Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: Friend enjoys the sound of success
If I were David Friend, I would be the most annoying party guest you ever met. I would talk classic rock all night and drop names like crazy.
I would sound something like this:
"You know those staccato synthesizer notes that kick off The Who's 'Baba O'Riley'? My company made the machine Pete Townsend was playing. That melody line on the bridge in Stevie Wonder's 'Livin' for the City'? He was playing one of our ARPs, dude. Stevie's so cool, you gotta meet him, man."
Lucky for you, I'm not David Friend, and he's nothing like that.
For most people, co-founding a company that pioneered the widespread use of synthesizers by rock stars and garage bands would probably be enough fame for one lifetime. But that was just the beginning for Friend, who created several other technology companies after his early '70s liftoff with ARP, including Sonexis, FaxNet, Pilot Software, and Computer Pictures Corp.
These days, Friend, 66, is the chairman and CEO of Boston-based Carbonite Inc., which has backed up more than 300 billion files for the consumers and businesses that use its online data storage service. He will share his story as the keynote speaker at the New Hampshire High Tech Council's annual Entrepreneur of the Year award event on May 5 at the Radisson Hotel/Center of New Hampshire in Manchester. (Check NHHTC.org for more information or contact the council at email@example.com or 935-8951.)
In less than a decade, the sixth company Friend has co-founded since graduating from college has become his most successful. Carbonite had revenues of $107 million last year and employs 425 people.
All that because Friend's daughter couldn't get a college paper done after her computer crashed.
"I tried to bring the disc over to one of these labs to see if they could get the term paper back, and they charged me about 1,300 bucks, and they still couldn't get the term paper back," Friend said. "My business partner and I figured, everyone is connected to the Internet all the time. It would seem to be an obvious way to back up a computer. And if we could just make it simple enough and inexpensive enough, everybody would do it."
So they made it simple enough and inexpensive enough, and lots of people are doing it.
"Backing up across the Internet is a great idea because people are always connected," Friend said. "It works when you are at home. It works when you are at school. It works when you are in Starbucks. Wherever you have Internet connection, Carbonite is working in the background."
Carbonite built a low-cost infrastructure that was specifically designed for backup, enabling the company to offer its services for a competitive price. Now Carbonite is shifting its focus toward small businesses. When the company was founded in 2005, it targeted primarily consumers and publicized its services by securing endorsements from talk-radio.
But in recent years, small-business customers have been asking for features better tailored to their needs, Friend said. The 50,000 small-business customers who use Carbonite now make up 50 percent of its business. The margins are better, and business customers don't need to be persuaded of the need to back up their data.
In 2010, Friend was named Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in the Emerging Technology category for New England. He has been a lecturer at MIT's Sloan School of Management and has been a trustee of the New England Conservatory and Berklee College of Music.
This is a guy who earned a bachelor's degree in music composition before going to graduate school to study electrical engineering. He compares creating a company to composing a piece of music.
"Starting a company has a lot of that same feel. You're starting with nothing," he said. "It's just you and maybe your co-founders sitting around your dining room table trying to figure out what you're going to do, and then it all starts to come together."
In his early years with ARP, Friend was entrusted with marketing the company's new invention.
"You're never going to make any money selling synthesizers to the Pete Townsends of the world because there are not very many of them," he said. "What I was interested in was getting every high school rock band to buy an ARP synthesizer. Endorsements are extremely important."
Back then, Friend would judge the company's success based on how many songs he heard on the radio between home and work that used an ARP synthesizer. He cites Townsend and Wonder, who is blind, as his favorite rock star customers. The Who's "Who's Next" and Wonder's "Innervisions," early '70s classics that pioneered the use of synthesizers, have been widely hailed among the best rock albums of all time.
"Pete Townsend, who was a really brilliant songwriter, just seemed to have a natural affinity for using synthesizers," Friend said. "And Stevie Wonder, who is an extremely intelligent guy and a very,very nice person, makes up for his disability by having a photographic memory. A synthesizer is a complicated instrument with a lot of knobs and controls. When he learned how to use it he never had to ask twice about what something did. He was really pretty amazing."
Mike Cote is business editor at the New Hampshire Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321 ext. 324 or firstname.lastname@example.org.