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Marc Andreessen

July, 1971, New Lisbon, Wisconsin

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Marc Andreessen is the young co-founder and vice-president of technology of Netscape Communications Corporation. Netscape was founded by Andreessen and computer scientist-entrepreneur Jim Clark to develop and market an enhanced version of NCSA Mosaic, the first Internet browser, which Andreessen had helped write when he was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois.

By following the unlikely strategy of giving away the browser for free, Netscape has been able to make a lot of money. This was done by first by establishing Netscape’s browser (called Netscape Navigator) as the Internet standard, and then selling other kinds of network software for Internet and corporate use.

Netscape’s initial public offering (IPO), the most successful in Wall Street history, made Andreessen an instant multi-millionaire. As a stellar example of today’s information age entrepreneur, Andreessen has achieved a kind of celebrity status, and has made the cover of Time Magazine as the pre-eminent "super geek" of his generation.

Since its founding, Netscape has achieved a dominant share of the markets for Internet and intranet software at the same time that it has fueled the astronomical growth of the Word Wide Web and fundamentally shifted the software industry to a cross-platform, Internet-based standard. Since the end of 1995 Netscape’s share of Internet and corporate markets has come to be increasingly challenged by competitors, most notably software giant Microsoft. In one of the classic corporate campaigns in recent history, Microsoft has committed its massive resources to recapturing the Internet from Netscape.

In the midst of Netscape’s struggles for market share and survival, Marc Andreessen calmly continues in his role as long-term strategist and visionary while under close scrutiny by the business community and the media. At the same time, he lives a relatively quiet and modest life with his fiancée, Elizabeth Horn, in Mountain View, California.


Marc Andreessen was born in July of 1971 in New Lisbon, Wisconsin, an archetypal Midwestern town of about 1,500 people. His father, a seed salesman, is now retired, and his mother works for catalogue clothier Lands End.

Although school sports were the main focus of extracurricular attention and the quickest road to popularity and status in Lisbon, the 6’4" Andreessen had little interests in athletics. While the sporting teams practiced, Andreessen pursued an interest in computers that began when he was in the fifth grade. At that time he learned Basic programming language from a library book before ever laying hands on a computer. In the sixth grade Andreessen used one of the school’s computers to write a program with which he could do his math homework, but the program was wiped out when a janitor turned off the power in the building. A year later his parents made what must be considered one of the great investments in business history when they bought Marc his own computer, a Commodore 64. Andreessen then began his programming career writing games.

Andreessen was recognized early on as a superior and creative intellect. His high school principal states that Andreessen had "an intellectual capacity that could intimidate people," while teachers and classmates remember him as generally likable and as having an excellent sense of humor. They also recall that Andreessen had a rather offbeat imagination; a proclivity to come up with rather different ideas on a variety of subjects such as the nature of God and the future of science.



The Keys to Netscape: English and Philosophy

Andreessen went on to attend undergraduate school at the University of Illinois. He recalls that in spite of his interest in computers, he did not at first intend to pursue a career in computing because he believed electrical engineering would offer more lucrative career choices. "I ended up in computer science," he quips, "largely because it required the least amount of work." Andreessen says his favorite classes were English and philosophy, and credits his extra-technological education with most of the skills and insights that led to his subsequent success.

While pursuing his undergraduate degree, Andreessen worked part-time as a programmer, for $6.85 per hour, at the university’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). Andreessen was working on an assignment to write three-dimensional visualization software for the Center’s supercomputer when he dreamed up and implemented the first Internet browser.

In the early 1990s, the Internet was primarily a tool for elite researchers and a subculture of technophiles who have been likened to ham radio operators of the 1950s. Finding and downloading documents was accordingly difficult and cumbersome, with users having to learn to execute functions such as FTP, Gopher, and Telnet in an arcane Unix format. Andreessen came up with the idea of integrating those separate functions within a single program, and hiding them behind a graphic interface. He approached a fellow NCSA employee Eric Bina with his idea, and the two undertook their project working nights and weekends in a small basement room. The first version of their program, called NCSA Mosaic, consisted of a mere 9000 lines of code and was complete in about six weeks. With Mosaic, the Web could be navigated by simply pointing and clicking. The learning curve for Internet use was thereby shortened from months to minutes. Thus began the transformation of the Internet to a mass medium.

Because of Andreessen’s and Bina’s employee status, Mosaic remained the property of the University of Illinois. When NCSA released the program onto the Internet in January of 1993, allowing anybody to download and use it for free, Mosaic became an overnight sensation, logging 2 million downloads within its first year. Hundreds of companies soon began requesting Software Licensing for the software.

Leaving College and NCSA

Following Mosaic’s successful debut, Andreessen talked with NCSA Director Larry Smarr about whether and how he could make a business out of his invention. Smarr had only learned about the program at its first public demonstration, and states that he immediately recognized the world-altering character of Andreessen’s innovation. As regards marketing a version of the program, he told Andreessen that he would have to start his business outside the university environment.

