Sramana Mitra: How many years did you stay at Sun and what happens next?
Jeff Wilkins: I spent three and a half years at Sun. I got a call from a colleague who had been working on creating a new medical instrument. It was pretty much serendipitous. He essentially said, “I’ve got this idea for a product. I need help on the business side. Can you come?” I went down and ran this company, EyeSys Technologies, for two years.
It was an ophthalmic instrument business with a couple of million a year in revenue. A lot smaller opportunity compared to Sun where Sun was already a well-established company. This is a little bit more ‘entrepreneurship in the raw’ type of experience.
Sramana Mitra: What was the outcome of this one?
Jeff Wilkins: Premier Laser Systems acquired it. What this company did is, it made a workstation-based corneal mapping system. I don’t know if you wear contacts or glasses.
Sramana Mitra: I do. I have acute myopia.
Jeff Wilkins: Me too. I was a minus nine. When you go under refractive surgery. LASIK is probably the flavor-of-the-month. They essentially alter the shape of the cornea. The cornea, more specifically the tear film that rises on the cornea, is what bends the light. 75% to 85% of the focusing power of your eye is just the change in the refractive index.
The lens is more for fine adjustments. We made a device that essentially provided a map that would help a surgeon plan how they would change the shape of the cornea.
Sramana Mitra: What did you do after this one exited?
Jeff Wilkins: I had actually gotten married during this time. My wife stayed in California. I couldn’t get her to go to Houston. The first year of marriage is the toughest. Pretty much, I just skipped it.
I was working remotely and eventually decided to go back to California thinking that was going to be a better place career-wise and for our own mental health. Going back a few times a month on weekends wasn’t really a great way to get married. I ended up going to the Bay Area.
During that time, I was working on a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering part-time. I had to matriculate to finish writing my thesis. I went back to school and was on the Stanford campus in 1994. I had to be there for a certain number of months.
At that time, I was looking for a way to pay my bills. Being a research assistant is not one of the more lucrative jobs out there. I came across a guy that was running an e-commerce consortium called ComerceNet. If you’re not familiar with CommerceNet, back in the early 90s, it was set up in a way to help Global 2000 organizations think about how to leverage the internet in their operations.
What was really fascinating about that was in 1994, you only needed to read one chapter ahead of everyone else to be the expert. I got deputized to run the sales and marketing group at CommerceNet. It was the blind leading the blind and trying to help these companies think about using it as a marketing medium.
I ran into some members from Cisco and Dell who were having problems like, “We’re starting to collect email addresses from our customers. We don’t know what to do with them. Can you help us?” It was more of a knowledge sharing thing.
I went out and started a company called Sift in 1995 that was designed to help our clients manage email databases and became one of the first ESPs and ran that for four years. We were acquired in March 1999 by 24/7 Media, which may not be a name you would recognize today.
Sramana Mitra: I remember 24/7 Media. What was the name of the email marketing company?
Jeff Wilkins: Sift.