Revenge of the Nerd
Nashville wonder kid helps lead dot-com revolution
By Beverly Keel
JULY 24, 2000: As Eric Smith makes his way from his Washington Square office to lunch at the Japanese restaurant a block below, passersby greet him with raised eyebrows. Clad in an orange punk-rock band T-shirt, jeans, and combat boots, the skinny 18-year-old sports an unkempt faded green mohawk that desperately needs a fresh dye job. Then there are his 16 body piercings--including two on his eyebrows, one in his nose, one under his lip, and seven in his ears. All of his rings, posts, and thick ear rods are silver and color-coordinate with the mouthful of braces he's had since February. He's starkly out of place on tourist-heavy Second Avenue, where straight-laced khakis and shorts are the dominant fashion; he would have been more at home on the streets of London in the '70s.
But rather than steering clear of his path, several successful Nashvillians are lining up behind him, allowing him to lead them into the new century's computer age. Although he can't legally order a beer for three more years, he is already considered a national expert on advanced Internet technology, as evidenced by recent mentions in The Washington Post and the online magazine Salon. MSNBC and The Wall Street Journal want to interview him as well. "By the end of our second meeting, we all figured Eric would be the guy we would end up working for one day," movie director Coke Sams says. "He's the computer jock, the nerd's nerd who will end up ruling the world. If someone has to lead it, let it be Eric."
Day Communications owner Stewart Day says of Smith, "It didn't surprise me that he might be doing some major work on the Internet because he's just way above everyone else in terms of technical ability. He's always on the next level. We may catch up, but then he's onto the next level to the new frontier. You'll always be catching up to him."
Smith is among a growing group of teenage wonder kids nationally who are making many of the most aggressive, innovative strides in the Internet industry--a group Brill's Content magazine dubbed "the young turks of technology." The New York Times Magazine recently devoted a cover to "The Triumph of the Brainiac," proclaiming, "In today's biotech, dot-com world, nerds rule, and it all starts in high school." It's the ultimate revenge of the nerds: Not only are they finally receiving the respect for their work and intelligence that is long overdue, they're also bringing home millions, not to mention girls.
Nineteen-year-old Shawn Fanning dropped out of college during his freshmen year to start Napster, the controversial site where MP3 music files are traded. At 16, Michael Furdyk sold his dot-com company called MyDesktop for $1 million; he's now 18, a Microsoft consultant, and founder of his second dot-com, BuyBuddy.com. And they're old-timers compared to Ilya Anopolsky, the 13-year-old creator of the Web-design company Devotion Inc.
No longer are teenagers the leaders of tomorrow; they're the chairmen of today. A driver's license no longer stands between them and the ability to begin a career; they don't have to leave their bedrooms, much less their small towns, at all.
"There is no question that this generation as it grows up will significantly alter the landscape because they get it. These guys are coming up with interesting ideas because they understand the technology," says Donna Hoffman, a professor at Vanderbilt University's Owen School of Management and co-director of its e-Lab. "They sit around in school and say, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we did this?' and they are able to do that because they understand what the technology can do, and they are young and have furtive imaginations and aren't burdened like adults with, 'Oh, that will never work. That won't make a dime.' They aren't worried about business models like adults are."
Unlike adults, who have yet to learn how to set their VCR clocks, these kids were raised on computers. "It's going to be amazing to watch, and no one can predict what will happen," Hoffman says. "We'll have the first generation that was weaned on high tech and gets it from day one as if it was encoded in their genes."
Along with his 44-year-old partner Johnny Bransford, Eric Smith is trying to launch a Web site that they hope will do for movies what Napster has done for music--with one glaring difference Instead of offering work without compensating the creators (like Napster), they will work in partnership with filmmakers and split the profits. Called LoadVideo.com, the company will allow users to download full-length independent films free of charge. The company will make money by showing five minutes' worth of advertising at the beginning of the movie, just like the trailers seen in theaters. (Or if filmmakers prefer, they can offer their films on a pay-per-view basis.)
But a new technology called DivX compresses the files by a 15-to-1 ratio, decreasing the amount of bandwidth required by 80 percent. Anyone with a computer manufactured in the last 18-24 months and a broadband Internet connection can download a full-length movie in about 25 minutes. "That is less time than it takes to get to the video store, and the quality is better than VHS," Bransford says, noting that the computer can be hooked up to the television for viewing there. The movie is shown on the full computer screen in a quality that is closer to that of a DVD.
