Steve Kirsch

My Life History On One Page

An edited version of this article appeared in MIT Spectrum magazine in 1997 so it is somewhat out of date on the Infoseek stats (in Nov 1998 we had over 600 people and over 35M pageviews a day).

Steve Kirsch's first job was repairing pinball machines. "They always break," says Kirsch, who at 15 was earning $30 an hour. "I had a contract with the local pinball place near my high school; I was much cheaper than the union mechanics."

Today the 40-year-old entrepreneur of Sunnyvale, CA, is chairman of Infoseek, one of the most widely-used search engines on the Internet. It now has 160 employees and is visited by 1.5 million people a day.

"When I left MIT, I wanted to change the world" says Kirsch, who earned a Masters degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in 1980.

Just before leaving MIT, he invented the optical mouse. "It was clear to me that in 1980, the world didn't need a better mousetrap. What the world needed was a better mouse. So I built one."

Heeding the advice of friends who advised him to license his idea and get some business experience, Kirsch began his career as a software engineer at ROLM Corporation in Santa Clara, CA. Six months later, he licensed his mouse patent to a company which failed to market it. Frustrated, he quit his job at ROLM and in 1982 with 2 friends, began Mouse Systems, sinking in $40,000 of his own savings. "I figured that if I failed, I could always get another job." The optical mouse was chosen for the Sun Microsystems workstation, and continues to be marketed successfully, though Kirsch sold the company to a foreign firm in 1990.

Four years after starting Mouse Systems, he got an idea for desktop publishing software, founding Frame Technology, which produced FrameMaker. Frame was acquired by Adobe Systems in 1995 for $500M. In 1993, Kirsch began Infoseek on the idea that information on the Internet should not only be available to everyone, but should be easy to access and virtually free. Starting another company meant more of the same routine: long hours, little sleep, and virtually no life outside work.

"Only mediocre people start companies; the really smart ones know better, " he reflects. "It's really hard - a new company is such a fragile thing. It takes a lot of hours and dedication to be successful. I guess you could compare it to raising a child, which is how I explained the long hours to my wife...not that it did any good."

To succeed, he advises: "You need to be passionate, to believe in yourself and to persevere. When you run up against road blocks, you have to find solutions in spite of all the obstacles."

His strength is dreaming up creative ideas, but the toughest part, no question, he says, has been developing necessary people skills. "I came out of MIT with more technical skills than I ever would need in a lifetime, but my people skills weren't improved at all. I improved because I had great people at work who helped me develop my interpersonal skills."

Kirsch deeply values his work. "I could be doing anything right now, which is why I am doing this. I love it. Helping people find information to enrich their lives is motivating and very rewarding. I mean, I could be playing golf now." He laughs. "But golf is too frustrating."

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