Greenspun and the cultural revolution : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Cultural revolution

By Scott Kirsner, Globe Staff, 10/23/2000

Listening to Philip Greenspun and Allen Shaheen of ArsDigita talk about the company's past and future is a fascinating study in how founders like Greenspun and chief executives like Shaheen relate to each other.

They've passed the honeymoon period - Shaheen joined the company last spring - and now they're settling into a relationship that's equal parts trust and wariness. Both are trying to make the partnership succeed while wondering, just a little bit, whether it's going to work over the long term.

Greenspun is the MIT-trained Web publishing pioneer who rarely goes anywhere without Alex, his fluffy white Samoyed. He's an avid photographer who runs, one of the Web's most popular photography sites. He started the ArsDigita Foundation, which gives a $10,000 prize for the best noncommercial Web site developed by young people, and ArsDigita University, a free one-year post-baccalaureate program in computer science.

Greenspun is the kind of person who seems to draw his energy from new schemes of all sorts, and he is a big enough personality in the world of Web publishing - respected and eccentric - that accomplished programmers want to work with him. They like the fact that he's one of them: He has a sizable ego, and he wants every line of code he writes to be elegant and flawless.

''Allen and the venture capitalists will shoot me for saying this, but we didn't start this company to make money,'' Greenspun announces, sitting at the head of the table in the playroom, where Alex is curled up under the foosball table. ''We were programmers. We wanted to do interesting work, to have interesting careers, to do mentoring.''

He was so confident that ArsDigita was building the best platform for Web publishing - dubbed the ArsDigita Community System - that he believed the company didn't need a sales force. The thinking was, according to Greenspun, ''We'll just sit here, do good work, and if people feel it's something that they need, they'll come to us.''

Listening to Greenspun talk about how money was never the main thing, Shaheen just smiles, a bit parentally. He's one of the executives who helped build Cambridge Technology Partners, and he joined ArsDigita in April, just after the venture capitalists put $38 million into the company, in the hopes of making it an open-source competitor to Art Technology Group, Vignette, and Broadvision. ArsDigita's product is open source in that it's freely available to anyone, the software can be modified by anyone, and customers pay ArsDigita only for support, customization and ''the right to sit at the table and direct our innovation,'' Shaheen says.

If ArsDigita is like a talented rock band that has just made its first good record, Shaheen is the manager it needs to take it out on tour, build up the fan base, and turn the group into an enduring phenomenon.

Shaheen, mellow and thoughtful, is in synch with Greenspun and the talented collection of programmers he has assembled at ArsDigita, but he's also aware that the company needs discipline - not to mention a sales, marketing, and business development organization.

''Philip and I come from different places,'' Shaheen admits frankly. ''Philip is all about individual excellence, and I'm all about world-class organizations and world-class teams. We need to get our individual stars collected into a galaxy, and get them working together. We're trying to get people to recognize the power of a team.''

ArsDigita is going through multiple transformations at once: from a culture that celebrates individuals to one that is at its most productive working in teams; from a company that revolves around programmers to one that will have to make room for salespeople and marketers; and ''from a founder culture to a professional culture,'' as vice president Cesar Brea observes. Negotiating all of those transitions, especially in the treacherous waters that are buffeting every start-up right now, will be trying.

Despite the challenges ahead, three things give ArsDigita an advantage. First is what Shaheen calls the company's ''education-based recruiting model.'' The concept is counterintuitive: Rather than building a line of business around high-priced training seminars, ArsDigita holds free ''boot camps'' where techies can learn how to use the ArsDigita Community System. ACS is a software suite for Web publishing that supports transactions, communication, collaboration, personalization, and analysis of what users do on the site and who they are.

This year alone, 1,500 people have been trained at the boot camps, which last from one to three weeks. ArsDigita programmers teach at the boot camps, and it gives them an opportunity to evaluate prospective hires: ArsDigita can make job offers based on how talented - and how fast a learner - each participant is.

Plus, a course curriculum that Greenspun developed and still teaches at MIT, ''Software Engineering for Web Applications,'' has been syndicated to other universities, like the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Michigan, and it serves to introduce students there to ACS.

''It's an insidious plan to take over the world,'' Greenspun says with a laugh. But he may only be half-joking: The more people who learn how to use ACS, the bigger the population of potential hires for ArsDigita. Education-based recruiting is a wonderful, powerful idea.

The second source of advantage is the company's staunch open-source philosophy. Anyone can use the software for free, send in bug fixes, build new modules for it, and ArsDigita benefits. Customers, who pay from $15,000 for a basic support contract to $1 million for assistance with a customized site launch, can have their own tech teams modify the software - even if they decide to stop paying ArsDigita their monthly subscription fee.

In a white paper explaining why the World Bank had chosen to work with ArsDigita to build Web portals for all of the countries the bank serves, Gerhard Pohl of the World Bank compared ACS to the Model T Ford: It is ''made of standardized, high-precision, interchangeable parts,'' which makes it easy to maintain and upgrade. ''It ... underwent the most rigorous quality control process known to man: exposure to the sharpest minds in the field via open-source code,'' Pohl continued. (The deal with the World Bank was scheduled to be announced today.)

Finally, one of ArsDigita's backers is Greylock, the venture capital firm that financed Red Hat, the first open-source company to go public. ''Our level of confidence [in ArsDigita] is high,'' says Greylock's Chip Hazard, who serves on ArsDigita's board. ''We're pretty fundamental believers that, 10 years from now, a lot of corporations will look at closed software as a way of the past.''

ArsDigita, which expects to book $27 million in revenue this year, will have to make the most of every advantage it has if it hopes to rival and surpass successful companies like Art Technology Group and Broadvision. And Shaheen and Greenspun will have to cement a partnership that somehow combines Shaheen's desire for rapid growth (and an IPO next year) with Greenspun's crusade to do interesting work, write great software and give back to the community.

If it works, they'll have plenty of material for a new course at ArsDigita University: Founders and CEOs 201 - Peaceful, Profitable Coexistence.

Scott Kirsner is a contributing editor at Wired and Fast Company magazines. His e-mail address is To read his columns online, go to

-- Martin Thompson (, October 23, 2000

Moderation questions? read the FAQ