May 28, 2023

Red Burns, ‘Godmother of Silicon Alley,’ Dies at 88

N.Y.U. announced her death.

Ms. Burns has been hailed as the “godmother of Silicon Alley” for helping to turn out 3,000 graduates of the university’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. Many have become part of the brain trust of Silicon Alley, as New York City’s answer to Silicon Valley is called. They work at Google, Apple, Microsoft and Disney as well as at small start-up firms.

Her purpose was to produce people, rather than just technicians, who could use technology to perform interesting and helpful tasks. Beginning in the early 1970s, working with George C. Stoney, a film professor, she created an informal N.Y.U. program called the Alternate Media Center. One of its efforts was to develop a two-way television system that allowed elderly residents of Reading, Pa., to interact with one another and “visit” community sites like the city center and the Social Security office.

She and Mr. Stoney explored the possibilities of the Sony Portapak camera, the first portable video camera, seeing it as a way to force social change. An early initiative used video to document a faulty stop light to force City Hall to provide a new traffic light.

When the computer became dominant, I.T.P. won notice by coming up with novelties like a talking gumball machine and a refrigerator with a video of a mother’s face projected on its interior back wall. When a visitor took a box of chocolates out of the refrigerator, the mother taunted: “Yeah, that’s just what you need! More chocolate.”

As the dot-com revolution gathered speed, the center was ready. Typical of its alchemy was a 2007 student project that devised a way for thirsty plants, with the help of sensors placed in the dirt, to signal over a phone line that they needed more water.

Ms. Burns wanted the school to be fun, and one student who fulfilled her vision was Dennis Crowley. With a fellow student, Alex Rainert, Mr. Crowley developed the social networking site Dodgeball at N.Y.U. and sold it to Google for millions of dollars after their graduation. When Google dropped Dodgeball in 2009, he started a similar service called Foursquare. It now boasts 25 million users.

In an interview with an N.Y.U. alumni magazine, Mr. Crowley said he fell in love with I.T.P. on encountering “a weird art show” on his first visit.

“The first project I saw was someone who was making robots who follow robots who follow robots,” he said. “And as soon as I saw that I was, like, oh, my God, I need to be here.”

He called I.T.P. “a playground, almost, for people who are really enthusiastic about tech and the user experience and using technology to enrich people’s lives.”

Daniel B. O’Sullivan, the current I.T.P. chairman, said in an interview on Monday that Ms. Burns “knew the road to invention was through whimsy.”

Ms. Burns herself had said that her way of encouraging creativity was to stay out of the way. “I played under the radar for a long time,” she told The New York Times in 2007. “I know that when you’re trying to do something new and you have no history or justification for doing it, people are quick to jump and pull on you. And I just wanted to be left alone.”

Ms. Burns was born Goldie Gennis on April 9, 1925, in Ottawa, to immigrants from Russia. Her nickname, Red, came from her hair color. A top student, she graduated from high school at 16 — too young to go to college, her parents insisted. So she took an internship at the National Film Board of Canada and became enthralled by cinema. She went on to marry a film board editor, Alex Myers, who died suddenly in 1953.

After taking a job with a television distribution company, she eventually married Lloyd Burns, a colleague. They moved from Toronto to New York. Mr. Burns died in 1970.

Ms. Burns is survived by a son, Michael, and a daughter, Barbara Burns, both from her first marriage; a daughter, Catherine Lloyd-Burns, from her second marriage; and three grandchildren.

Ms. Burns became intrigued by the Portapak after seeing one demonstrated and approached David Oppenheim, the dean of N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts, about the possibility of teaching a class using it. “At that time I didn’t need any money,” she said in an interview with Scienceline, an N.Y.U. publication, in 2012. “So I was hard to resist.”

Mr. Oppenheim directed her to Mr. Stoney. The program they started, I.T.P., awards master’s degrees to about 115 students a year. It offers 140 courses and has a full-time faculty of 10. Mr. O’Sullivan said it also employs “an army” of part-time professors. Half the student body is female, a rarity for a technical program, he said.

Ms. Burns, he added, did not really believe that technical expertise was essential to creativity, partly because technology is continually changing. Another reason, Mr. O’Sullivan said with a laugh, was that “she really had zero technical aptitude.”

“To me, the computer is just another tool,” Ms. Burns once said. “It’s like a pen. You have to have a pen, and to know penmanship, but neither will write the book for you.”

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You’re the Boss Blog: This Week In Small Business: Mibblio, Kaggle and Shodogg


A weekly roundup of small-business developments.

What’s affecting me, my clients and other small-business owners this week.


Ryan Tate says you can hear the screams of crushed start-ups echo across Silicon Valley. Here are five reasons undergraduate entrepreneurship courses aren’t producing entrepreneurs. Anil Dash offers 10 rules of the Internet.

