What makes Bill Nguyen inspiring isn’t just that he created eight cutting-edge Silicon Valley startups, including one with an $850 mil. payday; it’s that he completely blurred the line between working in tech and playing with tech.
That’s pretty cool, of course, and the cool factor is central to the tech business now that tech has become synonymous with cool with the advent of the smartphone and the tablet. It’s been 13 years since Nguyen, 41, started up his first company, but if anything his entrepreneurial vision is getting cooler with age. His latest startup is Colors, a mobile social networking app that hopes to make Facebook seem old-fashioned.
A smartphone user who has downloaded the Colors app instantly acquires a social connection with other Colors users within a 150-foot radius. In a matter of seconds they can effortlessly share photos, text and their common interests. In short, Colors automates the work of creating small communities instantly, simply by virtue of the user walking into a place.
The app is already being used on iPhones and an Android version is in the works. Since mobile phones are more portable than laptops and desktops, Nguyen’s app has the potential to become far more unbiquitous than Facebook.
Color’s second advantage is that it doesn’t require users to register by surrendering a name and an email address. And it’s free. Simply by downloading the app, a user can turn his smartphone into an app for connecting with that attractive stranger sitting across the café by sending her a photo or video of himself in real time. In fact, he can share whatever photos or videos he may have saved to his Color archives. And if they want to turn the session into a real party, they can include others in the vicinity. Each additional participant expands the range of the ad hoc Color network. Nguyen hopes to build an advertising-based business model, presumably to entice local establishments that would like a chance to lure users prowling the local scene for dining, shopping and entertainment.
“This transition to post-PC world is going to be a huge fundamental shift,” said Nguyen. “We’re sharing more and more information in real-time.”
The third advantage is Bill Nguyen himself. He’s established himself as one of the coolest entrepreneurs to emerge from Silicon Valley since possibly Steve Jobs. Color is his eighth and possibly coolest startup. It comes on the heels of LaLa.com, a highly user-friendly music-download and sharing site he sold to Apple in June of 2009 for $80 million. LaLa may simply have been too cool for Apple with its pricey, highly profitable iTunes. Jobs killed off LaLa at the end of May 2010, leaving Nguyen sniffing around for the next cool thing. Color is it.
Color has excited some leading Silicon Valley venture capitalists. Last September Bain Capital provided $14 million in seed funding. In March Sequoia Capital chipped in another $25 million. And Silicon Valley Bank added $2 million more.
Nguyen himself could have easily financed the entire venture himself from his $850 million payday when he sold Onebox to Phone.com in 2001. And there have been others, though not as big.
But Nguyen’s biggest asset is his image as a free-thinking magnet for other creative types. His office furniture at Color is a white ceramic bathtub placed on his office window sill. He sits in the tub to work, prompting passersby to snicker. In the basement are tents and sleeping bags for staffers putting in late nights. There is also a half-pipe and a set of giant Legos for kids. Nguyen has already hired away DJ Patil, chief scientist at LinkedIn which is set for an IPO. Others are expected to follow, including from Apple.
Bill Nguyen was born about two years after his parents fled Vietnam in 1969. Nguyen started the first of his eight successful Silicon Valley start-ups in 1998. The more successful ones include Onebox, an internet-based phone messaging service, and Seven, a universal mobile email system. He co-founded LaLa in 2007, naming it after the first words spoken by his older son Jacob, now 6.
“I’ve been called a serial entrepreneur,” Nguyen said.
He is married to Amanda, a pastry chef. They have two sons. Nguyen is a surfer. The family frequently vacations in the custom home Nguyen built in 2001 on an 18-acre lot overlooking Maui’s pristine Mokuleia Bay.