You don't have to be a business-school graduate to know that launching a new business in an overcrowded, unprofitable market is sheer folly. Or maybe you do. Bill Nguyen, who never graduated from college much less attend B-school, has brazenly ventured into just such a market with his free unified messaging service, Onebox.com. And unlike its many competitors, Onebox, with more than 2.5 million users and a lucrative buyout by Phone.com under its belt, is not only surviving, but thriving.
It was in 1998, while an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Silicon Valley venture-capital firm Institutional Venture Partners, that Nguyen dreamt up the business plan that he hopes will revolutionize the integrated messaging market. The concept: create a free, Internet-based universal inbox that would allow people to receive voice messages, e-mails and faxes at a single, portable location, online or via telephone. A scant one year later, Onebox launched with $20 million in second-round funding. By April 2000, it had been snatched up by Phone.com in an $850 million stock acquisition.
Onebox is just the latest in a string of startup successes for a man known as a "serial entrepreneur." Nguyen started as a software developer at American Express, then launched a series of Web utilities with ForeFront, then oversaw FreeLoader's push service and then served as VP of content and business development for WaveTop before hatching the idea for Onebox at the ripe old age of 28. (He is now a slightly riper 29.)
So far, Onebox has been generating revenue via advertising and partnerships, with plans in the works to roll out new fee-based premium services. (The basic service is slated to remain free.) As usual, Nguyen is thinking big. "I'm not building another $200 or $300 million company," he declares. "This is either going to be a $40 million burnout or a multibillion dollar deal."