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Dana Dana Blankenhorn has been a business journalist for over 25 years and has covered the online world professionally since 1985. He founded the "Interactive Age Daily" for CMP Media, and has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age, and dozens of other publications over the years.
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March 13, 2005

The Yank At the Heart of Your Mobile

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Posted by Dana Blankenhorn

Of all the American entrepreneurs you read about a decade ago, which do you think is doing the best today?

Which one, do you think, is kicking back, living the life, doing what he wants, and bringing in tons of money on something that's relevant to 2005?

The answer: Thomas Dolby Robertson. He blinded them all with mobility.

As Thomas Dolby (his oeuvre is at ArtistDirect, along with this picture), Robertson had a brief vogue on the pop charts in the early 1980s. He even had a pop hit, She Blinded Me With Science.

Then, a decade ago, he morphed into an entrepreneur, doing stuff at the intersection of virtual reality and gaming. The media left him behind and left him alone. (I met him at a few trade shows during the dot-boom. He should have been a pathetic figure. He wasn't.)

It seems Robertson has a talent rare among entrepreneurs, the ability to make lemonade out of lemons. He explained what happened to the Onion AV Club. It was a piece of blinding entrepreneurial insight.

When the whole dot-com crash happened, what Beatnik was left with that wasn't a bunch of fluff was a contract with Nokia, who were looking to put polyphonic ringtones into phones. Sort of by accident, the requirements for Web audio-software technology were not that dissimilar to what Nokia needed, because we'd made a software-based audio engine that could be downloaded very quickly and used files like MIDI files, but which had good fidelity because they could include actual samples of recordings.

Right there you find all the great attributes of the born entrepreneur. He was honest with himself, honest about the situation. He didn't grown about the dot-bomb, he looked at what he had and tried to fit some of it to what might come next.

What was the result?

Instead of the mobile phone companies buying new sound chips to creat Polyphonic ringtones, at $7/each, they licensed Robertson's Beatnik software for a fraction of that price. We're talking 100 million licenses, more all the time.

Robertson now finds himself in the ringtone market, seeking "retro" sounds. I think he's really looking for a more interesting opportunity.

Think Harvard Business School would like to change the subject? Here's how. Hire Robertson. You could use a new dean.

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