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Alumni's Dreams Go Digital with Internet Start-ups

Just days after graduating from Harvard Law School, Troy Williams '98 found himself living in his car in the blistering heat of Houston, Tex. When he found an apartment, he didn't bother to furnish it, buying only a few plastic chairs, sleeping on the floor, and eating only spaghetti with butter.

But Williams wasn't down and out; he was pouring all of his energy, time, and money into building an Internet company.

"There were all these myths at the time about how easy it was to raise money," said Williams. "I was convinced that I was six weeks from raising a million dollars."

It ultimately took Williams ten months of promoting his plan to anyone who would listen. By April 1999, Williams had his first "angel investor," and Questia.com was born.

Like Williams, a growing number of Harvard Law School graduates are eschewing secure, lucrative careers in law firms for the high-stakes exhilaration of Internet start-ups. Some are fueled by an entrepreneurial imperative to see an idea flourish, while others are drawn to the risk, creative independence, and energetic culture of e-business. But even though they're not practicing law, these mavericks credit their law school training for their ability to survive--so far--in the tumultuous environment and furious pace of business on the Wild Wild Web.

From the desktop democracy of David Chiu's ('95) Grassroots.com to the alternative dispute resolution services of Ali Dibadj's ('00) Webmediate.com, HLS alumni have created products and services as varied as they are innovative.

How do they do it?

For starters, they have raised a lot of money--millions of dollars each--from friends, family, private investors, and venture capital firms. Most have managed to do so after the so-called Internet "Gold Rush" of 1999 began to go bust early in 2000. And even as headlines blared the almost daily demise of yet another dot-com late last fall--nearly 50 companies in October and November--the HLS grads remained guardedly optimistic about the viability of their companies. Still, unlike the many start-ups before them that bragged of their "pre-IPO" status, these entrepreneurs wouldn't speculate on their stock market potential, choosing to remain privately held through the latest turbulence.

Most say they've taken big risks for low pay and uniformly report working harder--and longer--than do their peers in law firms. The payoff, they hope, is more than just a healthy profit, but also the deeply satisfying chance to create something that didn't exist before.


The Urge to Innovate

Necessity is, apparently, the mother of many a dot-com. It is what inspired Williams to build Questia.com--a virtual college library that will offer the full text of tens of thousands of books and journals--following an experience he had as an editor for the Harvard Law Review in 1997.

"We had to check the citations and footnotes in articles submitted to the Review," Williams said. "If they were case references, it was easy because we had Westlaw. But checking on the quotes someone might have taken from a book--it's not so easy. We'd have to check page by page, sometimes reading a whole book. And I thought, we have all these legal cases online, why not books and journals? They weren't available online then. So I started looking into doing it."

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