They got started way back in 1994, in the "pre-Netscape days," before the Internet took off as a commercial enterprise. It was then that Cornell students Todd Krizelman and Stephan Paternot, armed with only a modem and a Macintosh computer in Krizelman's dorm room, first experimented with what would grow, a year later, into the largest Macintosh World Wide Web site in the world.
That Web site, called "The Globe" www.theglobe.com, is entirely designed and administered by Krizelman, Paternot and the now 17-member staff of their company, WebGenesis www.webgenesis.com, at its offices at 409 College Ave.
The idea began two years ago, when then sophomores Krizelman, a biological sciences major, and Paternot, a computer science major, were struck by the marketing possibilities of the growing Internet and began working on a Web page that one day would attract big advertisers. Having met as high school students during the Cornell Summer Session in 1991, Paternot and Krizelman were reunited during their freshman year. Though Paternot had experience in computer science classes and Krizelman's background "came mainly from hacking," as he put it, the two knew that they loved computers and that they worked well together.
After having raised an initial $15,000 over their winter break in 1994 from private investors to buy some basic computer hardware, they purchased an Apple Internet Server system and set about programming software that would be both useful and entertaining for users of their Web site. From the seminal idea in the fall of 1994, about five months elapsed before The Globe debuted on April 1, 1995.
"There was no way that we wanted our service to compete with Prodigy Inc. or America Online Inc. We wanted to combine cool graphics, advertising, an emphasis on interactivity and build some sort of entertainment destination resort on the World Wide Web," said Paternot, WebGenesis president.
Without spending a penny on advertising for their site, Krizelman and Paternot relied on word of mouth to spread the news. After just one month of telling their friends and sending out e-mail messages, the two attracted an impressive 44,000 visitors to WebGenesis' pages.
The most popular feature of their site, which now claims nearly 150,000 users per month, is an on-line chat forum in which users can engage in a real-time conversation from their respective keyboards, regardless of where in the world they may be. WebGenesis' new software has improved this on-line conferencing medium by adding certain ways to personalize the on-screen environment. Users choose a name and an icon to represent themselves in their "chat room," and they can also post graphs or charts during the course of their dialogue. This graphic addition, in the words of one enthusiastic user, "brings your eye swiftly to the comments you sought amidst a constantly changing page." The result is an eye-catching arrangement of vividly colored, high-quality graphic images.
Other software offered exclusively by WebGenesis includes a "Genesis Registration" system, for the purpose of registering users in any given institutional computer system.
"This is the first user registration and authentication program available for the Macintosh," boasted Krizelman. "It has unlimited user names and password storage capability," he added.
Also available on their home page is "Genesis Surveys," a program that can support up to 10 different surveys, quizzes or questionnaires at the same time and compute statistical analysis immediately. This program is useful for institutions that are looking to gather data on-line from any body of computer users. Other services on The Globe include personals, classifieds and computer games -- all free of charge to visitors.
The Apple corporation has taken an interest in the success of the students' enterprise, as being proof of the reliability of Apple Internet Servers to maintain a high volume of users without "traffic problems" or "downtime" -- the business hours lost when a server crashes. Apple has sponsored Paternot and Krizelman's attendance at Internet conferences in California, and WebGenesis also is featured in Apple's advertising as the largest Mac site in the world.
"We've proven that you can buy a few Macs and have a site," said CEO Krizelman. Most Web sites have traditionally been run off of less user-friendly hardware, like Sparks stations, he said.
As a member of DoubleClick, the computer advertising agency based in New York City, WebGenesis' Internet pages have featured ads from such companies as Attachmate, Excite, Apple Computer, Sportsline, Intel and DejaNews. They have been able to rely on corporate advertising for their entire revenue and can, therefore, offer their services free of charge for their many users.
In order to maintain the busy schedule of being both Cornell students and entrepreneurs, the two have had to work 18-hour days while being enrolled in sometimes as few as two courses per semester.
"We pretty much decided to throw away our personal and social lives," joked Krizelman.
Flying back and forth to conferences in California, and sometimes getting off a plane to take a biology prelim only to reboard an hour later, Krizelman and Paternot, now seniors, have "crammed five to 10 years of business experience into one year," as Paternot puts it. They will both graduate on time in May, they say, but not without some sacrifice -- "our hairlines and ulcers," said Krizelman dryly.
Nearly all of the company's 17 computer programmers and graphic designers are recent Cornell graduates, whose average age is 22.
"We are able to filter off people from the Computer Science Department before they graduate," says Krizelman. The University Career Center, for example, has faxed résumés of graduating computer scientists to WebGenesis.
"We are also able to go to the Cornell Theory Center and the Computer Science Department and ask, 'Who's your best student,'" Krizelman added. WebGenesis, say its directors, pays competitively for Ithaca -- and for students. They are thus able to attract a constant flow of fresh young minds and retain their low-key "company culture."
Indeed, much of their precocious success can be attributed to the laid-back yet diligent ambiance of their Collegetown offices. Staff meetings at WebGenesis are held daily, as opposed to weekly, and the bosses always treat for pizza when work goes later than expected.
Future plans for the company include a move of business headquarters to New York City and continued coaxing of big-time advertisers to their popular Web site. This has been a whirlwind period of time for the two seniors: The Globe celebrated its one-year on-line anniversary on April 1.
"Todd and I just stand back sometimes and think to ourselves, 'How did we get here?'" said Paternot.