But timing is only part of what makes a great entrepreneur. As decisive as Baran was in creating his companies, he was equally decisive — even ruthless — about walking away from them. Never a great manager, he sold off his successful companies when they stopped being innovative and dynamic. And more than once — most recently with a smart home electric metering design — he abandoned brilliant inventions because he didn’t have the time nor patience to deal with the obstacles (usually government bureaucracies) needed to make them real.
I first met Paul Baran three years ago when I was invited to sit on an early planning meeting of a new start-up company. Five of us sat in the corner of a hotel lobby and, accustomed to dealing with Web 2.0 start-up teams composed of post-adolescents, I was astonished to find that, in my mid-fifties, I was the youngest person there. Baran, whom I only knew as a legend, led the meeting like a lion tamer. I went in expecting to meet an old man past his prime; I came away realizing I had not only been with the purest entrepreneur I’d ever met, but also the most ferocious. With his ambition, fearlessness, willingness to fail, and commitment to the task, the tough old man put the dreamy children to shame.
For the first time, I understood that entrepreneurship could not only be a job, a career, but a lifelong approach to the world. And that the work of starting new enterprises wasn’t just for the young. On the contrary, old folks had certain advantages — experience, perspective, stability, personal wealth, and a lack of ego — that youngsters could never duplicate. Paul Baran taught me — and I suspect his example will teach millions in the years to come — that there is no set age or duration to being an entrepreneur.
For the last six months, I have been part of a Paul Baran start-up — once again as a “junior” member. Amusingly, we met in a retirement home dining room … and anyone passing by probably assumed that we were a bunch of retirees reminiscing about the old days. In fact, the pace of these meetings, the ego-free teamwork, and the decisiveness in dealing with the next challenge were dazzling. And at the center, as always, was Paul Baran. He knew he was dying, but he never complained. Instead, he continued to file patents on his newest ideas, even as he drove us forward. “Let’s go!” he would say at every meeting. “Let’s make this thing happen!”
He remained audacity personified right up to the very last day of his life, when he was simultaneously working on a new invention and preparing for a business presentation to one of the world’s biggest companies.
Paul Baran helped invent the Internet; but in the end, he also taught us how to live our own lives, from beginning to end, in the Internet Age. And that may prove to be even more important.