DivX, which combines the MP3 technology for the audio and MPEG-4 for the video, was created by hackers, who lifted part of the technology from Microsoft's Windows Media Player. Obviously, Microsoft isn't happy about this at all, but it remains to be seen whether the company can do anything about it. "The intellectual property concerns that Microsoft has are a moot point because DivX is adding functionality to something that Microsoft already had," Smith says. "We are going to circumvent that entirely by creating something new."
Currently, DivX is the most advanced visual motion compression process. "We are going to try to tweak that a little more and make it better," he says. The company recently reached a partnership agreement with Nextlec to provide bandwidth on a point-to-point basis across the nation.
LoadVideo is targeting the largest group of broadband Internet users: college students, whose dorms are already broadband-wired. Therefore, it will offer first-run movies that will specifically interest that group, including Japanese animation, foreign films, and independent releases in the realm of Pulp Fiction and Bladerunner. The two are sure they'll get 100,000 hits the first month, and they expect that monthly figure to double within a year. A development site alone scored more than 170,000 hits when it was featured in Slashdot, a Web site that offers "news for nerds."
LoadVideo's premier movie is Existo, a bizarre Nashville-made musical comedy that has found success at several film festivals and become an underground hit. "It's the Rocky Horror Picture Show of the new millennium," Bransford says.
The Web site's goal is to provide a home to independent films that are in demand but don't have a large-enough audience to warrant conventional mainstream distribution. "Our goal with Existo is to have enough people watching this--say, 200,000 college students in the next year--that they can take this number to real-world distributors and say, 'Proof of concept. There is an audience for our movie. Put it in the theater,' " Smith says.
Coke Sams, who co-wrote and directed Existo, says this is a perfect distribution tool for the movie because it has already established a base of support with college kids. "If you are going to really get your movie shown, you are going to use all kinds of distribution methods," Sams says. "Basically, we are doing broadband, Web, film, and videocassettes. The idea of revenue from whatever source is the fuel that drives the machine. What is cool to me is many of the things that make us difficult for traditional distribution make us great for alternative distribution. What you want on the Web are things you can't see on television, so it's great for us because we're a cult movie. Who knows if it will work or not? If it does, it's great."
The success of the site depends largely on its movie selection. "The question is whether people will actually download these unknown quantities and sit through five minutes of ads before they see it," Vanderbilt's Hoffman says. "There is demand to download The Matrix--who wouldn't download it and watch five minutes of ads to see it?--but you are now talking about unknown quantities of art films and independent films. It's a wonderful opportunity for filmmakers. They now have a distribution mechanism and that can be phenomenally powerful. Some of those will be break-out hits. Word of mouth will take over on the Internet because word of mouth is big."
For instance, an unknown University of Southern California film student produced an eight-minute movie called "George Lucas in Love" and put it on the Internet. An online buzz started, demand grew, and it began selling on video. "Now it's the No. 1 video on Amazon.com," Hoffman says. "That can happen, but it's not going to happen very often."
In its quest for quality programming, the company will run a front-page ad in Daily Variety, the film trade publication. While they do possess proprietary technology, Smith and Bransford aren't basing their business success on that principle. "We do have a bit of a lead, months and months, which is years in the old world," Bransford says. "Given the fact that the technology will be there for anybody who wants to do it, we are concentrating on being distributors. That is what the movie studios do, the networks do, the book publishers do. None of them are in the technology business.
"Over the last 10 or 15 years, there have been many movies like Existo that haven't found distribution. A lot of it is going to have to find us."
Since the company's creation three months ago, Smith and Bransford have been putting in long hours in their shared office to prepare for the launch. They've raised $100,000 so far and hope to reach $1 million by August. They are the quintessential odd couple. Bransford is a tall, thin, handsome blonde who brandishes a Hollywood-wattage smile. His uniform of choice is pinstriped shirts and khakis. "I've likened it to the punk rocker and the yuppie," Smith says.
Bransford perpetually has problems with his Sony laptop, which pleases Smith, a Macintosh devotee, to no end. In his flat voice, Smith, a self-described "geek of all trades," shoots straight without hesitation, while Bransford is the consummate diplomat. Bransford is on a first-name basis with numerous Hollywood executives; Smith has the bad habit of looking everywhere but in the eyes of the person to whom he is speaking. Bransford has taught Smith the importance of remembering names, while Bransford has learned the intricacies of body piercings from Smith. "I just found out how important it is not to burn my bridges when it comes to people and always to be open to what you can offer and what they can provide in the future," Smith says.
