Brian O’Kelley and the Early Days of an Entrepreneur



Brian O’Kelley, the founder of AppNexus, is perhaps one of the most successful Internet entrepreneurs in NYC. Called a visionary and “the king of adtech,” by Forbes, O’Kelley is responsible for how modern companies have come to approach advertising online.

O’Kelley can be counted among the original internet entrepreneurs, having run a successful web design firm out of his Princeton dorm room. While that was his first company, sitting in Pivotal Labs and addressing a rapt audience, he remembers a different starting point for his entrepreneurship: a high school computer lab.

Now, it’s not the typical story we might have come to expect. That lab was not his first exposure to computers, the internet or programming. All of that he had at home, including programming lessons. His high school was replacing the computers in their lab and was just going to throw them out. While O’Kelley suggesting giving them away, the school refused and instead offered to sell the computers to him for $5 a piece, after which he could do what he wanted. Teaming up with some of his friends, he went ahead with the purchase, borrowed a truck from the school–that, apparently, was not a problem–and sold them out of a garage for $175 each. After dispatching with them all, he gave half the money to the school, another chunk went to a scholarship fund and the rest went towards “the best summer ever.”

O’Kelley’s dorm room web design firm would be listed on Netscape, which was a big deal back in the 90’s, and Yahoo would have a whole page spread on the company in their print magazine. That’s no joke – an internet company did have its own print magazine.

While O’Kelley’s firm would create websites for companies and only charge them hundreds of dollars, which was, according to O’Kelley, just enough to keep them solvent in junk food, he would find that other companies would charge tens of thousands for the same, if not worse, service.

“It’s not what it costs to build the sites, but what you can sell them for,” O’Kelley told the gathering. “So much of this was about creating a brand, and we didn’t have one. We were unable to charge real money, due to being sophomores at Princeton.”

While still an undergrad, O’Kelley would build one of the first e-commerce systems on the internet. He joked about how he wound up giving it away for free and of the unintended consequence: “I probably had visibility to all e-commerce on the internet for a period of time.”

He joked about how back then, unlike today, entrepreneurs were not cool. How these days, running your own business could be seen as a commendable thing and how people would be impressed. Apparently this was not always the case.

His tip for entrepreneurs “is to sell your start-up for hundreds of millions of dollars.”

It does seem like a smart move.

About the author: John Zurz

John graduated from Queens College in 2013. A lifelong New Yorker he has had articles featured in both print and online publications.

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