by Nick Hall

Denis Browne had a stellar career at Oracle before he made the jump into the startup world. Nothing could have prepared him for the ride he was about to go on as CTO of Productopia.

The Internet boom attracted many people to high-tech startups, a world that many had never thought of entering before. Denis Browne, on the other hand, had been working diligently his entire professional career and when the Internet boom hit, he was ready to make the jump. Denis, originally from Ireland, started his career at Oracle in 1991.

Do you remember where you were when you first learned about the possibility of the Internet and the worldwide web?

In 1994, I just relocated with Oracle to California and one of my colleagues showed me the Mosaic browser that came out of the NCSA Conference. A bunch of big companies like Sprint and IBM were testing out this concept of the World Wide Web and html. When I saw it I thought to myself, Wow! This is going to be unbelievable! Immediately, I saw how this was going to transform business applications development, deployment and management. The possibilities were and still are bound only by our imagination.

I was involved in Oracle’s first storefront, their first ever e-commerce environment. We built the Oracle store in 1995/6 and got it to a $6 million dollar run-rate in the first year, which was extraordinary at the time because Oracle had never done direct enterprise sales. We were showing demonstrating that sales of Oracle’s products could happen over the Internet.

In 1996, Sohaib Abassi the SVP of Oracle Tools Development offered me the opportunity to build an html development product. I took him up on the offer and got to work on building an organization that ended up developing what was called Oracle Web DB, which was a 100% database-driven, dynamic, on-the-fly, html web applications development platform. It is now called Oracle Portal.

When did you leave Oracle?

I left Oracle in late 1998. I was ready for a new challenge. I was ready to jump into the unknown. I was ready for the opportunity to jump into a huge problem that needed to be solved.

I mentioned to a friend that I was ready to join a startup. I knew I was ready to do something on my own, but I wasn’t exactly sure what at the time. My friend mentioned my name to the Founder of Productopia, Roger Neal that I was on the lookout for a startup opportunity. They were looking for someone to head up their technology division. Within two to three weeks I became the first official employee of Productopia. There was so much activity at the time that if you got on the radar and were coming from a company like Oracle you were going to find an opportunity quickly.

What was your level of optimism at the time when you made the choice to join Productopia?

I was very excited about the opportunity. From my perspective, the Founder, Roger, was full of energy and full of enthusiasm and had a clear vision of what the opportunity was going to look like in the future and was able to articulate it very well. I came at it from a technology standpoint and my mind was racing at what we were going to have to do to meet this great ambition. I had a blank sheet of paper. We didn’t have computers. We didn’t have telephones. We didn’t have anything. It was all up to us to create. I had never been in an opportunity where there was nothing. That really turned me on. Starting from scratch really excited me.

It was fairly common for startups to change their business model…several times. Did Productopia ever change its business model?

No, we never did. That was one of the reasons I thought we would be successful. We stuck to the plan and were meeting our objectives. We were getting all the right signals from around us that we were heading in the right direction.

Hindsight being 20/20 there were a couple of key things that ended up causing our demise. First, we underestimated the amount of time and effort we needed to put into developing internal systems that could automate the processes for the sales team to get their job done quickly and efficiently.

We also needed to have a CFO involved with the company much earlier. A real CFO didn’t get involved until near the end. We had a consultant working with us on the finance side, but it was basically the consultant and Roger. If a person is trying to be CEO, head of business development and CFO at the same time, things are going to fall through the cracks. No disrespect intended to Roger, but it was an issue that we never dealt with.

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