The Economy: Manufacturing Is Sexy

Retail and food service (pdf) sales for June increased slightly, and consumer prices rose 1.8 percent over last year. Tim Mullaney reports on why the economy is not yet a pretty picture, Michael Lombardi explains why a recession is inevitable within 12 months, and Fabius Maximus is confused. But American manufacturers are seeing domestic growth, industrial output rose by the most in four months, and a Penn State University professor proclaims proclaims that manufacturing is sexy again. Conditions in the New York region improved modestly, and the Philadelphia area showed solid expansion. Builder confidence increased to its highest in seven years. Ben S. Bernanke tells the world the Federal Reserve is still easing. Shawn Tully explains why the interest rate party is over. Small businesses created 45 percent of the new jobs generated in June.

Finance: $92 Quadrillion

AmeriMerchant announces a new $60 million credit line to finance small businesses, HSBC starts a $1 billion loan program for small exporters, and a Paypal glitch debits $92 quadrillion from a guy’s account. Tracy Kellaher lists four ways banks alienate small-business customers. Here are the 13 biggest Kickstarter projects ever — and where they stand now. Amrik Randhawa suggests three accounting habits to practice weekly, and a new cash-flow tool promises to help businesses improve their forecasting.

Start-Up: Mibblio, Kaggle and Shodogg

Here’s why so many start-ups have silly names, like Mibblio, Kaggle and Shodogg. A start-up wants to help freelancers earn more. Here are 16 essential skills for freelancers. Google and Blackbox, a global start-up accelerator, team up to help selected start-ups. A study reveals how to spot future entrepreneurs (hint: it’s not about the grades), and one entrepreneur makes millions doing the chores we all dread. Nathan Beckord explains how he hacked the start-up conference circuit.

People: Unlimited Vacation

Justin Fox makes the case for paying people more. Bryan Goldberg explains why seeing employees get rich is awesome. The chief technology officer and co-founder of HubSpot says employees should get unlimited vacation, and this company is advertising for a happiness engineer. A business owner offers employees the use of a financial adviser. The difference between how employees are are treated at a company can boil down to which ones have children. Victor Cheng suggests five ways to keep employees from checking out on the job. Christine Comaford shares her thoughts on using psychology to engage employees. A restaurant owner fires all of his employees by text message.

Management: Crazy, Successful People

Here are some tips for making it in the art world. Carolyn Gregoire shares the one thing that many “crazy successful people” do every morning. A Sage survey finds small-business owners continue to work longer hours and take less vacation. Srikanth An says doing foolish things with enthusiasm is one of 10 traits of a successful entrepreneur, and Valerie Balester lists seven habits of highly effective communicators. Lin DeBeaulieu shares a few fitness tips for business travelers, and Paul Mah shows how to transform your hotel room into a productive workspace. Prasad Kaipa explains to tell if you’re suffering from “Superman syndrome.” Jason Piatt suggests eight steps to improve operational processes.

Marketing: Selling in Asia

Jeff Bullas points out seven marketing trends you should not ignore. Sean D’Souza says there are three core elements of good storytelling (and says your business needs them). Sonia Simone says there are five things you can do this week to fix your marketing. Craig Briggs has 12 answers to help Western marketers sell in Asia. Some retailers are tracking their shoppers’ cell phones, and research finds that mobile accounts for 85 percent of gas and convenience store searches.

Social Media: Twitter Power

Stephanie Miles shares seven strategies for maximizing the success of your social media. This infographic reveals the marketing power of Twitter. Dave Matthews hitchhikes to his own show. Bridget Ayers wants you to implement these simple security settings for your social media activities. Becky McCray explains what to do if you hate your Web site. Andy Hayes shares three Web trends that customers (and business owners) will love.

Around The Country: Boot Camp for Women

Detroit files the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. Moody’s downgrades Chicago’s debt. Miami is experiencing a rise in start-up activity, and Phoenix small businesses are seeing a growing economy. Angered by the Zimmerman verdict, some are calling for a boycott of Florida businesses. An entrepreneur finds a niche in the San Francisco rental market. The Community College of Philadelphia is offering free small-business training. An online event will feature a panel of women entrepreneurs who have received financing from United States Special Operations Command. American Express Open will hold a boot camp for women entrepreneurs in September.

Around The World: Hitting the (Great) Wall

The world’s largest building opens for business in China even as the country’s economic growth slows (and Paul Krugman suggests it’s about to hit the wall). Central bankers in India and Brazil tighten liquidity. The infamous Russian oligarch Sergey Veremeenko shows how the .00001 percent lives in Moscow. British retailers are coming up with creative ways to capitalize on the royal baby buzz. The Middle East tops the West in female founders of tech companies.

