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Secrets of Serial Entrepreneurship – An Interview with David Troy of TwitterVision.com and OpenLocation.Org

by Steve Fisher on July 30, 2008

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Dave is a serial entrepreneur and deeply passionate about social media. He came from the old technology world of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and built one of the first true providers at the dawn of the public Internet. Called Toad.Net, it evolved into a dial-up and broadband provider that held its own as many companies were consolidating to combine their respective buying power. Toad.Net survived many changes and became a popular regional ISP that grew year after year and sold it in 2004 in an all cash deal. Since then he’s been active in the VoIP space, building internet telephony infrastructure around the world in places like Brazil, Germany, and London. But last year he started a project, just for fun, called Twittervision, an interesting product that mashes up the Twitter API with Google Maps to show people what is going on in the Twitter Universe. He also created FlickrVision in the same vein.  Now he’s starting to look at his experiences with Flickrvision and Twittervision as the basis for several new business opportunities focused on the intersection of social media and geographical data.

I was able to spend some time with him recently and here is a transcript of our interview:

Steve: How did you get the idea for TwitterVision?
Dave: I literally wanted to know who in my area was using Twitter.  They had an API that had location information, and I had recently completed some other work with Google maps, so within a few hours I had a working mashup that would show me the Twitter activity nearby.  I then had the idea that it would be cool to animate the map, and set out to do it.  Within a few short days, Twittervision was born.

Steve: For the uninitiated, could you explain Twitter? In a 140 characters or less (pun) please.
Dave: Twitter allows people share their thoughts and actions with others, and to follow the thoughts of others.

Steve: You have also created FlickrVision in the same vein as TwitterVision, is there going to be a theme here? More “Vision” products to come in the future?
Dave: I maintain a notebook of ideas and crazy thoughts that I think would be cool to see created.  I try to sort the list, coolest first, and focus on 2-3 projects at the top of the list.  Some are “vision” style endeavors, some aren’t.  My business partner, Stephen Muirhead, comes from the world of entertainment (Hannah Barbera) and games (former president of Microprose), and we’ve created a new company called Roundhouse Technologies to develop and commercialize this notebook of ideas, as well as other things that occur to us on the way.

Steve: What is OpenLocation.Org?
Dave: It occurred to me as I was creating several of my geographic mashup projects that there was nowhere near enough open information for mashup creators to use, and that it is just getting worse as more data is being published.  Our goal is to try to get a conversation started between publishers of location-aware data and enable new kinds of apps that enhance your experiences in the real world.  It’s a long term strategic vision and just something I think needs attention.

Steve: As a serial entrepreneur, what do you find are your greatest lessons learned from previous ventures?
Dave: When Walt Disney started out, he and Ub Iwerks, under contract, created a character called “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit,” and they did well with it — until his distributor decided to cut him out and have others draw the character Walt created.  Walt then went on to create Mortimer Mouse (which his wife suggested would be much more likable as Mickey Mouse), and that character went on to form the basis of the most successful media company in history.  So first, a unique asset that you own trumps everything else.  Second, imagination is key.  Third, you and your team need top-level skills in order to execute quickly in the face of opportunity.

Steve: What is your philosophy on being an entrepreneur?
Dave: It’s something that you either are drawn to or you aren’t.  I can’t imagine doing anything else.  I think that’s the litmus test.  It helps to have the opportunity though.  I was lucky enough to be able to start a business as young as age 12 and have been doing it ever since, all through high school and college.  Many people get drawn into jobs, mortgages, and obligations that make starting a business and the accompanying risk difficult to stomach, and miss their entrepreneurial calling.  All I can say is start young, when you can afford to make mistakes.  If you don’t have that opportunity, don’t be afraid to try.

Steve: What would you like to see happen over the next 18 months for TwitterVision and your other ventures?
Dave: Twittervision and our other work has received a ton of press and given us an opportunity to pursue a variety of “real businesses”.  We’re hiring and are working the notebook.  Ideally we’ll see Roundhouse develop a portfolio of successful ideas over the next year or so.

Steve: Sometimes I like to close an interview with a “Do This List”. So for you, what are the top five things an entrepreneur must consider before starting a new venture?
Dave: 1. Consider the nature of the opportunity: is this a lifestyle business, a service business, a product business, or what?
2. How will it end?  Are you going to sell it in 5 years, if so, to whom and for how much?  Why do you think you can get that valuation?
3. Can you go it alone or will you need a team?  How can you get the right team, and how will you keep them motivated?
4. Where are you going to get startup capital?  Can you self fund or do you need investors?  Why will an investor invest with you?
5. Wait for the right strategic fit, whether it’s suppliers, employees, partners or products.  Many entrepreneurs are driven, action-oriented people.  But this can lead to poor choices which can ultimately greatly limit your potential.  Don’t be afraid to say “no” when the fit is not right, and that includes customers.  Not all revenue is good revenue.

To reach out to Dave and learn more about all these great ventures he is working on visit his blog or follow him on twitter at twitter.com/davetroy.

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