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Fellowship of the Web ring

Charley Lanusse, head of Ashland's Starseed, has been interested in computers since he was 8 years old.

Web site clusters proplel Ashland's Starseed to Internet's cutting edge

Charley Lanusse got involved with computers at the age of 8.

We couldn't afford a computer, so I talked the guy at Radio Shack out of a user's manual, he said. I must have read it 50 times. I taught myself to program.

age 14 he was developing microprocessors.

At 15, he had his first commercial product.

At 16, he had his first company.

At 17, he won an international science competition.

At 18, he had a national company.

At 19, his company was crushed by IBM's new personal computers.

I was totally burned out, he says. I never wanted to see a computer again.

He went to college, sold keyboards, joined a band, toured the country and went home to Cajun country, Lafayette, La.

At 28, he's in Ashland heading Starseed Inc., a company cutting electronic paths to the global village.

Starseed creates clusters of Internet Web sites known as Web rings and develops advertising aimed at people who visit those sites.

The concept is the creation of Lanusse and Eric Turner.

About 4 1/2 years ago, Eric and I decided we wanted to do something really meaningful, he says.

We felt the Internet would be tremendously influential on global cultures, he says. We took six months figuring out what to do, walking around the block night after night.

Their goal is the creation of vast interactive communities that bring tens or hundreds of thousands of people together.

We went out looking for money, he says. In South Louisiana, if you're not a petroleum company or a new Cajun restaurant, nobody wants to give you any money. So we wound up doing what we said we'd never do: We built Web pages.

It was an instant success. In 18 months, they employed 30 people and had national accounts.

Somewhere along the line we decided we had to back up and go back to where we started, he says. And this time their track record encouraged investors.

They decided to find the best place to make their new start. After scouting the usual locations, Lanusse took a break from the search to rest in Ashland in the summer of 1996. Three months later, the seven seminal staffers of Starseed caravaned from Louisiana to Southern Oregon.

Ashland, they found, nurtures a clutch of people who dwell in the fast-changing software universe. Lanusse says the industry is so new and it's moving so fast that there's no time to gain a formal educational background in the field.

Ashland's cyber culture includes Sage Weil, the Ashland teenager who developed the renowned Web ring concept (see sidebar), which clusters related Web pages. He sold the enterprise to Starseed last year and is now attending Harvey Mudd College in California.

We now have 30,000 Web rings and the number is growing by 14 percent a month, Lanusse says. There are 420,000 individual members. Our servers get close to a million hits a day. We're growing so fast it's difficult to stay in check. We think we'll double in size in a year.

Weil and Ashland High School graduate Eagle Jones work with Starseed; they also are deeply involved in the completion of Cydonia, a 3-D science fiction CD-ROM game on the monitors at Aneiva, a few doors down A Street.

We really hit off with Aneiva, Lanusse says. What an amazing set of resources. It's very loose. We all work together in a non-competitive environment.

Perry Stannard, vice president of sales across the street at Project A Software, echoes the sentiment.

It's certainly neat to have people nearby dealing with the same technology only different products, he says. We have the same common interest.

Starseed has doubled in size to 15 people. Lanusse is president, Turner is vice president, in charge of information services. The company's director of sales, Shelly Austin, was formerly with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Joe Kasmer, director of marketing, was a technical writer who drifted into Ashland about a year ago.

The sparsely furnished A Street office has a bicycle here and there -- most of the staffers walk to work.

We'd snowboard if we could, Lanusse says, noting that the crew got outfits from the guys at Soop Kitchen, an Ashland snowboard store, in exchange for computer assistance.

Web rings are free to the users. Starseed's main source of revenue is advertising on the ring sites.

We know who is interested in shoes and we can deliver to those customers, Lanusse says. We have one of the most focused systems on the Internet. We sell ads at — cents an exposure. We have 120,000 exposures a day, but we haven't sold them all.

The future is a complete commerce system that allows a small business to put products on line, review credit card applications and check on the status of shipments.

Anyone with a real business can get set up in 48 hours and start selling on the Internet, he says. You can almost guarantee the product will be available.

The bulk of Starseed's hardware -- the servers handling Webring traffic -- are stacked at the Metropolitan Fiber System high-rise in San Jose. The company has plans to move servers into three other locations.

We're close to doing international franchising on our product, Lanusse says. Celine Anthionez, an employee who formerly lived in France, will be returning to open a Lyon, France, office in March.

Business is coming from all over the world, Lanusse says. There are no real borders or boundaries.

Technology is bringing us together. We'll begin to have a different understanding of who we are.

Fellowship of the Web ring