Startup Stars, Eager for an Encore


By Arik Hesseldahl Author F. Scott Fitzgerald once said there are no second acts in American lives. Try telling that to Jeff Black. At this year's DEMOfall conference -- which gets under way on Sept. 19 in Huntington Beach, Calif. -- he's launching TalkPlus, a maker of software that brings some of the features of Internet calling to wireless and land-line phones.

This is at least the third act for Black, who spent 14 years at Digital Equipment, the tech giant acquired by Compaq and thus absorbed into Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). While at Digital, he was part of the team that launched the AltaVista search engine. Black also started Hotels.com.

He is one of several veteran entrepreneurs resurfacing at this year's DEMOfall, a conference devoted to the debut of innovative products and services from startups -- and a sibling conference of the better-known DEMO, held every February.

THE NEXT WORLD-CHANGER? All are hoping to replicate the successes of Demo alumni, who include Salesforce.com (CRM); Half.com, now part of eBay (EBAY), and Oddpost, now part of Yahoo! (YHOO). The original PalmPilot debuted at DEMO in 1996. DEMOfall usually involves about 70 carefully selected companies, each making a six-minute pitch to an audience of heavy-hitters that includes venture capitalists, tech execs, and analysts.

And if the companies presenting are any indication, there's no shortage of new ideas for making the Web more useful in daily life. Aside from TalkPlus' software, on tap is a service that lets employees retrieve office PC files from a remote location, and an online company that pays a fee to people who help find a job for an acquaintance.

TalkPlus, of Menlo Park, Calif., brings some of the features offered by Internet calling companies like Vonage and Skype to conventional wireless and wired phones. The company has filed for a patent on downloadable software that lets wireless customers better manage incoming and outgoing calls. Want calls to your mobile or office phone to reach your home phone over the weekend and vice versa during the week? Or maybe you left your wireless phone at home and are expecting an important call? Sign into TalkPlus from a Web browser or cell phone and redirect your calls.

BIRTHING DEALS. It also allows users to send calls directly to voice mail without ringing through, according to preset conditions, and it even blocks unwanted calls. The service also lets a user control caller-ID information visible to recipients, handy for those who don't want their mobile-phone numbers falling into the wrong hands.

Black says he's looking to do partnership deals with wireless service providers. "We're in talks with several carriers," Black says. "Some want to do a white-label version of this service, so they can put their own name on it. Others say they like the TalkPlus name."

Another service launching at DEMO will help you recover from that moment when you realize you left an important file on your office PC, but have only your BlackBerry or Treo handy. EasyReach, a startup based in Campbell, Calif., has created a service that lets you search the contents of your PC from a wireless device and send that file as an attachment to any e-mail address in the world. The service, which will cost $80 per year, kicks off Oct. 1.

A MONSTER ALUM. No stranger to wireless-data companies, EasyReach CEO John Stossel started two companies, Real World Solutions and Dry Creek Software. Both were acquired by wireless e-mail provider Intellisync (SYNC).

This is also another go-round for Hans Gieskes, CEO of H3.com, an online job-referral service that pays people for referring friends or acquaintances. Gieskes is a former president of global operations at Monster Worldwide (MNST). Think of H3 as a hybrid of LinkedIn -- the social-networking service for professionals -- combined with the employee-referral bonus some companies pay to encourage new hires.

Gieskes says that about 40% of new hires come from referrals. Of those, most come not from people referring their best friends, but from casual acquaintances, usually connected through one or two other people. "Companies want to hire the best possible employee, and they encourage that through referral awards for employees," he says. "We allow them to extend that reward program to nonemployees."

Send your network of friends or professional contacts an e-mail with a link to H3, and if they send it on to someone who then gets the job, you both split the reward check.

"OUT OF THE BLUE." Gieskes embodies H3's philosophical underpinning: informal acquaintances make the best job connections. He first became involved with the company through an acquaintance he has known for 25 years, Dick Rowe, who happens to be the father of Tim Rowe, founder and CEO of the Cambridge Innovation Center in Cambridge, Mass.

"I hadn't spoken to Dick in seven or eight years, and he called me up out of the blue and asked me to take a look at the business plan as a favor to his son," Gieskes says. "The more I looked at it, the more I liked it."

Companies pay the reward themselves, plus a fee to H3 for handling the disbursement of checks and any associated tax paperwork, Gieskes says. But the rates generally jibe with what companies pay their own employees for successful referrals, about $750 to $1,500 for low- to midlevel hires, and between $2,500 and $5,000 for more senior hires.

Another seasoned executive, Charles Renert, is involved with Determina, a computer network-security startup. It's launching a product aimed at helping companies secure their systems against attacks such as the Zotob worm, which made headlines in August, 2005. Renert was one of the founders of Symantec (SYMC) antivirus research lab.

QUICKER SECURITY? Determina's aim: buy companies time when they are racing to patch security holes on their servers running Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows. On average, it takes companies 63 days to patch a system once the software to fix a vulnerability has been released. "Usually...companies have to go through a process of testing the patch to make sure it doesn't cause problems with other software they're running," Renert says. "It can be a huge problem because during that time they're running their systems in a way that leaves them vulnerable." It can also be costly to reboot a roomful of servers that are critical to a business.

The new product, dubbed LiveShield, puts a temporary patch in place on the server's memory without the need to install software to the hard drive. That gives the company extra time until technicians can complete the full patching process. Unlike other methods of protection, it's not based on signatures and definitions, which is how antivirus programs such as Norton AntiVirus work.

"They don't remove the vulnerability, but they prevent it from being used to do bad things on the computer," says Greg Shipley, CTO of Neohapsis, a Chicago-based security consultancy, who has tested the product. "It's not a silver bullet, but it does protect against certain kinds of attacks."

Hesseldahl is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online


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