Smith jokes that he is from "a bunch of backwoods Louisianans"; Bransford, who has attended the Swan Ball, is from one of the oldest families in Nashville. His great-grandfather developed what is now Belle Meade (a few streets were named after his children), and his grandfather served as president of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.
Bransford departed from the family businesses of insurance and banking and has made a career of working in new media. In the early 1980s when cable TV was in its infancy, he served as manager of special projects and director of special programming for HBO in New York. In the early days of videocassettes, he founded American Video Group, which was the largest owner/operator of stand-alone video rental stores next to U.S. military bases. The company was the first to license videocassettes from the major movie studios.
In the mid-'90s, he served as director of development for Sony's Wonder Pictures, a studio focused on family entertainment, where he worked on such projects as The Indian in the Cupboard and The Secret of Roan Innish. A single father, he moved back to Nashville in 1997 to raise his daughter and work as an independent producer.
Smith, too, is a Nashville native but with a distinctly different upbringing. The middle child of an architect and interior designer, he moved frequently--from Green Hills and Belle Meade to Antioch and Elysian Fields--as his family bought, refurbished, and sold houses. He received his first computer at age 4 and learned computer programming at 8. He spent the majority of his middle school days at Meigs Magnet School helping teachers fix the classroom computers.
He landed his first computer job at age 13 by answering an ad in the Nashville Scene for a Web designer at Day Communications. Company executives agreed to an interview because they thought the high-pitched voice on the phone belonged to a woman. "I remember the production manager said, 'Oh my God, it's a boy and his mom dropped him off,' " recalls Stewart Day, Day Communication's publisher and owner. "We were interviewing a lot of applicants at that time, and he knew technically more than the people who had been doing it for several years. During the interview, he mentioned that he had wired his house when he was 5. I said, 'Would you wire our computers?' I showed him some of the technical problems we were having, and he fixed them right there."
Smith spent three years there working afternoons, designing Web sites for company projects like Blast magazine. "His maturity was like a boy, and his mind was like a man," Day says. "At times you would have to deal with a boy's sarcastic humor but a man who could do the job.
"In my opinion, he had a very hard upbringing," Day says. "From a teenager to now was very hard on him because he was thinking like a 40-year-old in a 15-year-old body, and there's a lot of conflict going on."
Smith explains, "I had an incredibly poor relationship with my mother. It led to some rough times for both of us, but I've since understood that she did the best she knew how, and that's something I have to accept and come to terms with."
His parents divorced when he was 14, so he lived with his father, and his mother moved to Mississippi with his younger brother. His parents remarried last year.
He attended Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet High School, where he was president of the math team. He was an overachiever until his sophomore year, when he discovered literature and lost all interest in the math and science courses. Although his ACT score was 32 out of 36 and his SATs were 1490 out of 1600, his grade point average was only 2.5. Smith says that while his test scores could have earned him admission into Harvard, his GPA was too low to land a scholarship to pay for an Ivy League education.
When his parents moved to Sumner County, he transferred to Hendersonville High School, where his magnet-school credits boosted him 1-1/2 grades ahead. "I absolutely hated it. It was a bunch of people who really didn't understand diversity at all," says Smith, a Native American. "I spent a lot of time trying not to get beat up, which I wasn't used to." A small boy with a large book bag, he was an easy target for the football team. After an athlete tried to break his arm one day in the lunch line, Smith started eating in the library.
Perhaps surprisingly, Smith does not relish the sweet revenge that would emerge if he begins making millions while those spiteful athletes are waiting tables and studying for college exams. "All people have value to them," Smith says. "Even the jocks who tormented me eventually grow out of that and learn how to get along with the rest of the world. Once they get out of high school, most of them realize the rest of the world doesn't look at them as heroes."
Fed up with everything, the 16-year-old marched into the guidance counselor's office and told her to either help him or he was dropping out. The school allowed him to enroll at Volunteer State Community College and count the credits both toward high school and college. He graduated later that year, and attended two semesters of college, but not before entering the dot-com industry.
