Manhattan via Nepal
The Earthweb Story

By Bijal Trivedi '92

Throughout the summer nights of 1994, Nova Spivack '91, swathed in the peach robes of a Tibetan monk and a purple T-shirt, sat typing furiously on an antiquated box-style Macintosh until the steamy dawn threatened to drench his thoughts. The walls were covered with Tibetan Buddhist paintings and tapestries, and the shelves were littered with delicate Indian scrolls and carvings. What possessed Nova to write through the night, every night? Was he deciphering some profound eastern religious text? No.

He was writing a proposal that was to become the basis for a multi-million dollar Internet corporation. Today, Nova, the executive vice president of Earthweb, occupies a sleek office on the 38th floor of a Park Avenue high-rise with a panoramic view of mid-town Manhattan.

Four years ago, Earthweb was a three-person consulting firm with no office and no clients. Today it has grown into the technology firm managing the leading on-line community for developers, and has designed and produced high-tech Websites for clients such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Stock Exchange, and US West. Java, a revolutionary programming language ideal for the Internet, came out in 1995, and the Earthweb group recognized its potential, immediately creating an on-line directory of resources to help software and Website developers learn how to use the new language. Today the Website, known as Gamelan, is acknowledged as one of the top 100 sites on the Internet.

At Oberlin Nova bounced between majors as diverse as computer science, art history, and studio art. He abandoned computer science classes only two courses shy of a full major and focused on the philosophy of the mind. "I never wanted to be a programmer... I was more interested in what computers could do, what we could do with computers, and how they would change organizations, governments, countries, and people's lives. So I didn't bail out [of computer science], I just took what I needed."

When he was a junior, Nova accepted a project from a company called Thinking Machines, working 40 hours a week in addition to his class schedule. "I skipped most of my classes, did all my reading at night, and grew a really long beard," he recalls. The schedule led to exhaustion and burnout, so he took a semester off to recuperate and to study Eastern philosophy, while helping to coordinate northeast college campuses in protest against the Gulf War.

Nova interned at a new graduate school, MIT's International Space University (ISU) after his graduation. The following summer he worked in Japan on the space humanities program for ISU, and participated in a project to build an international solar power satellite system. When the summer was over, he told his parents he would come home and get a job, but that he might make a few quick stopovers first. The "quick stopovers" spanned a year. He roamed Thailand, Indonesia, and India for six months before finding tranquillity in a Tibetan monastery in Nepal, where he spent the next seven months. "Living in the monastery was a big turning point for me. Until then, I can say that I was completely lost for my entire life. The experience reoriented me, corrected my misconceptions about spirituality, and gave me a sense of purpose. Tibetan Buddhist philosophy was the first philosophy that made sense."

Eventually returning to Massachusetts, Nova became an editor of "Internet, Multimedia and Broadband News" at Individual Inc., a small company producing personalized newspapers for Fortune 500 corporations, creating artificially intelligent software to filter the news for the specific interest of each subscriber. He routinely worked late into the night, testing the filters and reading hundreds of press releases. The intense exposure to the Internet was invaluable. "I didn't know it then," he says, "but this was the most exciting job to have, because this was the beginning of the whole Internet revolution. During those eight months I got this massive brain dump of knowledge about the Internet industry, and saw it develop." He wanted his own Internet company; all he needed was capital and collaboration.

On a Saturday evening in mid-February 1994, two Columbia graduates and five from Oberlin met in Manhattan for a vegan sushi party. Nova and Jack Hidary, a recent graduate from Columbia's neuroscience school, talked for six hours, barely pausing to enjoy their sushi. Jack was the perfect partner to complement Nova's eccentric style. He had dabbled in the submarine business, and once aspired to fill Johnny Carson's shoes, receiving kudos for submitting a wacky application. Jack's irritation with the chaos associated with 'add-drop-day' and class registration at Columbia had inspired him to establish an on-line campus information service -- an intranet system. With his solid understanding of networking technology and hardware, he had already decided to develop an internet company. Jack and Nova corresponded nightly, working out the focus for the new company, sometimes discussing press releases until four or five in the morning.

