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
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.”