Boston Light Software Founding Story

Boston Light Software (BLS) was a startup I co-founded in 1998. We sold it to Intuit a year later, where I then served as VP Technology for the Small Business Division (QuickBooks etc).

The founding team at BLS included Karl Berry, Bill O'Donnell (chief architect), Jim Giza and Paul Schwenk. Other original team members included Jeff Rago, Brenda White, Walter Chick and Lorinda Brandon. Our main advisor was Joe Mahoney (Interleaf, Intuit).

BLS built one product, called QSHOP. The goal for QSHOP was to let a small business owner create an ecommerce website with as few clicks as possible.

Founding Story

My friend Mike White asked me to play golf one day. I told him I never played before, but he said he really needed a fourth, and because it was a "scramble" my skill level didn't matter. When we got to the course, another player didn't show up, so we asked a random guy we met if he would play with us, and he said yes.

This man was wearing a Boston.com hat. I asked where he got it, he said he worked there. I asked what he did there, and he said he ran it. His name was Lincoln Millstein.

Apparently, I spent the next two hours telling Lincoln everything I hated about Boston.com and what I would do with it if I worked there. At the end of the game, he invited me to come in and meet him and publisher Steve Taylor. At the end of our meeting, Steve offered me a job to come work at Boston.com (my memory was as CTO but I could be wrong) and I said no, but, that if he gave me a $50k contract, I could add a feature to Boston.com which would allow an advertiser to sell products directly on Boston.com. We shook hands, and then I had to figure out how to build that product.

That's when I called Karl Berry, Bill O'Donnell, Jim Giza and Paul Schwenk. Together we created BLS and started to design QSHOP for Boston.com.

To let me hire more engineers, I put in money from my 401(k), and raised a little bit of money from Bob Treitman (Interleaf, Softpro) and Raman Tenneti (Interleaf, Netscape, Google).

Technology

QSHOP was all built in Perl. Billo created the second version of "expando" which was a cold-fusion like templating language so we could create templates in HTML and keep the code in perl. Perl was pretty heavy and slow to run a web app, so we invested a lot in rewriting our code to use mod_perl, which was an Apache web server extension that kept the perl runtime in memory. (Tools and languages have improved a lot since then.)

Business Development

Joe Mahoney introduced me to ex-Intuit executive Ted Patton, who I then hired as VP of Business Development.

While the BLS engineering team was figuring out how to build QSHOP for Boston.com, Ted and I hit the road and pitched QSHOP to many companies, looking for a distribution deal. We got to late-stage discussions with Excite, Switchboard and Amazon. (Amazon was fascinated with our idea to let anyone set up their own store on Amazon.)

When we learned that all these companies really just wanted to acquire us, we decided to be acquired by Intuit, since we liked their corporate values. (Really.) [billo comment: I've been shocked to learn what an incredibly negative reputation Intuit has of late, driven largely by use of dark patterns to trick people into paying more for TurboTax than they really need to. It's quite a stark contrast to Intuit's reputation back in 1999 when they were the champion of the small business and one of the very few consumer companies that had beaten back Microsoft.]

The first day Intuit came to visit us, we were working out of our dingy office above a warehouse in Arlington MA. I came in early to prepare, and was surprised when Jim Giza (VP Engineering) came in at 7am with a mop and a bucket, and he said "cleaning lady here!". Jim thought that since we had been too cheap to hire cleaners, that he better clean the bathrooms himself before Intuit arrived.

Separately I will write a document about Intuit. I learned so many things there, and made some life-long friends.

BLS Acronym

We named the company Boston Light Software after the lighthouse Boston Light, the oldest lighthouse in the US, built in 1716. I also liked that the BLS acronym worked for my high school, Boston Latin School, the oldest school in the US, founded in 1634.

See other founder stories.

paulenglish.com 19-Oct-2020