Recalling her early years in Princeton, where her father, Freeman Dyson, is an emeritus professor of mathematical physics and astrophysics at the Institute for Advanced Study, Esther Dyson says, “It was a very nice, unfancy life, kind of a protected world of academia. I was 14 before I discovered that not everybody got three months off in the summer.”
Dyson, though, doesn’t take off summers, and in fact, she says, “I don’t take any time off.” Not surprising perhaps, given her multiple professions: writer; forecaster, investor in emerging technologies, companies, and markets; and director of nine start-ups and one publicly traded marketing conglomerate, WPP Group.
Last spring, after Dyson’s sister had a successful double mastectomy, Dyson started to do a little self-questioning. “About a month after I heard about that, I was in the middle of my usual negotiations, board meetings, and thinking about another conference I wanted to attend, and I said to myself, ‘If I had just had a double mastectomy, I could cancel these.’” That was when she realized she had a problem: “If you’re hoping for a double mastectomy because you’re too busy, something is wrong with your life,” she observes.
So Dyson decided to take five months off to do something fun. Using the services of a company she invests in, Space Adventures, which organizes and brokers space experiences, she purchased a five-month gig training with Russian astronauts. Its cost, according to the company’s website, is $3 million, and covers both training costs and accommodations. To actually take a trip into space, says Dyson, would have cost her $40 million — a little too pricey.
Dyson will talk about her varied interests — Silicon Valley, genomes, Russia, and space — and answer questions about anything from investment strategies to health care at the monthly membership luncheon of the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, July 9, at 11:30 a.m. at the Princeton Marriott Hotel and Conference Center. Cost: $50. For more information or to register, go to www.princetonchamber.org or call 609-924-1776.
Perhaps fueling her connection with Space Adventure was Dyson’s long-time connection with the Russian language, which she studied at Princeton High School. Her father also knows Russian, having learned it at college in Cambridge, England, so that he could communicate with his math professor. And, she adds, growing up she always knew that even if the Soviet government was bad, the Russian people were good.
But she still wasn’t completely prepared for the cultural differences she encountered there. “As an American, it drove me crazy,” she says. She couldn’t figure out, for example, why she had to learn by heart the location of every electrical outlet on the space station. “Why don’t they just paint them red so we can find them?” she wondered.
Not only were the Russians perhaps less pragmatic than she was, she found them also to be less light hearted. “I had to learn how to behave and keep my temper even in the midst of a lot of things I thought were fundamentally silly,” she says. But she did learn all about space travel — for example, how to make oxygen and hydrogen out of water and how to fix space plumbing.
So how did Dyson make her way from a cosseted Princeton child of mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson and Freeman Dyson to a tech guru and Internet expert who could afford to fulfill her dreams of space travel, at least in part? After graduating from Harvard in 1972 with a degree in economics Dyson did a stretch at Forbes magazine, first as a fact checker and then as a reporter. That got her interested in business, and in 1977 she became a Wall Street securities analyst specializing in electronics and technology.
In 1980 she founded EDventure Holdings, an information technology and new media company that she sold to CNET Networks in 2004. In 1982 she got back into writing, taking over venture capitalist Ben Rosen’s Electronic News; the following year she purchased the newsletter and gave it a new name: Release 1.0.
By the late 1980s Dyson was actively investing in Eastern European technology ventures and was involved in several tech organizations concerned with the future of the Internet. The startups for which Dyson has been either an angel investor or a board member are diverse, but each unique in its own way: Flickr (for sharing photos); del.icio.us (for sharing bookmarks); Medstory (health information site); Meetup (Web-based service to organize local face-to-face groups); 23andMe (personal genomics); Wasabe (personal finance); Dopplr (travel); Yandex (Russian search engine); Airship Ventures (a zeppelin operator), Space Adventures (space tourism), and XCOR Aerospace (spacecraft).
Whereas the job of being a director for a large company is pretty well defined — representing stockholder interests — it’s a little different for a startup, says Dyson. “It’s like being an unpaid consultant for anything a small company needs.”
With these companies, Dyson’s work can range from criticizing mistakes and explaining how to do things right to supplying leads for great salespeople and writing press releases. She also helps the company decide when the sales manager isn’t the right person for the job. “It’s a lot of fun because it’s kind of like being a grandparent,” says Dyson. “You give lots of advice and guidance, but you’re not changing the diapers every day.”
While this work can be a scheduling nightmare, Dyson enjoys it and says it suits her short attention span. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot of fun. They’re exciting companies doing something new that is worth doing,” she says.
And because she is investing her own money in these companies, they tend to listen to her advice.
From some magical combination of her wide business experience and just keeping her eyes open, Dyson has a strong sense of how the Internet affects how we live socially and how we do business. She offers some observations:
Digital democracy. The Internet limits the power of institutions and enhances the power of the individual, and as a result small businesses can reach their target markets more easily. “They can’t necessarily grow big,” says Dyson, “but if they sell something specific, they can find people who want to buy that specific thing.” For example, a coffee shop might reach out to its clients on Twitter with a donut special.
Even if small companies cannot achieve the power of a large institution, she continues, the big guys might no longer have the economies of scale muscle they used to. “Now they are dis-economies,” says Dyson. “The little guy is more nimble, with marketing more flexible and more personal.”
In places like Africa, the little guys are experiencing a huge increase in economic power as a consequence of access to electronic communication. Whereas in the United States, cell phones replace landlines, says Dyson, in Africa they replace nothing. “When you give people the power of a cell phone, they have the power of information.” In a transaction as simple as figuring out whether the money offered for a pile of plantains is reasonable, now a seller can SOS friends to see what plantains have been going for. “It sounds mundane,” she says, “but when it happens millions of times to millions of people, it’s incredibly exciting.”
Two-way superhighway. Businesses should be using the Internet not just to talk to customers but to listen to them. If they don’t, they will miss out — because their competitors are already listening and because customers like being listened to. “It’s a real opportunity to get free market research,” says Dyson. For example, people might be commenting about a business on Twitter or exchanging observations about it on blogs; or they may even be sending their ideas, comments, and questions by E-mail.
Yet many people are clueless about using the Internet to support their businesses. “A lot of businesses have E-mail and don’t even answer their E-mail,” she says. “They don’t realize how much they should be listening.” Corporations can do something as simple as asking people on their corporate websites what they do and do not like about its products, and then listening to, understanding, and responding to their concerns. “To some extent, it’s all common sense,” says Dyson, “but it is amazing how many people don’t apply their common sense.”
Businesses can also use the Internet to find employees, says Dyson, but it will take a little creativity. Companies will need to figure out where on the Internet the kinds of people they want to hire will be posting or hanging out. “Go to sites about the industry you’re in, and see who’s posting, who is smart, and who has good opinions,” she says. “If someone talks about your company and says they can do it so much better, maybe you can hire them to do it.”