The Paula Gordon Show
Connecting with Values

The founder and CEO of one of the nation's leading independent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) believes the Internet makes us all "newbies" and that practically everyone needs technical support from time to time. Charles Brewer says he fit both categories when he started MindSpring in 1994. (He very successfully took it public in 1996.)

Charles Brewer did not set out to be an ISP. He decided he wanted his own company. He was discontent with the business status quo. He could not believe that to be in business, one had to be stuffy, boring and say "impactful" twice in every sentence, that employees who wanted to do good work had to find their efforts frustrated. What would the business be? Instead of going to market with a new mousetrap, he posted a set of key values and beliefs on his apartment wall. They centered on two -- respect for individuals and a commitment to honesty and integrity. Circumstance brought Brewer and the Internet together.

Today's MindSpring pivots on Charles' original Core Values and Beliefs. There are several, including "frugality," but they all come back to reinforce the two centerpieces. MindSpring now has more than 600 employees, approaches half a million subscribers and can be found in towns and cities all over America. Charles, like others, sees the Internet taking an increasingly prominent place in both our personal/professional lives and in our economy. But he does not see technology driving the growth of his unusual business, cited by some as among the Top Ten Companies in America for which to work. It's those Core Values and Beliefs on which Charles bets his future and the future of his employees, stockholders and customers. The need for service and a willingness to help people will never go away, Charles is confident. Everything else follows.

Charles looks toward the day when the Internet and Internet-style connections, attachments, goods and services will be so pervasive they will be "normal." Then he figures he won't be invited onto radio programs, but he expects MindSpring still will be offering the finest Internet service available anywhere. To do that, Charles and his colleagues are at work to make sure their customers find the Internet enjoyable, useful and that it helps them learn.

This kind of customer-centric thinking, Charles believes, gives MindSpring and companies like his an advantage over existing "embedded" companies -- some of them huge. They have a lot more hardware, Charles concedes, but they also arrive on the scene with a full set of baggage. Charles Brewer and MindSpring's other employees are putting their money where his values are. It's a neat fit with the Core Values and Beliefs from which MindSpring ... sprang. Consistency need not be a hob-goblin after all.

Charles Brewer

. . . founded MindSpring, a national Internet Service Provider (ISP), in 1994. As CEO, he very successfully took it public in 1996. Before MindSpring had services, Charles articulated "Core Values and Beliefs,"which continue to guide the business. An avid kayaker, Charles likes the physical world as much as cyberspace. He and his wife live in an Atlanta neighborhood with Louie, the three-legged Rotweiller. Charles is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Amherst with an MBA from Stanford.

Excerpts

Conversation 1

Charles Brewer tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell about deciding on core values and beliefs he wanted in a company. When his own experience with the Internet made a "need" apparent, Charles founded MindSpring. He tells how MindSpring is living out his aspirations for a company different than today's business status quo.


Conversation 2

Computers are not all that easy for most people, Charles reminds us, though computers in general and the Internet in particular are a lot easier now than a few years ago. And both are getting better. Charles tells how "MindSpring" got its name. He puzzles over why practically everybody goes to work, eager to do a good job, to make companies better and more effective, but somehow the opposite happens. He gives his theory on the importance of core values and beliefs. He describes MindSpring's two fundamental values: respect for individuals and honest and integrity. He shows how other core values and beliefs flow from these two and how all of them directly affect the day-to-day business, particularly in how they hire people. Charles describes how his roles have evolved, from founder to CEO.


Conversation 3

From the very beginning of MindSpring, people in the company have worked from the premise that providing great support to customers is the most critical part of any job and the way to differentiate oneself in the marketplace. Charles gives a sense of the wide reaching impact that attitude has had. He describes how independent ISPs are fundamentally different from traditional telecommunications companies. He explains his confidence that MindSpring's advantages as a values-based company outweigh incumbent companies' apparent advantages. Citing the baggage of incumbent companies, he compares their existing infrastructure base with MindSpring's values-base.


Conversation 4

MindSpring's main line product is connectivity and service and support for individuals at home and in small businesses. As the packet-switched Internet-style connection goes into the home with a blossoming of devices hooked up to it, Charles sees MindSpring's job as increasingly challenging and describes those challenges. He cites projections about exponential growth in the pattern of the volume of traffic data passing voice traffic on telecommunications networks and predicts that over time, the circuit switched network is going to wither away. He gives his perspective on the effectiveness and impact of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. He suggests one solution to today's "bottleneck" into the home could be a single company that owns and operates the wires running through your neighborhood, selling access to all comers. He urges people to use cyberspace without relinquishing physical space and speculates about implications for an increasingly information rich world.


Conversation 5

The Internet is spawning dueling concepts of "community," which Charles describes. He stands up for neighborhoods and local merchants. He reminds us of the eternal roles of good and evil, both of which are amplified by the Internet. He sees a time when the very central role the Internet will have on our lives has become normal. He wonders about what, if any, differences there are between how women and men use the Internet. He believes most users can be thought of as recreational or utilitarian and describes both. He predicts challenges for Internet Service Providers.


Conversation 6

Charles reminds us that the Internet is new to everyone, naming the top possible sin at MindSpring: a "you dummy" attitude toward customers. He reassures us that he, too, needs help using the Internet -- regularly. He gives away the secret of how to get a job at MindSpring. Charles recalls what drove him to start his business, what he finds objectionable in today's status quo in business and how he expects MindSpring's core values and beliefs to continue to drive the company into a successful future.


Acknowledgements

The Commerce Club made us all welcome, including Louie, the three-legged Rotweiller. We applaud their ecumenical spirit and thank them for their hospitality.

We also appreciate the audience who joined us there.

MindSpring's Ed Hansen brought all the pieces together to make this program happen. We thank him!

Aditional Links:
MindSpring

Charles' e-mail address is charles@mindspring.com


Louis (the three-legged Rotweiller) and friends discuss the Internet in the Pub at The Commerce Club.


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