Entrepreneurial Engineering Student Gets Taste Of Start Up Company

August 15, 2003

Neil AbrahamNeil Abraham started his first company -- a technology news Web site -- with four friends while still in high school in Nutley, New Jersey.

Abraham and friends served as consumer-testers for new hardware and software products that companies sent them for free. The team assessed the product performance and then wrote comparative reviews for the Web.

“I was careful to be very professional, and did my work mostly through e-mail, so companies sending me products didn’t know I was junior in high school,” Abraham said, with an ear-to-ear grin. “We weren’t obligated to just give good reviews and we didn’t. We were honest with our readers.”

The Web site, called TheTripleHelix.com, developed a loyal following with hard-core computer consumers. For Abraham, fascinated with computers and technology, starting a company was the perfect way to get his hands on the latest and greatest tech developments. A year and a half later, the team sold the company.

“I guess I should say we sold it for an ‘undisclosed’ sum of money,” Abraham said with mock seriousness, and then laughed. “Actually, what was so great was that it was the first sum of money I’d made totally from scratch. I built that company from the bottom up with blood, sweat and tears. Being an entrepreneur and running your own company, it’s very exciting.”

Buoyed by the success of their first try at a business, the team launched a second venture called ProfileSpy.com in March of 2002. ProfileSpy let certain instant messager users and e-mail users see each other’s member profiles, something they couldn’t do before.

“Our demographic was mostly teenagers, but they just loved the service,” Abraham said. Member profiles contain information about hobbies and other personal information. “We had literally millions of hits to the site.”

Understandably, the parent e-mail company wasn’t thrilled about a third party group offering such services, so the group shut down the site. “But we got a ton of fan mail from the kids who had used the site,” Abraham said. “It was very cool while it lasted.”

Ready for college, Abraham’s ‘partners in commerce’ scattered to various universities while he decided tackle a double major in electrical and biomedical engineering at Duke.

“The beauty of the campus just blew me away, and I really liked the idea of smaller class sizes,” he said. “I’m definitely getting more personal attention from my professors than I would at a big public university.”

Now a rising sophomore (Pratt Class of 2006), he’s finishing up his first summer internship with a startup company called StrikeIron, Inc., based in Research Triangle Park, NC. StrikeIron launched with start-up funds from Aurora Funds, a Duke alumni-founded venture capital company.

StrikeIron is developing user-friendly software that will help people harness the power of the web without having to be programmers themselves. Such software will support an emerging technology called Web Services.

“It’s not just another browser, it’s a new way of doing business -- companies opening up their code to connect in new ways in order to offer better services,” he explains. Abraham hails Web Services as the next evolution of the Internet.

For example, today, a comparative shopper has to visit several different sites in order to get the best buy on book or shirt or CD. With Web Services, the shopper could go to one site and immediately see which business offered the best deal. But easy consumerism isn’t the only application for such technology. Web Services could also be used to help doctors and family members monitor the status of loved ones in the hospital through regular text message cell phone updates.

“Web Services is a way to leverage business assets and create a new technological tool,” he said.

At StrikeIron, Abraham has beta-tested their software, and created a point and click tutorial with screen shots that explains Web Services, and teaches the user how to use the program. He also designed the company’s first ad for a web development journal with a circulation of 41,000 readers, and is drafting up the advertorial text to go with it.

“This internship hasn’t been a token data entry job,” Abraham said. “I’ve really be able to make serious contributions to the company.”

Richard Holcomb, StrikeIron CEO seems to agree. “We’re keeping him. We’ll work something out about school so he can graduate, but we’re keeping him.”

One task Abraham’s particularly enjoyed has been learning to do competitive analysis. “I’ve been talking with the big name gurus at major companies, finding out what they think about the future of Web Services,” said Abraham. “That’s been a really cool experience.”

“This internship has stimulated a lot of ideas for me about what I want to do,” Abraham said. “I’m definitely going to open my own company.”

In love with software engineering, Abraham said he’d like to settle on an idea for a business by his junior year, work on it as his senior engineering project and launch immediately after graduation.

In the meantime, during his time off Abraham paints his face and joins the Cameron Crazies, the adrenaline drenched frenzy of student fans at Duke basketball games. “The home crowd creates a war zone for opposing teams, who just hate to play Duke at Cameron. It’s great,” he said.

Truly die-hard student fans actually set up tents on the quad to make sure to get tickets for home games. Abraham has studied the tenting rules in detail (see Duke’s Web site).

He’s also planning to write a book that merges eastern meditation with technology somehow. “It’ll be a fusion of eastern meditation and futuristic science fiction,” he said. And, as if that’s not enough, he’d like to make a film someday.