Longform

Who Wants to Be a Billionaire?

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When Jared was still in high school, the family moved for a time to San Diego, where Susan's mother lived. Jared attended high school there but got his real education working hand-in-hand with June Polis, his grandmother, who was Blue Mountain's sales manager. Together they would head off to greeting-card trade shows across the country. While Jared helped set up display booths, he'd watch as his grandmother used her soft sell on the crowd.

"It was fun. It was an adventure," he says. It was also a learning experience. "There's nothing that can compare to growing up in a family where there's a small business environment. That was invaluable in giving me a skill set I needed to become successful entrepreneur."

For example, Schutz recalls the time in 1986 when his parents launched a David-and-Goliath battle against greeting-card giant Hallmark. "Their cards looked identical to our cards," he explains, "so we sought injunctive relief in the court system, and we won. And it was just an example of big business trying to put small business out of business."

(Schutz learned that lesson well: When Microsoft e-mail software blocked bluemountain.com messages from going through, Blue Mountain sued the software giant -- and won again.)

Even if he wasn't a Reagan worshiper like TV's Keaton, at age seventeen Schutz was among the first in line to dance on the grave of the collapsed Soviet Union. Taking money he'd earned the previous summer buying scrap metal at government auctions and selling it to businesses for a profit, he flew to Russia on another moneymaking adventure. The country had just begun its tricky shift to a free-market economy, which meant that industries once held by the government were quickly being privatized. Western news-media accounts had inspired budding American entrepreneurs like Schutz, who saw Russia as their big chance for a fortune.

"I realized it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he says. "I just decided I wanted to go and got a visa and went there without much of a plan." Leaving his parents, who were hesitant about his trip, behind with his younger brother and sister, Schutz landed on the commodities floor of the Russian stock exchange trading privatization vouchers. While his fellow high school graduates spent their summer goofing off, Schutz was more than happy to be moshing in the trading pits of Moscow.

That fall, he returned to the U.S. and started college at Princeton as a political science major. But flush from his trading success, he was eager to get on with business, too. Schutz got his chance during a 1993 trip to Chicago, when he was serving as the Princeton delegate for a national meeting of college Democrats. A college friend introduced Schutz to two recent graduates of the University of Illinois, Josh Schneider and Mike Hakimi. The finance majors were looking for a partner to start some sort of business.

"It was just a crazy time," Schutz recalls. "We strategized in Josh's basement. One of our major criteria for starting a business was one in which we didn't need much capital. And we didn't really know how to raise capital."

Though none were computer majors, all three were computer enthusiasts. Schutz had begun tinkering with computers at age five, when his father brought home an Apple II. At the time, there wasn't a lot of practical application for the home computer, but Schutz and his father couldn't get enough. And then as a teenager, he'd discovered the world of bulletin boards and the Prodigy service.

The three realized it wouldn't take a large investment to start an Internet company to cater to computer enthusiasts like themselves. "We had enjoyed Internet access at our respective universities," Schutz says. "At that time, a lot of university students were on e-mail. And we said, 'Gosh, we think this is going to grow beyond universities, and regular people are going to start using this stuff.'"

Right as they were, Schutz admits he had no "bold vision of the future." He saw the Internet as a niche market at best: "We basically thought kids graduating college would want to keep an e-mail account. And do it from us. Businesses might want to get on, too. We never thought it was going to become the pop-culture hit that the Internet is."

From its start with one computer, five modems and a dedicated connection to the Internet, their American Information Systems began to grow -- quickly. AIS focused on corporate connectivity for business and started connecting other Internet service providers to the Net.



But even as AIS was getting off the ground, Schutz was back in school in New Jersey, setting up other Internet ventures, including Stardot, a Net-consulting firm for political candidates that he later sold.

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Chris LaMorte