Ciara Kenny

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Web pioneer has travelled a long way to Stanford

WILD GEESE: Stuart Coulson, mentor, lecturer and vineyard owner, Palo Alto, California: After revolutionising the travel business in the 1990s, an Irish entrepreneur has stayed in the start-up culture while growing grapes in California

Tue, Oct 16, 2012, 11:49

   

EOIN REYNOLDS

WILD GEESE: Stuart Coulson, mentor, lecturer and vineyard owner, Palo Alto, California: After revolutionising the travel business in the 1990s, an Irish entrepreneur has stayed in the start-up culture while growing grapes in California

STUART Coulson was one of Ireland’s first internet millionaires and a minor celebrity after selling his online travel business for €40 million in 2000.

These days you’ll find him growing grapes in California wine country or giving a helping hand to the elite students of Stanford University as he enjoys the fruits of his early labour.

If you have ever used the internet to book a flight, then you are familiar with Coulson’s work. It was he and a colleague who pioneered the travel industry revolution in the mid-1990s with his company Gradient Solutions.

They created a one-stop shop where you could book your flights, hotels and compare prices without having to speak to a travel agent, something we now take for granted.

“That went pretty well,” he said. “We weren’t a typical dotcom in that we charged customers for a product and made money.”

In August 2000, the company was bought by Sabre for €40 million.

Coulson was featured on the front page of The Irish Times as the country marvelled at the growing prospects for wealth the internet was creating.

“After that, I took some time off to be a recovering entrepreneur and ended up in Switzerland,” he said. “That’s when I did my MBA and pottered about with other things, like business angel networking, but that didn’t go down particularly well at the time.”

Having tried his hand at different ventures and having done a little travelling, he decided to move to Palo Alto, a city in the heart of Silicon Valley, nestled in the conurbation between San Francisco and San José.

He bought a vineyard in California’s Russian River Valley and, unlike many entrepreneurs who enter viticulture, he insists it’s not a mere hobby.

“It’s a regular rectangular piece of land and I sell grapes to four winemakers, all of whom are critically acclaimed,” he said.

Besides grape growing, he spends some of his time as an angel investor, focusing on companies in traditional markets using technology to reinvent how they work. He’s dabbled with an electric car company, women’s clothing, food and irrigation.

But his passion is working at Stanford University, an innovation hub that churns out a new crop of world leaders in a vast range of fields every year. Coulson offers a course titled Design for Extreme Affordability at the Institute of Design, or the d.school.

The Wall Street Journal recently declared that prospective entrepreneurs should ignore business courses and choose the d.school instead.

“We teach a process called design thinking,” said Coulson. “It’s about codifying innovation and teaching people to innovate at will. It enhances the eureka moment, allowing you to study a system or demographic and know a potential customer base, define a problem in detail based on interaction with end users and spend time searching for the right solutions.”

One motto of the school is: Fail early, fail often and end up with a better result.

“You don’t get married to the first idea you have,” explained Coulson. “That methodology is applied to all sorts of domains. Leadership, business, web apps, mobile apps, etc. We have courses every term in lots of different areas.”

The d-school is also working hard to alleviate poverty in developing economies. Every year, it sends students to work in impoverished areas, identifying the needs of some of the world’s poorest communities and using their innovation skills to develop products that can help.

Among their creations has been a low-cost baby incubator, improvements in water storage and irrigation systems, breathing devices and a bracing mechanism to treat clubfoot.

Last November a Stanford alumnus gave $150 million to enhance the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies.

Coulson said: “We are looking at recreating the innovation hub that we run in Stanford in 20 different economies. Places like Ghana and Myanmar. The hub will service local entrepreneurs who we have identified and it will also be a base for student teams from Stanford travelling for longer projects.

“The faculty will have a place to land to disseminate education. People can give courses or training or mentoring in the same way we do here at the d-school.”

Having worked in Ireland, Europe and America, Coulson has been struck by the contrasting business cultures and believes there is a lot to be learned from Silicon Valley.

“The business community here is more open and so your chances of starting a company and meeting somebody in a position to help is much higher,” he said. “There are fewer people rolling up the ladder when they get up it.

“People are willing to share more. There is a sense that if you accomplish something in Ireland, you must protect it and keep it secret. That doesn’t happen over here. If you invent something here, you get it out to as many people as possible. The way you protect it is to get there first and do it as quickly as possible.”

It is often said that Silicon Valley embraces failure. Not true, according to Coulson. “But it is much better tolerated,” he adds. “People are less risk averse and are willing to try stuff on the entrepreneurship side and finance side. Part of that is there is not as much to lose in terms of your reputation if it doesn’t work out.”

He also believes that students should be giving greater consideration to the commercial potential of their work. In Stanford, many students see their masters or PhD projects as commercial enterprises – their dissertations a start-up business plan.

He added: “Students need to take a chance as a start-up rather than working within an established company where the chances of being a significant part are much smaller.”

“Being an entrepreneur requires taking risks,” he said. “So go and take a risk.”

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