During the Rwanda famine that year, Jack, unable to find information on relief efforts, suggested that Earthweb's first project should be to put relief agencies on-line. A third partner, Murray Hidary --Jack's brother -- joined the team, and Nova, Murray, and Jack, based respectively in Boston, New York, and Washington, put together a Website called ReliefNet. Jack says, "The site was necessary at the time, and a good demonstration of what the Internet could do." Nova coordinated freelance Web developers in Boston, designed the site, and wrote software; Jack dealt with the hardware and bandwidth; and Jack and Murray solicited the charities. ReliefNet provided on-line information about the major charities and offered an encrypted form -- the first system to allow visitors to make on-line charitable donations. Because the site featured news reports from Rwanda it became an important source of information.

ReliefNet was a success, drawing many on-line visitors and media attention to the charities. Then came ReliefRock for Rwanda --the first on-line benefit concert. ReliefRock mimicked the Internet Underground Music Archive, which provides sound clips from upcoming albums. Earthweb offered the same service using music samples donated by Warner Bros. Records, but with one key difference: on-line visitors would listen to music in exchange for a pledge.

ReliefNet and ReliefRock earned Earthweb a reputation for innovation, and attracted businesses interested in their own Websites; Earthweb began designing and constructing them.

But Earthweb was still a virtual company. "We were three guys in three different cities -- no office, no experience, no nothing," says Nova. Attracting the first big-name client was a struggle. After an initial rejection, they convinced The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) to invest in a Website. "We thought that an on-line museum would be a great educational tool, so we wanted to do it right. We stood on the steps of the museum for a weekend, asking visitors if they'd like a Website." After badgering the corporate information officer for six months, they learned that Microsoft, America On-line, Compuserve, and IBM were also vying to produce MMA's Website. "In fact, some of them offered to do it for free," says Nova, "but by that time the museum people liked us so much that they actually paid us to do it. Not a lot, but they paid us -- it was our big break."

Earthweb began designing sites for other affluent clients, and in just one year, had a staff of 20 and a small Park Avenue office. By summer the Website-building business was saturated with new competitors, so Earthweb needed to alter its focus. One of the company's goals was to have an initial public offering (IPO) and "actually make money," according to Nova. Until then, Earthweb had been primarily a consulting firm, typically valued at two to three times annual revenue. A media or technology firm can be valued at 30 to 60 times annual revenue. "New technology generates tremendous excitement which can cause a company's value to soar, so Earthweb transformed itself into a technology firm," Nova explained.

Sun Microsystems had recently released Java, and Nova came up with the idea for the Gamelan site. He chose the name for the Gamelan orchestras in the island of Java, "and besides, all the good coffee names were gone." Gamelan was endorsed by Sun Microsystems as the exclusive official directory of resources for Java. Its success led Eartweb to envision a virtual community for developers which would provide services and information on all computer technologies, not only Java.

Today that vision has been realized in Earthweb's new primary focus, Incorporating the Gamelan site, provides a directory of resources for many technologies, and offers news, information, job listings, discussion forums, technical help, software stores, and a free reference library with over a hundred texts on-line. Other projects include an agreement between Earthweb Press and Macmillan Computer Publishing for 12 books and the production of software. Other possibilities include virtua; trade shows, conferences, and a print magazine.

Nova, who is never cocky about the success of company he co-founded, replied characteristically when we ask about Earthweb's future: "We'll probably still be around in two months." He's been saying this for almost five years. "We've been very lucky -- we've been on the cutting edge of each of the major phases of the Internet; first, Gopher; then the early html and the Web; commercial Web-sites, and on-line commerce and advertising; then, Java and on-line communities."

Nova does not see himself remaining with the company for more than another five years; he hopes to return to the study of Tibetan Buddhism and to travel in Asia.

Asked if he believes he has grown spiritually from his Earthweb experience, he smiles and shakes his head. "I don't want to paint a picture of me as some great spiritual practitioner, because I'm not. In the last five years I haven't made practicing Buddhism a priority -- I've made no progress except maturity... I hope to return to Nepal to continue studying with different Lamas when this project is over. "But," he emphasizes, "I'm going to finish this first."

Bijal Trivedi '92 lives and works in New York while furthering her studies at New York University. In addition to writing freelance articles, she is on the staff of NPR's Talk of the Nation: Science Friday.