[Bebo White, SLAC tour guide and author of the first web page. Photo by Shel]
"Don't let any of these guys tell you they saw what was coming. They didn't. Maybe Tim saw it, but to be honest I don't think so," our tour guide at the legendary Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) told us. He should know. Our eloquent, passionate guide was Bebo White, who wrote the first web pages. Tim is Tim Berners-Lee, his colleague, who invented the World Wide Web.
My visit to SLAC was arranged by Marc Weber curator for the Web History Center. Located inside the Computer History Museum, Marc's charter is to archive the robust and relatively recent history of the Web. I've accepted a role as an adviser to the organization and, in return, Marc hooked me into this SLAC visit previously arranged by coincidence for some guy named Robert Scoble. Scoble and I have met before.
Bebo excorted us through this somewhat funky campus that serves as home to many of the world's most brilliant and accomplished physicists, a campus where six previous residents became Nobel Laureates; a campus where the first American node for the Worldwide Web was built.
The main attraction is the two-mile long linear accelerator, a very complex tube of tiny diameter. Simplistically speaking, sub-atomic particles are placed in two ends and are hurled at each other, virtually at the speed of light. The collision transforms the particles into energy just as Einstein said they would. Studying what happens we were told has been a significant factor in ushering in a current Golden Age in Particle Physics. It also gave the world microwave ovens.
Scoble video recorded 90 minutes of interviews with some of the most accomplished of the SLAC administation who told rich anecdotes of what has happened there over the years. I think his challenge will be in choosing what to edit out for the Scoble Show.
While everyone we met treated us to a fascinating story, Bebo overflows with them. We had run out of time before we got to visit the linear accelerator itself and will have to come back for the 90 minutes that will, which I'm sure Bebo will stretch to3 hours and make it worth our while.
[Paul F. Kunz, architect of 1st American website. Photo by Shel]
A particular highlight--and the lessons of the day--came from Paul Kunz, who told the story of how, in 1980, he built the first American web site, on a NEXT workstation one afternoon after the guy assigned to do it flaked on the job. Over at CERN, Tim Berners-Lee needed it for a demo he was planning for a fast-arriving conference presentation in Paris.
Kunz, echoed Bebo's earlier warning. He had no idea what they were unleashing in the world with this web thing. Berners Lee was demonstrating how hyertext could be used for online research collaboration. The first project was t show how researchers could all access one important database, thus sharing valuable information.
"Before that presentation, maybe 20 people knew about what Tim was working on," Kunz recollected. "Then at the conference, all 200 people were really riveted. They got it immediately. They each went home and told 10 people. So we went from 20 to 2000 people in a week all through word of mouth.
For me, this was the big takeaway. It reinforced two points that keep coming up in everything I'm doing:
(1) There is no marketing force as powerful than the natural force of word of mouth. There is no corporate program that can does the shoes of credibility of the natural peer-to-peer enthusiasm that propels word of mouth to be fruitful and multiply.
(2) Vision is rarely the builder of great things. I've been working with entrepreneurs since 1979. Most fabled success stories begin with: We put this together because we thought it would be cool and we wanted to share it with friends." What appeals to you and your friends just might appeal to a great many people.
This latter point is all-too-often overlooked. I think its in part the fault of many VCs who want to hear about millions and billions and they do not understand the power of natural peer-to-peer. They don't understand that humans are collaborative by nature and we spread product information to benefit friends not companies. This is what Berners Lee did. This is what so many others have done.
One parting thought. The guys I met at SLAC seemed to display an attitude that I have always found the most compelling. Each was humble, but proud. Each seemed a bit surprised and very pleased with what they have accomplished. Perhaps this strikes particularly well with me this week. I have met a few people who have a good deal of strut about thing they think they will achieve in the nearterm future. It seems to me they should wait longer to strut and let their stuff do it for them--if it is worthy of a strut.