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Jeffrey Wilkins of Compuserve, Inc.

Meet Jeffrey Wilkins, founder of CompuServe Inc, the first major commercial online service in the United States.

What was CompuServe?

CompuServe was a computer services firm that began by selling time-sharing services to major corporations and evolved to the point where it provided interactive entertainment, news and online shopping services to owners of personal computers.

How did you come up with the idea?

It was quite an accident. My father-in-law had started a life insurance company in Columbus. I found a PhD student who was about to graduate and was interested in coming to Columbus to help my father-in-law out with his life insurance company. Six months later, I met with them at a computer conference in Las Vegas to discuss some ideas of what they might want to do with this life insurance data processing company. They were thinking about buying a very large time-sharing machine made by a digital equipment corporation with the idea they would sell services to other companies. The gentleman I had introduced to my father-in-law was a technical guy and had no interest in the business side of it. So I had a conversation with my father-in-law about complete autonomy to run the business, which he agreed to, so I came back to Columbus.

What was the biggest surprise in starting your business?

We weren’t sure how much competition there was. We were aware of IBM and General Electric. We heard a lot of names of other companies that were startups, but we didn’t really know much about any of them. When I finally got the company off the ground, I looked around and there were hundreds of competitors. It was a big shock.

What are some of the advantages to doing business in Columbus?

Columbus was very much an entrepreneurial town. I got a lot of support from people in the community. What comes to mind is the Ohio Company. The Ohio Company helped us do an industrial revenue bond to build our first computer center.

Can you share a funny or amazing entrepreneurial experience with our readers?

These computers cost about a million dollars a piece. I went to one local bank, because I wanted to buy the second computer and we didn’t have enough capital to do it even though we were already profitable. I was 27 when I met the loan officer. I told him our story and he said, “Aren’t you awfully young to be borrowing a million dollars?” So I got up, left, went across the street to the other bank and they loaned me the million dollars. And that’s how we became a Huntington customer.

What inspires you?

I just want to make a difference. We wanted to do something fun, we wanted to make money and we wanted to make a difference. We were doing a lot of new, exciting things all the time.

What founders do you admire and why?

Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. I admire both of them for very different reasons. I admire Bill Gates, because he was smart enough to see that the operating system was the way to get in and control the industry. He was a brilliant strategist. I admired Steve Jobs, because he had an innate sense of style that reaches people on some level they don’t even understand.

What’s next for you?

I’m involved in a start-up company called Health Care Dataworks that provides business intelligence and data analytics to health systems to enable them to improve their quality and reduce their costs.

Writer: Joe Baur

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