Red Tape: Planning for Bunny Disasters

Microsoft is backing a small-business lobby to ease immigration laws. The Feds want a disaster plan to protect magic-hat bunnies. Here’s how Hurricane Sandy affected local taxes. Richard Posner says the sequester has been a failure. The Internal Revenue Service cancels one of its furlough days. A report finds that two of every three small-business executives say they’re not ready for the Affordable Care Act. Still, the new law is bringing good news about insurance premiums. Hamilton Nolan reports that part-time is the new full-time, but Matthew Yglesias says “Obamacare” is not to blame. Privacy fears over the legislation are looming as agencies begin to link up. More doctors are bailing out on their practices.

Technology: Five Million Smartwatches

A research firm says $2.1 trillion will go into information technology spending in 2013. Paid apps are on the decline. Five million smartwatches are expected to ship in 2014. Ramon Ray has 10 tips for staying safe and virus free. New Mac malware is confusing users. Here are the eight best apps for team collaboration. Samsung continues to dominate Android. Microsoft’s introduction of the Surface was “a disaster,” but Tony Bradley says the device can help small businesses reduce tech costs. Sameer Doshi, who is blind, shows how he uses a computer. Researchers have developed a phone that can be recharged with urine.

Tweet Of The Week

‏@SalesLeaderTodd – Is there a silver bullet for sales? Nope. If you have forgotten the basics get reacquainted and sell more.

The Week’s Best Quotes

Seth Godin believes more people are marketing badly: “The cure? Notice what is working in the real world and try to figure out why. Apply it to your work. Repeat. Learn to see, to discern the difference between good and bad, between useful and merely comfortable.”

Adrienne Asselmeier says failure really is an option: “Instead of proclaiming that you’re not afraid to fail, it’s important to contemplate challenges you may face, how you will handle them, and what you will do if ultimately you do fail. If you’re prepared for failure as an option, then you won’t end up in the gutter because you will be vigilant and flexible while still working toward your business goals.”

This Week’s Question: Are you prepared to fail?

Gene Marks owns the Marks Group, a Bala Cynwyd, Pa., consulting firm that helps clients with customer relationship management. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Economix Blog: Immigration and Entrepreneurship

One of the key economic arguments underpinning the immigration overhaul is that immigrants create jobs — not only because they spend money, but because they tend to be unusually entrepreneurial and innovative and so create job opportunities for the people around them. Think of Silicon Valley figures like Sergey Brin, Andrew Grove or Vinod Khosla — or the designer Liz Claiborne. The bill that passed the Senate last week, under Subtitle H, even included special provisions for what is being called a “start-up visa,” to be granted to people who start companies that meet certain venture capital, hiring and revenue requirements.

So is it true that immigrants are unusually entrepreneurial? The data available suggest that yes, immigrants are overrepresented among America’s business founders and innovators.

Immigration Divide

Weighing the economic claims in the Congressional debate.

According to a Small Business Administration-commissioned report in 2012 by Robert W. Fairlie, an economics professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the business ownership rate is higher for immigrants than the native-born, with 10.5 percent of the immigrant work force owning a business compared with 9.3 percent of the native-born work force.

Those numbers refer to ownership of existing businesses; immigrants are also more likely to start a business in any given month. In 2010, the business formation rate per month among immigrants was 0.62 percent, meaning that of every 100,000 non-business-owning immigrants, 620 started a business each month. The comparable rate for nonimmigrants was 0.28 percent (or 280 out of every of 100,000 non-business-owning adults). The gap in new business formation between immigrants and nonimmigrants has been growing recently, too.

Robert W. Fairlie, Robert W. Fairlie, “Immigrant Entrepreneurs and Small Business Owners, and Their Access to Financial Capital,” Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, May 2012.

Higher business formation rates among the foreign-born may be driven by necessity, especially when the economy is bad.

“Because of limited job opportunities in the Great Recession there appears to be an even greater response of starting businesses among immigrants than among nonimmigrants, which may have to do with lower-skilled workers having more difficulty in finding jobs,” Mr. Fairlie writes.

Immigrant-owned businesses tend to be smaller, with an average of $435,000 in annual sales and receipts, compared with $609,000 for native-owned companies.

Robert W. Fairlie, Robert W. Fairlie, “Immigrant Entrepreneurs and Small Business Owners, and Their Access to Financial Capital,” Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, May 2012.

As for job creation, companies owned by immigrants are slightly more likely to hire employees than are non-immigrant-owned companies, though they tend to take on fewer employees on average in the cases when they do hire. Among immigrant-owned businesses with employees, there are an average of eight employees and an average payroll totaling $253,000. Native-owned firms that have employees hire an average of 11.9 staff members, with an average payroll of $429,000.

The share of companies that export their goods and services is also higher for immigrant-owned than for native-owned businesses (7.1 percent versus 4.4 percent). This might be because immigrants have existing business networks within their home countries, but it’s hard to know from the data.

Immigrants’ entrepreneurship rates are especially high in the engineering and technology sector. About a quarter of engineering and technology companies founded between 2006 and 2012 had at least one founder who was born abroad, according to a 2012 Kauffman Foundation study. In Silicon Valley, the share was 43.9 percent.

