From the Sidelines to Success

by | March 31, 2009

The term "sideline" has gotten a bum rap in our "You gotta be in it to win it" society. An athlete is sidelined with an injury. People who aren't good enough to make the team are said to be sitting on the sidelines. Even the American Heritage Dictionary defines sideline as "to remove from active participation."

But what about people who have a job, but are so passionate about doing something else that they're willing to do it in their spare time? Or someone who has a great idea, but can't afford to work on it full time? These are also sidelines. It is becoming more and more commonplace for people to do one thing to earn their paycheck and invest time and energy in other projects just because they enjoy it. Arguably the most famous sideline success story is that of Jerry Yang and David Filo, two Stanford engineering grad students who enjoyed surfing the Internet. It was the early '90s and the Web was in its late infancy. The sites were hard to keep track of, as the URL's were mostly written in code. No "Control L jcrew." As a sideline, Yang and Filo decided to invent a way to keep track of their favorite web destinations. They called their project Yahoo!

Another kind of sideline is one that evolves when someone has some time on his or her hands, and is feverishly pursuing a distinct hobby. In this case, collecting memorabilia from Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. Scot Wingo, then 29, had just sold his startup, Stingray Software for about $21 million. "I found myself in a kind of early retirement, with a lot of spare time and disposable income. Phantom Menace had just come out, and I was interested in collecting stuff from the movie," said Wingo. He stressed that he wasn't just interested in toys, "But all kinds of stuff. Life-size figures. I have a seven foot Darth Maul and a Jar Jar Binks," Wingo added. But he found that searching the various online auction sites was time-consuming and he sometimes was missing out on opportunities that were positively Lucasian. Faster than you can say Qui-Gon Jin, Wingo set out to find a way to monitor what was up for bidding on sites all across the Web. ~No newbie when it comes to technology (he's written two books on programming and authored many articles on the subject), Wingo realized that there was nothing available that did specifically what he wanted to do. "I just jumped in with both feet," Wingo said, "No one had really done it before and I realized there was an opportunity here for a new business." With a solid background in designing technology, a burning desire for Star Wars stuff and the force clearly behind him, Wingo founded AuctionRover.com. The AuctionRover technology is able to scan 150 different online auction sites, using a shopper's keywords. It can also aid sellers searching for reverse auctions, helping to match them up with buyers who are looking for what they have to sell. The Rover worked so well that Wingo was able to nab a much sought after four foot Naboo Fighter that was only available as an incentive to top-performing Wal-Mart employees and a very rare set of Phantom Menace patches given as gifts to people who worked at Lucasfilm.

The Rover worked so well in fact, that a mere seven months after it was launched (about the same amount of time that Phantom Menace was in American theaters), Wingo sold AuctionRover to search engine GoTo.com for $175 million in GoTo stock (Phantom Menace's U.S. gross was about $500 million). Now called GoToAuctions, Wingo has stayed on and now serves as the company's General Manager. He is no longer searching the galaxy for light sabers and droids - instead he focuses his spare time on a new sideline - fatherhood. Scot's two kids have him spending more time on sites like E-Toys. "I'm going to stay on for quite a while," he says of GoToAuctions. He also said that he isn't looking to invent anything else just yet.

In the cases of Yahoo! and GoToAuctions, necessity was the mother of invention. But they share another affinity - the fact that they were created by people who were willing to take on their project as a sideline to what they were already doing.

Strangely enough, Star Wars also started out in the sidelines. George Lucas wrote the screenplay and wanted to direct it, but couldn't find a studio willing to take on the financial risk of producing the film. He finally got a deal at 20th Century Fox by agreeing to direct the film for free. We rest our case.

Rachel E. Pine is an Account Supervisor at Middleberg Euro rscg. She writes for Vault.com and other publications as a sideline.

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