IQ News: Profile – Programmed to Connect

This eGroups exec hopes to revitalize the concept of community.
Even when Rikk Carey has been deepest into code, it’s the people thing that’s been the most important part of any programming project for him.
Carey joined graphics workstation maker Silicon Graphics in its heyday, when the burgeoning field of computer graphics required the big, expensive computers SGI produced. During his watch from 1982 to 1997, SGI had what he calls “a great run.”
“Experiencing that kind of winning situation is the most important experience you can get out of your career,” he says.
While at the Mountain View, Calif.-based company, Carey was one of the leaders in the creation of VRML, an international open source project to establish a standard for creating three-dimensional graphics for the Web.
For that ongoing project (launched in 1994 and now known as the Web 3D Consortium), volunteers worked together via e-mail to write, test and refine code that would let people create and view graphics files complex enough to model a three-dimensional world, but small enough to access over the Web.
In his next position, as vice president of engineering at San Francisco-based during 1998 and 1999, Carey’s task was to build an online community based on free, downloadable music, taking advantage of compression formats like MP3, which would let users share their passion for music with each other. He also spent a few months trying to launch his own startup, a community-based company that would let users chat with others who were visiting the same Web page.
Just two months ago, Carey was vice president of engineering for e-mail discussion list provider OneList, Redwood City, Calif. He’d no sooner signed on there than it merged with eGroups, which had a similar target customer and complementary services. Now CTO of eGroups, Carey’s mission is to integrate the two companies’ technologies and technical staffs under the eGroups rubric.
He feels ready to put to work the sometimes difficult lessons he’s learned about the messy business of communicating online. The San Francisco-based eGroups offers a variety of Web-based community-making tools such as private and public e-mail lists, password-protected Web sites, online meetings and shared calendars.
Carey approves of eGroups’ approach toward building a business on the rather overworked concept of community–what his staff often calls “the C-word.” He says: “People’s affinity is not toward our company but toward their group. We’re not trying to sell you some tired version of community.” He thinks eGroups’ suite of tools fosters the same grassroots approach to creating true conglomerates of like minds that he’s learned over his years of participation in technically oriented newsgroups. “In all the e-mail groups I’ve been in, there’s community that’s based on shared values, leaders and a group history,” he says.
The key to building the business successfully, in Carey’s opinion, is giving users free rein and plenty of options to do what they will. “You can’t control community,” he says. “You have to step back and let it grow on its own.” Monetizing that community, with ads or paid-for premium services, comes from giving users excellent value. The services must be designed with the customers in mind, not the advertisers. For Web businesses such as this, Carey says, there’s always a tension between those two constituencies.
“It’s like yin and yang; your advertising and users must be in perfect balance. It can be a healthy tension, and I think eGroups is embracing that tension,” he says.
Such talk sounds more like it might have come out of the mouth of an editor or business development guy than a techie type. In fact, Carey can talk strategy, marketing and HR with the best of them. He doesn’t chafe at his technical role, however. As CTO, he says, he gets to spend “about an hour a day talking about the big picture. The rest of the time, I’m managing very smart technical people.” His brief at eGroups is to translate the company’s business goals and interests into products.
That’s a task that suits his own interests. While his work with VRML was exciting and intellectually rewarding, the marketplace never shared that excitement. VRML was roundly dissed by the press, ignored by most Web content creators and unknown to the general public.
Carey insists, however, that he was not disappointed by the tepid reaction to VRML. “You can’t just build cool stuff,” he says. “You have to deploy it and people have to want it. [With VRML], there was no pull from the marketplace.”
That’s not the case at his new gig. EGroups has a combined 15 million users from the two companies, plenty of funding and a company culture Carey finds hard-working, unpretentious and respectful. With the yin of great people combined with the yang of great code, he says the company is perfectly poised to give him a second round of that sweet success.
“I’m feeling it again,” he says. “Everything we do is good.