Indian-born immigrants are most highly represented among entrepreneurs in the engineering and technology sector; of all immigrant-founded companies in the Kauffman Foundation study, a third had Indian founders, up from 7 percent in 2005. The next most common nation of origin for these high-tech immigrant entrepreneurs was China.

“Then and Now: America’s New Immigrant Entrepreneurs, Part VI,” by Vivek Wadhwa, AnnaLee Saxenian and F. Daniel Siciliano. Kauffman Foundation, May 2012.

Another Kauffman follow-up paper also found that these high-tech immigrant founders were highly educated (74 percent held graduate or postgraduate degrees), and a majority had originally come to the United States to study, not specifically to found a new company or to accept a job at an existing company.

A co-author of those papers, Vivek Wadhwa, has since written a book suggesting that we may be on the verge of a decline in high-tech immigrant entrepreneurship because of legal barriers to staying in the United States and improving economic opportunities back in immigrants’ home countries.

Aside from business start-up rates, another measurement that suggests immigrants are unusually innovative is the disproportionately high number of patents awarded to the foreign-born.

A 2007 Kauffman Foundation study found that foreign nationals residing in the United States were named as inventors or co-inventors on about a quarter of international patent applications filed from the United States in 2006. This figure probably understates immigrant patent filings, too, since it excludes immigrants who have already become naturalized citizens.

A subsequent study on immigrant patent filings (conducted by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a nonprofit group of which Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is a co-founder) likewise found that immigrants were named in more than three out of four patents at America’s Top 10 research universities.

A version of this article appeared in print on 07/02/2013, on page A16 of the NewYork edition with the headline: Immigrants Rank Higher As Entrepreneurs.

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The Boss: SolarCity’s Chief, on a Turn Toward the Sun

By age 12, I was teaching ballroom dancing at my aunt’s dance studio. Jazz was my favorite music. When I was 17, I began my first business, which distributed homeopathic medications, and spent a fair amount of time on the road visiting communities to sell them. I almost got expelled from school because I was attending so few classes. But I did graduate, thanks to the good graces of the principal.

In June 1998, I traveled to San Jose, Calif., to play for South Africa’s national team competing in the underwater hockey world championships. In underwater hockey, players wear a mask, fins and a snorkel, and dive to the bottom of the pool and compete to pass the puck. I became interested in the sport, which is fast-moving and great fun, because my brother Peter also played.

I liked California so much that I decided to move to the United States to start a technology business. Together with my older brother Russell, who had been working in Silicon Valley, we started a company called Everdream that provided software for companies to maintain their computers remotely.

At first, the two of us ran the company from our rented house in Santa Cruz, Calif., and the next year, in 1999, we secured our first funding. Soon after that, our brother Peter, a software engineer, joined the business. Eventually, we realized that our stand-alone business model was not feasible for the long term. In 2007, the company was acquired by one of our corporate partners, Dell Inc.

Even before the sale, we had been working on an idea for a solar business. Our cousin, Elon Musk (our mothers are twins), who founded PayPal, suggested that we investigate clean energy. We started SolarCity on July 4, 2006, to symbolize our commitment to becoming independent of fossil fuels. Elon, who is the chief executive of SpaceX (the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation), and of the all-electric car company Tesla Motors, is chairman of SolarCity.

We decided to build on our expertise in providing remote services and to focus on distributing solar energy. We install solar panels free, then sell the energy they generate to customers, often at a lower rate than they pay their utility providers. We have more than $1.7 billion in backing from investors including banks and companies like Honda North America and Google. We have grown to more than 2,800 employees in 14 states. Last December, SolarCity began trading publicly.

We also provide solar services to large companies, including eBay, Walgreen and Wal-Mart Stores, to more than 300 schools and universities and to more than two dozen home builders. We recently helped a school district in the Central Valley of California convert to solar power, and save enough on its energy bills to be able to resuscitate its music program.

But we still have a long way to go, because solar energy supplies less than 1 percent of America’s energy needs. Tax incentives, just as they have for most energy sources of the past century, have helped make solar energy affordable and attract investors needed to expand operations.

My other job is being the father to two young boys, 4 and 5. Their mother is my wife, Madeleine, who was my high school sweetheart. In my spare time, I still love to play underwater hockey, but my mission is to change the way people get their electricity and provide more affordable clean energy.

As told to Elizabeth Olson.

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CourseSmart E-Textbooks Track Students’ Progress for Teachers

They know when students are skipping pages, failing to highlight significant passages, not bothering to take notes — or simply not opening the book at all.

“It’s Big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent,” said Tracy Hurley, the dean of the school of business.

The faculty members here are neither clairvoyant nor peering over shoulders. They, along with colleagues at eight other colleges, are testing technology from a Silicon Valley start-up, CourseSmart, that allows them to track their students’ progress with digital textbooks.

