, which was in my backyard, spent a lot of time talking to me. I educated them on some things. We were talking, and then three people left Microsoft to start a new company called InfoSpace.

I joined up with them. They took my Internet Yellow Pages company, put into InfoSpace, and I became one of the first 10 people at InfoSpace. The rest is history. We went public in 1998 and the whole works. That was my career during the dot-com era.

I left there in 2001 and took about nine months off. My wife had a big, long list, since we had the freedom to do what we wanted to do.

Then BYU called and said, “If you’re not going to do anything, why don’t you come teach.” I said, “I don’t have a PhD.” And they said, “That’s OK. We have professional faculty. We think you’d be a good teacher.” It worked out, and I moved down to Utah with my family and became a professor of entrepreneurship. I’ve been doing that for nine years now.

Irina: How did all this fold into BoomStartup?

John: I noticed Y Combinator in 2003 when it was starting. I was impressed by that. Then in 2007, when David Cohen and Brad Feld started TechStars, I was really impressed by that.

I was in Provo, Utah. Boulder, Colorado, is a college town; Provo, Utah, is a college town.

I thought, Wow, we need one like that. I’d been disappointed in incubators in the past, but I knew that Y Combinator and TechStars were figuring something out that was pretty special.

I just said, “We’re going to do one of those in Utah. We can do that.”

I called Paul Graham at Y Combinator. He told me, “Why would you want to do one there. Any good company should come out to Silicon Valley, to Y Combinator anyway.” He didn’t help me too much.

Y Combinator’s very impressive. I tip my hat off to everything there. But when I called up David Cohen, he was very informative and helped me understand things. So, we emulated TechStars when we started.

This segment is part 1 in the series : Business Incubator Series: John Richards, BoomStartup, Provo, Utah
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