When a man dies at 84 after a long bout with cancer, it’s natural to assume that his best days were far behind him.
And so, when the news was carried around the world last weekend that Paul Baran — the man who really could be credited with inventing the Internet — had died, readers couldn’t be blamed for concluding that Baran’s single claim on history had been made a half-century ago.
But that would be wrong. I believe that future generations will look back and see Baran not just as the inventor of the seminal networking technology called “packet switching.” Packet switching, devised when Baran was a young scientist working for RAND Corp., did indeed make global networks from the Internet to cellular telephony practical. And for that revolutionary achievement, he rightly deserves an honored place in the history of the digital revolution — and the National Inventors Medal that President Bush pinned on him three years ago.
But Paul Baran also achieved something else of such magnitude that its implications may not be fully recognized for another generation: he was the first true lifelong entrepreneur. In that, he may very well prove to be a pioneer of a cultural phenomenon that will help define the rest of this century.
Baran created his first enterprise in 1968. He was working on his last, one of the most ambitious of his career, on the day he died. In between, Baran, often teamed with his business partner, Steve Millard, and later his son Dave, founded as many as a dozen companies. As with any entrepreneur, many of these companies failed. But Baran also had as many hits as anyone. Once, after I introduced him as having founded four $1 billion public companies, he quietly corrected me: “Only three. The fourth was only $700 million.”
Packet switching was a brilliant invention, but Baran’s real genius lay in a deep understanding of technology combined with a perfect sense of business timing. The greatest fear of most high tech entrepreneurs is that they will fall behind the technology curve — that is, by the time they get their inventions to market Moore’s Law will have already rendered them obsolete. What Baran understood is that there is an even greater danger in being too far ahead of that same curve — that’s when you run out of money vainly waiting for your components and your customers to catch up.
Baran never lost that exquisite timing, even in his eighties. He had an almost supernatural ability to know when an advancing technology and a needy market were about to collide … and he positioned himself there just before impact. Cable modems, computer printers, airport metal detectors, wireless Internet, smart electrical meters, medical home diagnostics — he was almost always in place (usually with a pocket full of patents) before his future competitors even identified the opportunity.
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.