Major publishers in higher education have already been collecting data from millions of students who use their digital materials. But CourseSmart goes further by individually packaging for each professor information on all the students in a class — a bold effort that is already beginning to affect how teachers present material and how students respond to it, even as critics question how well it measures learning. The plan is to introduce the program broadly this fall.

Adrian Guardia, a Texas AM instructor in management, took notice the other day of a student who was apparently doing well. His quiz grades were solid, and so was what CourseSmart calls his “engagement index.” But Mr. Guardia also saw something else: that the student had opened his textbook only once.

“It was one of those aha moments,” said Mr. Guardia, who is tracking 70 students in three classes. “Are you really learning if you only open the book the night before the test? I knew I had to reach out to him to discuss his studying habits.”

Students do not see their engagement indexes unless a professor shows them, but they know the books are watching them. For a few, merely hearing the number is a shock. Charles Tejeda got a C on the last quiz, but the real revelation that he is struggling was a low CourseSmart index.

“They caught me,” said Mr. Tejeda, 43. He has two jobs and three children, and can study only late at night. “Maybe I need to focus more,” he said.

CourseSmart is owned by Pearson, McGraw-Hill and other major publishers, which see an opportunity to cement their dominance in digital textbooks by offering administrators and faculty a constant stream of data about how students are doing.

In the old days, teachers knew if students understood the course from the expressions on their faces. Now some classes, including one of Mr. Guardia’s, are entirely virtual. Engagement information could give the colleges early warning about which students might flunk out, while more broadly letting teachers know if the whole class is falling behind.

Eventually, the data will flow back to the publishers, to help prepare new editions.

Academic and popular publishers, as well as some authors, have dreamed for years of such feedback to direct sales and editorial efforts more efficiently. Amazon and Barnes Noble are presumed to be collecting a trove of data from readers, although they decline to say what, if anything, they will do with it.

The predigital era, when writers wrote and publishers published without a clue, is seen as an amazingly ignorant time. “Before this, the publisher never knew if Chapter 3 was even looked at,” said Sean Devine, CourseSmart’s chief executive.

More than 3.5 million students and educators use CourseSmart textbooks and are already generating reams of data about Chapter 3. Among the colleges experimenting this semester are Clemson, Central Carolina Technical College and Stony Brook University, as well as Texas AM-San Antonio, a new offshoot.

Texas AM has one of the highest four-year graduation rates in the state, but only half the students make it out in that time. “If CourseSmart offers to hook it up to every class, we wouldn’t decline,” said Dr. Hurley, the dean.

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Attacks on Spamhaus Used Internet Against Itself

The short answer is: Not easily. The digital “fire hose” being wielded by the attackers to jam traffic on the Internet in recent weeks was made possible by both the best and worst aspects of the sprawling global computer network. The Internet is, by default, an open, loosely regulated platform for communication, but many of the servers that make its communication possible have been configured in such a way that they can be easily fooled.

The latest attacks, which appeared to have subsided by Wednesday, have demonstrated just how big a problem that can be.

On Tuesday, security engineers said that an anonymous group unhappy with Spamhaus, a volunteer organization that distributes a blacklist of spammers to e-mail providers, had retaliated with a cyberattack of vast proportions.

In what is called a distributed denial of service, or DDoS, attack, the assailants harnessed a powerful botnet — a network of thousands of infected computers being controlled remotely — to send attack traffic first to Spamhaus’s Web site and later to the Internet servers used by CloudFlare, a Silicon Valley company that Spamhaus hired to deflect its onslaught.

This kind of attack works because the botnet exploits Internet routing software and fools Internet servers into responding to requests for information sent simultaneously by a large group of computers. The Internet servers that answer the requests are tricked into sending blocks of data to the victims, in this case Spamhaus and CloudFlare.

The attack was amplified because each of the servers in this case was asked to send a relatively large block of information. The data stream grew from 10 billion bits per second last week to as much as 300 billion bits per second this week, the largest such attack ever reported, causing what CloudFlare estimated to be hundreds of millions of people to experience delays and error messages across the Web.

On Wednesday, CloudFlare described the highly technical game of cat-and-mouse between itself and Spamhaus’s opponents that has played out over the course of the last nine days. After the attackers discovered that they could not disable CloudFlare, which had been hired by Spamhaus to absorb its attack traffic, they changed their strategy.

They took aim at the networks that CloudFlare connected to and began to attack the computer servers that serve as the network’s foundation. These are specialized “peering” points at which Internet networks exchange traffic. The attackers took aim at organizations like the London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Hong Kong Internet exchanges, which route regional Internet traffic and are also used by sites like Google, Facebook and Yahoo to pass traffic efficiently among one another.

Here, too, they were unable to stall the Internet completely, but they did slow it, particularly by focusing on the London exchange, known as LINX.