In 1997, he worked for a dot-com start-up called the Nashville Collection and a pre-Amazon company called the American Internet Mall. Plagued with funding problems, the companies left Smith with a bad attitude about working with computers, so he started a new career as a photographer. He learned the trade during an 18-month stint at a Goodlettsville studio, teaching other photographers the digital aspects of their industry on the side in exchange for their old cameras. "I learned how much I hated commercial photography," he says.
He almost took a photographer's job in New Orleans, but instead went to work for Global Hosting, a Nashville Internet company. He worked for Global from January until June, when he joined LoadVideo. He remains with Global as a consultant, helping the company with computer problems. That's a skill that has emerged as a side business, often unpaid, for Smith. A Seattle columnist calls him almost daily for help when her computer malfunctions. He spends his rare free time training Nashvillians like author Helen Bransford and plastic surgeon Pat Maxwell on their computers.
"He walked in, and he has no attitude. He is a totally nonjudgmental guy," says Helen Bransford, who has spent about 30 hours with Smith. "He is so low-key and unassuming that anyone sitting next to him is entirely comfortable, and you don't feel inadequate about the questions you ask or the mistakes you make. At the same time, you realize quickly that he can take a computer apart with his teeth, repair it, and put it back with a hanger. It's totally normal to him. When you faint, he just doesn't get it."
Adams, who works as a body piercer in Memphis (Smith's body decorations are his handiwork), makes the trek to Nashville on most weekends and tries to lure Smith out of the office for a little fun. They either play ping-pong in Melrose, hang out at the Iguana restaurant, or pair off in a heated game of chess over coffee at J-J's Market on Broadway. Smith spends so much time at J-J's that he recently wired the establishment for broadband access to meet all his needs.
During the day, Smith is the epitome of a technology professional. He speaks with an impressive vocabulary that's devoid of "likes" and "you knows." He effortlessly works in references to Marxism, anarchy, and obscure foreign writers, but never in a "look-how-smart-I-am" manner. He is serious, focused, and driven to succeed, even if it means working 18-hour days.
"I have no life," he says, mentioning that he hasn't had a date since November. (Of course, he hasn't asked anyone out, either.) His days are filled with meetings with broadband providers, potential investors, computer programmers, and filmmakers. Often, he is less than half the age of the others in the room. "He has an old soul in some sense, because if you look at him, he's really aware, and bright, and plugged in on a whole lot of levels," Sams says. "It's not like he's some geek kid who can talk to machinery. He's a surprisingly well-rounded character."
He does lighten up, however, after spending a few minutes with Adams--a warm, funny 20-year-old who only has seven body piercings, but multiple tattoos and both a mohawk and dreadlocks. As Smith relaxes, he smokes Marlboros with increased frequency; the transition from business speak to guy talk occurs rapidly. Within moments, his sentences become more colorful, peppered with "dude," and "man," and a few unprintable words.
"People need to change their misperceptions of stereotypes," Smith says. "Just because I have a mohawk and things running through my face doesn't make me a skin head. Neither does the fact that I'm starting a corporation dealing with computers make me an antisocial nerd with a pocket protector. People's outward appearances and choices of hobbies and work don't make their personality. I am not my job, I am not my haircut.
"Most 18- or 19-year-olds are in college and not starting their own companies, but socially and in interests, I'm not that different from anyone else."
While Adams strongly asserts that Smith is not a geek, he does admit that his friend isn't exactly normal. "I guess he really doesn't want to do anything--stay out late, drink. He's not really a typical 18-year-old because he's been on his own for so long," Adams says. "Even though he had parents who wanted to help him, he didn't want it.
"He could be your typical 26-year-old: still kind of likes to party but has his head in business," he says. "He told me six months ago, 'At the end of this year, I'm going to be broke or a millionaire,' and I think he'll be a millionaire."
As it has been since he was 13, Smith is often the only one in his group of friends who has money. In junior high, he bought his friends Cokes after school; now he picks up the tab at bars. When Adam's pit bull recently disappeared, Smith bought him a $350 boxer.
Ironically, Smith doesn't have a true love for computers, only an affinity. He has tried several times to leave the profession, but he keeps being drawn back in. "He used to tell me he detested computers," Day says. "I said, 'You are so good at it that you'll spend your whole career there.' He said, 'No I won't. I hate it.' He doesn't view it as a vocation."
Through his one-on-one computer tutorials, Smith has discovered the joys of teaching. "If something doesn't work out as far as a lifetime career, I want to go back to college and become a teacher because that's what I really want to do. It's going back to college that I don't want to do."
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