By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
When I first phoned the boys at Scour.Net and told them I was interested in their rags-to-riches rise from the computer-science department at UCLA to corporate glory in Beverly Hills, they were excited. I described the story as I saw it: Seven humble undergraduates build a multimedia search engine out of nothing but a stash of hitherto unused ones and zeros and their own pluck and bustle, and thereby attract a multimillion-dollar investment from no less a robber baron than Michael Ovitz. Travis Kalanick, Scour‘s 23-year-old v.p. for strategy, liked my pitch, but wanted to make it very clear that, despite its meteoric success, Scour was still “grassroots,” even “underground.” Without taking so much as a breath to reflect, he then suggested that I contact the company’s PR rep at Ogilvy to set up a meeting.
If Scour‘s success has all the makings of a Horatio Alger yarn, it is also part of the long-developing story of capitalism’s conquest of cool. The Web‘s potential for micro-niche marketing has taught advertisers to sneak into our heads and figure out what we want -- before we even know we want it. Such shifts in marketing techniques will likely change the way we relate to popular culture. If all works out for Travis and friends, Scour.Net will turn out to be the first chapter in the much-longer story of how culture came to be a commodity consumed online.
The story begins in the fall of 1997, in UCLA’s Courtside dorm, where Vince Busam, then 19, decided it would be fun to create a program that would take full advantage of broadband technology by searching only for multimedia sites. Vince, blond and affable, with an Abe Lincoln beard, enlisted the help of Mike Todd, also 19, equally affable and blond, but beardless, with a goofy laugh. They worked together at a desk tucked beneath the wooden loft where Vince‘s dorm-issue twin bed was perched. Surrounded by beanbag chairs, Beatles posters and black-light prints, the pair soon put together a crawler that searched the Net through the dorm networks. They did it, according to Travis, just “because they thought it was really cool.” What they created was very primitive, usable only by other techies. “The links that would return,” Travis explains, “wouldn’t be links. It would just be a path that you would have to copy and paste and do all these weird things to actually get what you were looking for.”
Mike and Vince showed what they‘d done to some friends at UCLA’s Computer Science Undergraduate Association who, it turned out, saw a great deal of potential -- not only for fun, but for profit. A search engine that could find only multimedia sites would allow users with high-bandwidth connections to find content inaccessible online before broadband arrived. They could enjoy music and videos, even TV and movies, without leaving their desks. The way people (or at least those affluent enough to have a PC with top-of-the-line Internet access) interact with and, more importantly, consume pop culture would be irrevocably changed. As Travis would put it later, “We‘re changing the way people experience entertainment.”
“As soon as Mike and I decided that we could make some money off it, we got Dan and Jason on pretty quickly,” Vince recalls. Dan Rodrigues, who hails from Orange County, was then the president of the undergrad computer association, a would-be MBA candidate who lists Bill Gates among his heroes. (“He’s one of the smartest guys on the planet.”) Now, his hair thinning at 23, he is Scour‘s president. Jason Droege, who only turned 21 this past June, also signed on. Tall with clean-cut good looks, he went to UCLA to study film (“I wanted to be a screenwriter”), but found he was drawn to computers.
Kevin Smilak, 23, was the next to join. Shy and serious, Kevin is the only one of Scour’s founders to finish his UCLA degree. While working part-time for Scour, he later shot up to Stanford for a quick master‘s. It was Kevin who provided a guesthouse in his parents’ Walnut Creek back yard for some intensive Christmas-break code writing. (Here, the rags-to-riches narrative gets a little thin: Smilak‘s folks lived in a Bay Area suburban house ample enough to fit four extra friends. Smilak’s stepdad, a mortgage banker--cum--entrepreneur, provided a sizable chunk of the $120,000 in start-up money the boys managed to shake out of their families and friends.) After two weeks in front of the computers clustered on the Smilaks‘ pool table, the five had created Scour.
Over the next two months, the founders recruited two other friends from the computer association: the aforementioned Travis, then 20, doe-eyed and mellow, and on the heels of a summer internship with the Boston Consulting Group; and Ilya Haykinson, a skinny 19-year-old Muscovite who had been enough of a whiz kid to be taken on as a Microsoft intern while still in high school.
The seven of them began working out of Mike and Dan’s apartment in Westwood, which Mike eventually left to make room for more office space. (“My office was Dan‘s bedroom,” Travis reports. “I had to leave at 11 so he could go to bed.”). There was occasional friction: Dan liked hip-hop, but Mike and Vince insisted on “’80s pop crap,” as Mike puts it. “It would get Dan all pissed off -- he was from Orange County, and he thought he was from the ‘hood.” But the site went up, originally on UCLA’s server, and things moved quickly from there. Within three months, Scour was getting 50,000 hits a day, by June, 500,000. That fall, most of Scour‘s creators dropped out of school. By April of this year, when Michael Ovitz and supermarket magnate Ron Burkle came knocking, Scour was up to 1.5 million daily hits, and 700,000 unique users each month.