“From our perspective, the attacks had the largest effect on LINX,” said Matthew Prince, CloudFlare’s chief executive, in a description posted on the company’s Web site on Wednesday. For a little over an hour on Saturday, he said, the traffic passing through the LINX infrastructure dropped significantly.

The attacks were episodic, stopping and starting and shifting targets over nine days through Tuesday morning. On Wednesday, Mr. Prince said that there some indications that the attackers were planning further actions, although he said he did not know if they would include DDoS attacks.

Veteran Internet engineers said the attack was made possible by a combination of defects, loopholes and sloppy configuration of Internet routing equipment. Indeed, a number of computer security specialists pointed out that the attacks would have been impossible if the world’s major Internet firms simply checked that outgoing data packets truly were being sent by their customers, rather than botnets. Unfortunately, a relatively small number of Internet companies actually perform this kind of check.

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Nick D’Aloisio, 17, Sells Summly App to Yahoo

One of Yahoo’s newest employees is a 17-year-old high school student in Britain. As of Monday, he is one of its richest, too.

That student, Nick D’Aloisio, a programming whiz who wasn’t even born when Yahoo was founded in 1994, sold his news-reading app, Summly, to the company on Monday for a sum said to be in the tens of millions of dollars. Yahoo said it would incorporate his algorithmic invention, which takes long-form stories and shortens them for readers using smartphones, in its own mobile apps, with Mr. D’Aloisio’s help.

“I’ve still got a year and a half left at my high school,” he said in a telephone interview on Monday. But he will make arrangements to test out of his classes and work from the Yahoo office in London, partly to abide by the company’s new and much-debated policy that prohibits working from home.

Mr. D’Aloisio, who declined to comment on the price paid by Yahoo (the technology news site AllThingsD pegged the purchase price at about $30 million), was Summly’s largest shareholder.

Summly’s other investors, improbably enough, included Wendi Murdoch, Ashton Kutcher and Yoko Ono. The most important one was Li Ka-shing, the Hong Kong billionaire, whose investment fund supported Mr. D’Aloisio’s idea early on, before it was even called Summly.

“They took a gamble on me when I was a 15-year-old,” Mr. D’Aloisio said, by providing seed financing that let him hire employees and lease office space.

The fund read about Mr. D’Aloisio’s early-stage app on TechCrunch, the Silicon Valley blog of record, found his e-mail address and startled him with a message expressing interest.

The others signed up later. “Because it was my first time around, people just wanted to help,” he said.

For teenagers who fancy themselves entrepreneurs — and their parents, too — the news of the sale conjured up some feelings of inadequacy, but also awe. For Brian Wong, the 21-year-old founder of Kiip, a mobile rewards company, the reaction was downright laughable: “I feel old!”

A few years ago, Mr. Wong was described in the news media as the youngest person ever to receive venture capital funding. But a couple of younger founders came along — “and then Nick broke all of our records,” Mr. Wong said on Monday.

Among the attributes that helped Mr. D’Aloisio, he said, was a preternatural ability to articulate exactly what he wanted Summly to be. “There were no umms, no uhhs, no hesitations, no insecurities,” Mr. Wong said.

Mr. D’Aloisio, for his part, sounded somewhat uninterested in answering questions about his age on Monday. He acknowledged that it was an advantage in some pitch meetings, and certainly in the news media, “but so was the strength of the idea.” He was more eager to talk about his new employer, Yahoo, which is trying to reinvent itself as a mobile-first technology company (having dropped the digital media tagline it used before Marissa Mayer became chief executive last year).

“People are kind of underestimating how powerful it’s going to become and how much opportunity is there,” he said.

For a company that badly wants to be labeled innovative, those words are worth a lot.

Mr. D’Aloisio’s father, who works at Morgan Stanley, and his mother, a lawyer, had no special knowledge of technology. But they nurtured their son’s fascination with it and he started coding at age 12. Eventually he decided to develop an app with what he calls an “automatic summarization algorithm,” one that “can take pre-existing long-form content and summarize it.” In other words, it tries to solve a problem that is often summed up with the abbreviation tl;dr: “too long; didn’t read.”

Summly officially came online last November. By December, Mr. D’Aloisio was talking to Yahoo and other suitors.

Yahoo said in a statement that while the Summly app would be shut down, “we will acquire the technology and you’ll see it come to life throughout Yahoo’s mobile experiences soon.”

Other news-reading apps have attracted corporate attention as of late, reflecting the scramble by media companies to adapt to skyrocketing traffic from mobile devices. The social network LinkedIn was said to be pursuing an app called Pulse earlier this month. Still, the eight-figure payday for a teenage entrepreneur on Monday struck some as outlandish and set off speculation that Yahoo was willing to pay almost any price for “cool.”

Mr. D’Aloisio, though, will have plenty of time to prove his and his algorithm’s worth. As for the sizable paycheck from Yahoo, he said he did not have any specific plans for the sudden windfall. “It’s going to be put into a trust fund and my parents will help manage it,” he said.

