My Big Break: How Science's Peter Pham went from selling mainframes to churning out consumer startups
It’s easy when writing about successful entrepreneurs and investors to overlook the people who helped them reach these lofty plateaus. Often great success can be traced back to a few pivotal moments – an introduction, someone believing in you more than you believe in yourself, someone convincing you to take a leap – that change the course of one’s career.
It’s with that in mind that we’re spending the next few weeks chronicling these “Big Break” moments. The first was Pando’s Sarah Lacy describing how the publisher of the Memphis Business Journal, Barney DuBois, underwrote her high school newspaper and convinced her that journalism was in her blood.
I caught up recently with Science Inc co-founder (and former Billshrink CEO and Photobucket VP of Business Development) Peter Pham to ask who was most responsible for his success. Here's a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity.
[Note: The entire series is being sponsored by Braintree's Ignition program, offering $50k in transactions free of fees, so you'll only see their ads around "My Big Break" pieces. But the series was conceived, commissioned and edited entirely by Pando. Braintree had no input whatsoever in the editorial. For more on our policy towards single sponsor series like this one, see here.]
So when you look back, who stands out to you as the person who had the biggest impact on your career?
I just had lunch with him yesterday. He’s a friend of mine, we’ve known each other for 15 or 16 years now, his name is Jimmy Tam. Jimmy is the CEO of Peer software today, but I met him in 1999 through an introduction from a mutual friend and he convinced me to do my first true internet startup.
Jimmy was a little bit older than me, he had that big-six consultant background, and he just generally knew more than me. I was young, only one to two years out of college. He convinced me to quit what I was doing [enterprise hardware sales] and do this startup thing. He said we could make a lot of money.
Did you take a lot of convincing? Was this something that was on your radar or at least in your nature? What were you doing at the time?
When I started college, I was pre-med but I decided I didn’t want to be a doctor. I realized I don’t like too much structure around what I have to do everyday. I was always entrepreneurial, always hustling.
My first job in college was selling grey market laptops. I remember I was the only person in my freshman college dorm that had a laptop – it was a 16-color Texas Instruments. And I would teach people to use computers and install Windows 3 for $25 per hour.
Then, later, I worked at Circuit City selling computers. One day I sold one to this guy who owned an enterprise integration shop, he sold mainframes. He ended up hiring me for my first real job. I was selling $100,000 hardware systems.
As far as startups, I didn’t know any better.
So what was the experience like of switching from sales to entrepreneurship?
Jimmy had the original idea and there were only three of us. It was him, me, and Henry Fan who’s now the CEO of Malibu swimwear. The company was called DesktopOnline. It was the first ASP (application service provider).
We bought a bunch of servers and put them in a colocation facility and put Citrix and Office on each one. We started selling a $200 thin client with a $35 per month license. Nobody understood what we were doing. It was entirely new at the time.
The pay was crappy and I ended up sleeping on an aero bed on Jimmy’s floor in Pasadena three to four days per week – I lived in Newport beach which was a long drive. I probably slept on that floor 200 nights in the first year.
And how’d that end up? Did it turn into a win or was it a “learning experience?”
We sold the company. Today it would have been considered an acquihire – we took high-paying jobs at a Japanese conglomerate – but it was a win for us back then. That put some money in my pocket and broadened my network. Plus it gave me a taste for what’s possible.
I remember when we sold the company, we all took our first trip to New York together. The three of us stayed in one hotel room. I’ll never forget that.
Jimmy and I continued to work together, we did a number of other startups together. The next one was TiGi. It was one of the first solid state storage companies.
So how did you end up at PhotoBucket, which I think it’s fair to say was your first big win?
There was this guy, Michael Clark, who had worked with us at TiGi. He ended up becoming PhotoBucket employee number four. He called me and recruited me and said you should come over here and help us figure out what to do with this thing. Then Alex Welch, the founder and CEO of Photobucket gave me my other big break.
I had been in enterprise for eight years, and he gave me a shot to switch over to consumers. I convinced him that I had built a reseller channel in the solid state storage business out of thin air – remember that was a product in a category that no one had ever heard of before. But he gave me a shot and let me join PhotoBucket in biz-dev and corp-dev. That’s where I learned about consumer products, users acquisition, design, social, everything I’ve been doing since.
What’s your relationship like with Jimmy today? Are you peers? Would you consider him a mentor?
Jimmy and I are still good friends, we’re peers. Like I said, we caught up over lunch yesterday, actually. He continued consulting for startups for a few years and he’s now the CEO of a very successful company [Peer Software]. They have unbelievable customers and technology. I have no doubt that they will sell one day for hundreds of millions.
It’s funny. There are definitely moments that you look back and reflect on and say, "What if that didn’t happen?" Most of the time it’s a friend that introduced me to this person or that person. I think if you do right by people, be helpful, build up karma points, it comes back around and rewards you.
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