Andreessen graduated in 1994 with a BS in computer science and one world-altering accomplishment on his resume. Because he did not have the resources to start his own company, he went to work for a Silicon Valley software firm called Enterprise Integration Technologies. Andreessen moved to Palo Alto, California, rented a two-bedroom apartment and bought a Ford Mustang. Shortly thereafter, he met his fiancée, Elizabeth Horn, a commercial real estate broker. Andreessen recalls of his job as a programmer that he was "pretty bored."

It was only a matter of weeks before Andreessen received an e-mail message that has since achieved the status of Silicon Valley legend. The message was from Jim Clark, a Silicon Valley legend in his own right. Clark had taken his own academic innovations and founded the highly successful Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI), a manufacturer of high and middle end workstations, processors and software for the creation of three-dimensional images. Although SGI is best known for the stunning cinematic effects seen in many recent Hollywood blockbusters, SGI workstations are also the tool of choice for a wide range of applications that require the absolute highest level of 3-D graphic capability.

Clark told Andreessen that he was interested in starting a technology company. What he had in mind was a cheap system for interactive television, for which he thought Andreessen’s browser could serve as an interface for subscribers. Andreessen convinced Clark that the Internet, with millions of new users, represented a better immediate market. The two decided to build an enhanced and improved version of Mosaic and to follow NSCA’s lead in giving it away in order to establish their product as an Internet standard. They founded Netscape Communication Corporation in 1994, recruiting four of the five programmers who had worked with Andreessen at Illinois, and hiring veteran administrator Jim Barksdale to serve as CEO.

The Netscape Marketing Strategy

Netscape’s strategy was executed flawlessly and successfully. On its December 1994 release, Netscape Navigator rapidly replaced Mosaic as the browser of choice among a large majority of Internet users, capturing within a year a market share estimated as high as 85 percent. Netscape began drawing revenues by selling servers, the programs that run on the big computers that serve as network hubs for the Internet and for corporate intranets. The company also sells expensive software products to corporations for the creation and maintenance of their own Web sites, and has been able to obtain large royalties or license fees from businesses that include Navigator with their own software packages.

Andreessen describes his position with Netscape with his usual understated humor; "I am vice-president for making stuff. I’m supposed to figure out what’s the next generation." Accordingly, Andreessen does not manage any of the day-to-day operations at Netscape, nor has he written a line of code since 1994. Because of Andreessen’s unconventional corporate role, the fact that he has no experience or degree in business, and because of his tendency to discourse in a rather fantastic way about the future of science and technology, one well-known analyst has questioned whether the young vice president has the right stuff to be a continuing asset to his company during its life-or-death struggle with Microsoft.

Jim Clark, a successful veteran of corporate struggle, has no such doubts. Clark has stated unequivocally, "the creative drive here is Marc Andreessen. This is his company." A number of Andreessen’s colleagues agree that his knowledge and foresight in the areas of technology and business are an indispensable asset for Netscape. All are confident that his current decisions will be as decisive and correct as those has made in the past.

Andreessen’s meteoric rise to wealth and fame has seemingly had only minor impact on his lifestyle. "It’s odd, but I try not to pay too much attention to it," notes Andreessen of his success and celebrity. Several observers have noted that Andreessen’s wealth has done little to alter the pedestrian taste in cuisine and clothing for which he has become renowned. He and Elizabeth finally bought a house, after first moving to a larger rented apartment, and the two have been known to return from an evening stroll to Tower Records with upward of 100 new classical CDs. Andreessen now drives a Mercedes, and has been seen on occasion wearing Polo shirts.

A Taste for B-movies, Business Strategy and the Liberal Arts

Since the founding of Netscape, Marc and Elizabeth have taken only two vacations, one of which was only a two-day excursion to New Zealand. Andreessen still keeps to an "engineer’s schedule," waking at 10 a.m. and going to sleep at 3 a.m. He breaks from work every afternoon to go with Elizabeth to walk their two bulldogs. At night the two eat dinner, often at a restaurant, and sometimes watch video movies (favorites include Steven Siegal, Steve Buscemi, "bad B-movies" and Jackie Chan-style Hong Kong flicks). Beginning around midnight, Andreessen spends two or three hours reading and answering e-mail.

Marc Andreessen still pursues a range of seemingly "ungeekish" interests, including classical music, history, philosophy, the media, and business. Notable on his shelf are books about the origins of electricity, railroads and telephones, as well as a variety of trade magazines and books about business strategy. In spite of a seemingly casual lifestyle, it would seem that Marc Andreessen continues to apply the bulk of his energies to the task of out-guessing, out-innovating and out-strategizing Netscape’s competition. The results of his thinking will very possibly continue to be found on our desktops, and on the hubs of the computer networks that carry the lifeblood of tomorrow’s global society.

Copyright © 1994-99 Jones International and Jones Digital Century. All rights reserved.


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