He did say, however, that “angel investing could be really fun.” When not working at Yahoo, he will keep up with his hobbies — cricket in particular — and set his sights on attending college at Oxford. His intended major is philosophy.

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Advertising: Google Upgrades Campaign for Mobile Marketing

The 2013 version of the initiative is to be announced on Thursday as a gaggle of Googlers gets ready for the annual South by Southwest Interactive Conference and Festival in Austin, Tex.

The initiative last year, known as Project Re:Brief, was meant to help change minds outside Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley about the role that technology in general, and Google products in particular, could play in mainstream brand marketing.

The focus of Project Re:Brief — as in rethinking a creative brief — was to reimagine for contemporary consumers four classic commercials and campaigns from the “Mad Men” era, for Alka-Seltzer, Avis, Coca-Cola and Volvo.

This time, the brands taking part are Adidas, Burberry and Volkswagen, with Volkswagen of America and its creative agency, Deutsch L.A., going first.

Another change for 2013 is a renaming of the initiative: Art, Copy and Code, riffing on the ad industry phrase “art and copy,” evoking the two components of most ads; the organization known as the One Club for Art and Copy; and a movie, “Art and Copy,” produced by the organization.

Perhaps the biggest change for Version 2.0 is to shift the time frame. The work developed last year for Project Re:Brief was based on ads from the 1960s and 1970s. The work being developed for Adidas, Burberry and Volkswagen will be based on current ads.

“We had a great experience last year when we went back to the iconic campaigns, people saying, ‘Wow, you can build brands online; digital isn’t just for click-here, direct-response ads,’ ” said Jim Lecinski, vice president for United States sales and service at Google.

“And we were pleased and proud of recognition in the industry,” he added, like the initiative for Coca-Cola’s winning the first-ever grand prix for mobile advertising at the 59th Cannes Lions international advertising festival in June.

This time, the goal is to see “what we could do for a live, real, of-the-moment brief for a brand,” Mr. Lecinski said, and “to get something into the marketplace right now.”

For Volkswagen, the basis of what is being created is the current brand positioning campaign that associates Volkswagen with what Esso gasoline described decades ago as “Happy motoring” — in other words, said Winston Binch, partner and chief digital officer at Deutsch L.A., “bringing enjoyment, fun, to every drive.”

Examples of how Deutsch L.A. has been expressing that recently for Volkswagen include a commercial last fall that carried the theme “It’s not the miles, it’s how you live them” and a spot that ran during Super Bowl XLVII on Feb. 3 that carried the theme “Get in. Get happy.”

For Art, Copy and Code, Volkswagen of America will offer drivers a mobile app and Web service called Volkswagen Smileage, billed as fostering a social driving experience. Drivers who use the new Google Plus Sign-In program from the Google Plus social networking tool can share their smile-inducing driving experiences with friends and family.

“Brands need to act more and more like inventors,” Mr. Binch said, and embrace “productized marketing” like the Nike Plus Fuel Band and the American Express Open Forum.

(Social driving may be another example of how social media are remaking marketing; there are also, for instance, social shopping and social sampling.)

“We have a passionate owner base, and we’re going to reach out to them first with the beta version” of Volkswagen Smileage, said Justin Osborne, general manager for advertising and marketing communication at Volkswagen of America in Herndon, Va. After that, “we’re going to roll it out to a larger audience,” Mr. Osborne said, offering it to all drivers, not only Volkswagen owners.

“I want someone who owns a Corolla to have this app in their car, to get a little piece of Volkswagen in their car,” he added.

Google “reached out to us to see if we’d be interested in the second version” of Project Re:Brief, Mr. Osborne said, “and it was a bit of a beauty pageant; we had to write a brief” explaining why Volkswagen ought to take part.

“To be honest, we didn’t know what we were going for” at first, he added, but after brainstorming sessions there were “aha moments” that proved “the Google people live up to their reputation: they’re wicked smart.”

Also working on Volkswagen Smileage with Google, Volkswagen of America and Deutsch L.A. — part of the Deutsch unit of Lowe Partners, owned by the Interpublic Group of Companies — is Grow, formerly Grow Interactive, a digital agency in Norfolk, Va., that worked with Google on Project Re:Brief.

Grow will be Google’s “creative and technology partner” for all the Art, Copy and Code initiatives, said Drew Ungvarsky, chief executive and creative director at Grow.

“I think this is a welcome progression from last year,” he added. “What we did was received incredibly well, but this is on a broader scale, with ideas that are ready for today’s market.”

Aman Govil, team lead for the advertising arts team at Google, who also worked on Project Re:Brief, said the efforts for Adidas and Burberry are “still in the early creative process.”

“We’re looking at how we can innovate with them,” he added, also “looking at more than ads, using social media, apps, Google Chrome, Android, Google Plus, to help brands build with digital.”

