by Nick Hall

Many of us can remember the phrase “ Internet time,” which meant working 24/7 because if we didn't then someone else would get there, wherever “there” was, before us. Nick Rothenberg got swept into the storm, as the founder of W3 design in Los Angeles. His firm was acquired in 1997 by USWeb, which after several mergers eventually became the infamous marchFIRST.

It took several months after the collapse of marchFIRST for Nick to bounce back, but he did, and he reconnected with his core values. That reconnection lead to a move from LA to Oregon, a new baby boy and founding the consulting firm, 2Be, helping companies focus on optimizing the relationship between organizational practices, leadership proficiency, and business needs.

Do you remember where you were when you first got a sense of how big the Internet could become?

At the time I was in graduate school studying anthropology. In the early 90's we were doing a lot of work with laser disks. We were looking at how we could put large amounts of visual archives in a format that would be more accessible. Right around the same time the Internet was coming out of a closed academic community and being used as a tool for academic collaboration. My introduction to the Internet was from the work I was doing experimenting with the documentary I had made and putting it on various forms of interactive media and that ultimately lead to the Internet.

My first “aha” moment came when I was able to have pieces of my documentary film hosted on the Internet. In fact, the pages I created can still be found with the original hand-coded html. The Internet offered a way to disseminate information in a radically new way. The Internet actually did something that had never been done before.

My PhD professor and I realized that we could continue to do academic work, but we started to get the glimmer that this was going to have huge impacts in the commercial world. The professor and I created the Mercury Project, which demonstrated the possibilities for online collaboration. The story of the project was picked up by Newsweek. That was the second “aha” moment. The fact that this online collaboration project was getting mainstream coverage told me we were on to something.

We presented our project at the first conference for the World Wide Web in Chicago, which I believe took place in 1994. I went to a few breakout sessions and most of the conversation was about academic work, but a few people started to talk about search engines and storefronts. The third major “aha” was when I realized that the possibilities of the Internet were not for academics, but for revolutionizing commerce and community. When we got back to USC we knew we had to get out of academia and we started W3 design.

The fourth and final “aha” is when we went to create the brochure for W3 design and literally every url registered at that time fit on the center of a tri-fold 8.5 by 11 piece of paper in 8 point font. All the names that you would expect were there, companies like IBM and Microsoft. My single biggest regret is that I didn't go for names like calendar.com and business.com. I didn't do it partly because I was very respectful of InterNic's request for one domain name per person. A couple of months later a chiropractor came into our offices. He had asked his family members for permission to use their information to register the domain names doctor.com, lawyer.com, chiropractor.com and dentist.com. Even after we saw that we still didn't put the dots together.

As I understand W3 design was ultimately acquired by USWeb, which would later become USWeb/CKS and finally marchFIRST.

Yes, we had started W3 design in 1994 and USWeb approached us three years later, in 1997. Our early work at W3 design was looking at how you build effective online communities for commercial purposes. That was the anthropologist in us. Our focus was to combine creative, strategy and technology, and I say that tongue-in-cheek because everybody had the same Venn diagram with the three overlapping circles. We hired people that represented those areas and we started to approach B and C tier studios in Hollywood with the pitch that they should take their promotional plans for the movies they had coming out and put them online and we focused on movies that were techie or sci-fi and we had hilarious meetings early on where at the end of our pitch studio executives would raise their hand and say “excuse me, what is this web thing?”

Slowly though the press and analysts started to pick up on the Internet and we had a foothold on the market so we started to get some phone calls from the likes of Team 1 advertising that wanted to do an early site for Lexus, and the Oscars wanted to do the first Academy Awards site. Ultimately, we became a 40-person design firm. We ran it very lean with twelve consecutive quarters of profitability. We went from the back of an apartment at USC to a beautiful classic dot-com space on National Blvd. We had a strong, boutique business.

About this time most of the boutique design firms were well into the process of being acquired. Joe Firmage and Toby Cory, the eccentric young founders of USWeb came down and sold us on their concept of integrating.


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