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Master builder: James Gilliam holds the key to the kingdom at Business.com.

Red Herring, December 4, 2000

Late last year, the founders of Business.com handed James Gilliam, now their chief technology officer, a hairball of a problem: build from scratch an operating system to neatly browse more than 300,000 companies, divided into 25,000 industry categories and over 1 million pages. And keep in mind that the number of categories, like rabbits, will constantly expand.

It took him less than two months. Lucky for them, Mr. Gilliam, though only 23, had already given the matter of information retrieval a good deal of thought.

"A hundred years ago, the big problems were in manufacturing," muses this child of the information age. "What the Web provides is a way for everyone to get information. I grew up thinking that the single hardest problem to solve today is how you get to that information."

Mr. Gilliam spent his adolescence illegally trolling about the Web, back when it was an all-text wasteland, before browsers. By the time he was 20, his name was affixed to a patent in the information-retrieval field, based on his work at Lycos.

If Business.com becomes the Yahoo of the business world, much of the credit will go to Mr. Gilliam. Before joining eCompanies , the Internet incubator behind Business.com, he designed information accessing systems now used in two dozen Lycos properties. (Business.com paid $7.5 million for its domain name, the highest price ever at the time, and it recently closed a $61 million round of funding from investors like the Financial Times Group, the McGraw-Hill Companies, and Primedia.)

The Business.com operating system -- first known as "Jim's Tool" and now simply as "The Tool" -- lets users search for any term on the site's million pages, from a central search window. Try doing that on Yahoo , or even a big company site like IBM.com . If the information is balkanized under subheadings like "business and economy" and "products," you won't find it in the main search section. Type in "Kresa," for Kent Kresa, chairman and CEO of the large defense contractor Northrop Grumman, and Yahoo spits out a link to the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency. In contrast, Business.com's first link is to a biography of the businessman. That's because Mr. Gilliam saw where the first generation search engines bogged down, and he made his tool avoid their mistakes.

"When search engines started, they didn't have any platform by which to structure information on the Web. They ended up with this nasty mess," says Mr. Gilliam. "We've developed a single place where we can integrate all this information."

How he did this is hard even for Mr. Gilliam to explain. Coding comes as easily to him as playing the piano, something he did for up to five hours a day as a kid. Back then, the home-schooled youngster divided his time between two keyboards: the QWERTY one was all for fun, and the ivory one he aimed to build a career around. He gave up the notion of becoming a concert pianist after deciding the market for programmers was slightly more robust.

But he didn't leave music behind. "There were two things going on," Mr. Gilliam explains. "There was technology and there was music. They converged. How do you take the technology and turn it into art?"

The living room in Mr. Gilliam's one-bedroom apartment seems to pose that very question. A 55-inch television with a DVD player competes for space with a grand piano of approximately the same mass. The instrument stands as a symbol of the powers of persuasion he uses to win arguments at Business.com: his parents bought it for him after he convinced them he didn't need braces.

When he sits down to play the piano, Mr. Gilliam cuts a singular figure. At 6 feet, 9 inches tall, his knees don't fit under the instrument, but his cranelike arms easily make up the difference. "When I first met him, I remember being struck by this incredibly tall, incredibly ghostly figure," says Business.com's editor in chief, Peter Gumbel. A male version of Sinead O'Connor, with a nearly bald head and black-framed glasses, Mr. Gilliam is pale both from lack of sunlight and from the two bouts with cancer he survived before he was 20. In remission, Mr. Gilliam doesn't talk much about the cancer. It has contributed -- along with his height, home-schooled background, and decision to bypass college for work -- to his unique perspective on life.

At the piano, Mr. Gilliam trills off Bach's French Suite No. 5. "I'm not interested in doing technology that a bunch of mathematicians at MIT will think is cool," he explains. "I want to do something that will be mass-marketed. That's more of an art."

You wouldn't know that looking at Business.com. The site is so streamlined it's almost dull. There are minimal graphics and no photos or eye-catching devices. According to Mr. Gilliam, Business.com's beauty lies in the relevance and speed of its search results. "Nobody cares what the site looks like. People just want to get something done," he says. "It all comes down to, 'How fast is that page?'"

The site is fast, and it's built to get faster. Mr. Gilliam designed the architecture to run over hundreds of cheap machines, minimizing the risk of crippling crashes. He saw expensive hardware take a toll on Lycos, which was loath to spend $1 million every time it wanted to juice the engine. And, he says with a bit of swagger, "You don't have to be as smart to put architecture on expensive hardware."

The market will decide how smart he and his architecture really are. But Mr. Gilliam isn't worried about the future of his octopuslike artwork: with a goofball laugh, he says, "I'm usually right."

Jim Gilliam
Jim Gilliam

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