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Site Insight: Are Big Clients Worth the Effort for This Web Start-Up?

Site Insight

What’s wrong with this site?

For me, writing this column brings two fascinating benefits: the people I get to meet and the information they share. Because my days at are filled with e-commerce decisions, I appreciate the value of baseline data, and knowing how visitors act on other sites helps me gauge our performance. I hope you, too, can benefit from these ideas and statistics.

In last week’s post, we met Recruiterbox, a three-year-old start-up that organizes the recruiting process. Having grown through smart and frugal marketing, Raj Sheth and his co-founders are debating how to guide their company to the next set of customers. Their focus has been on companies with fewer than 50 employees. Larger companies have more to spend on recruiting, but also demand a more resource-intense sales approach.

We left off asking readers for feedback on which market Recruiterbox should emphasize. We also asked whether you thought the site was easy enough to understand.

One comment suggested focusing on the potential of the small- to medium-size business market. In fact, the commenter went so far as to suggest focusing on start-ups and small enterprises in India and Silicon Valley. His point was that the $100-per-month cost would be easy for these companies to digest given the value Recruiterbox offers. I agreed wholeheartedly that the company should avoid the temptation of catering to larger companies. While the appeal of increasing revenue per client can be tough to resist, it comes with three key obstacles.

  1. Larger companies mean more decision makers, which translates into a significantly longer sales cycle.
  2. Recruiterbox does not have an outbound sales team to sell into that market. This is a significant cost savings but makes outreach to bigger companies tougher.
  3. Large companies are often swayed by reputation, and because Recruiterbox is relatively new to the market, it does not have the corporate credibility that a human resources executive may be expecting.

Other comments provided feedback on how the site functions. I challenged Mr. Sheth with these thoughts, and he shared some of his core site statistics to support his answers.

Is the Try It for Free button too easy to miss?

We used color to help make that button stand out. It is the only blue button on the site. Eighty-four percent of the people who hit the homepage end up clicking on the button. That works for us although we also want people to watch the video to get a feel for the product. On average 7 percent of the visitors that click on the Try It for Free button sign up for the trial version.

At three minutes, isn’t the video too long?

We have remade this video three times. The actual site demo takes 15 to 20 minutes, so it was quite an effort to edit that video down to three minutes. Seven percent of our visitors watch the whole video — or roughly 2,000 of our 30,000 monthly visitors. We don’t have stats on the number of people who start to play it and then stop in the middle. We haven’t made the investment in producing a one-minute concept video although we do understand the value of one. The positive side is that after watching the current video many of our potential customers can jump right in because they understand how to use the application.

On the homepage, why not have the Reasons You’ll Love It section follow the video instead of the Social Proof? Why not put some of that information on a separate page.

This isn’t a focus because so few people scroll down below the fold. Approximately 90 percent of the visitors click on either the Try It for Free button or the video. As to potentially separating those sections into different pages, we believe having all of the key information on the homepage raises our search engine optimization ranking.

Can the text on the homepage explaining what you do be more concise?

We have struggled with that line, appreciate that feedback and agree it could be improved.

Why don’t you advertise on or other job sites?

We have tried partnering with job sites but have not made progress. We aren’t relevant to the job seeker, only to the employer, so we are looking to structure a relationship that only shows our ads to employers.

How do you use customer feedback?

We receive a few hundred e-mails per month from paying and trial customers. This is in addition to the feedback we get during our two to three demo calls every day. It is a big advantage to be this close to our customer. We are careful to filter the feedback based on the size of the company — large companies provide different feedback than their smaller counterparts. We compile the feedback, and it drives our development road map, what features we add and when.

Would you like to have your business’s Web site or mobile app reviewed? This is an opportunity for companies looking for an honest (and free) appraisal of their online presence and marketing efforts.

To be considered, please tell us  about your experiences — why you started your site, what works, what doesn’t and why you would like to have the site reviewed — in an e-mail to

Richard Demb is co-founder of Abe’s Market, an online marketplace for natural products that is based in Chicago.

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DealBook: Live Blog: DealBook’s Post-Election Conference

The fiscal cliff in the United States, the European debt crisis and the slowdown in China’s economy have all weighed on deal-making. The 2012 election results were supposed to provide some clarity to our fiscal future, but the outcome of the much-debated tax increases and budget cuts remains uncertain. Our inaugural conference, “DealBook: Opportunities for Tomorrow,” will explore the challenges and the possibilities in this environment.

Writers and editors at The New York Times will interview leaders and chief executives from Wall Street to Silicon Valley in a day-long conference at the Times Center in New York. Whether you’re attending in person or watching our video feed above, you can read up-to-minute analysis from our live blog of the day’s events and take part in the conversation on Twitter with the hash tag #DBconf.

The official conference web site includes biographies of the speakers and an agenda for the day’s events.

For the best viewing experience, readers who want to watch the embedded video below should turn off auto-refresh.

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