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A Hit Director

Gary Culliss ’98 doesn’t like to waste time.

Perhaps that’s because the founder of Direct Hit Technologies, which was recently sold to Ask Jeeves, Inc. for more than $500 million, is in the efficiency business.

That career path grew out of his background in mechanical engineering, which led him to work as a patent agent after college.

While using Lexis-Nexis and the Internet to research inventions and current patents for patent attorneys, Culliss realized that talking to colleagues who had made similar inquiries could tip him off to the most useful search terms and save him time.

That thought remained in the back of his mind when he entered HLS in 1995, intending to return to patent law after graduation. Then, the online boom began in earnest. And while others marveled at the information superhighway, Culliss saw a potentially seminal investigative tool that wasn’t living up to its potential.

He was frustrated that every search began at ground zero or was guided by rankings compiled by editors whose primary goal was to increase their Web site’s visibility, rather than enhance the efficiency of a particular search. What was missing was a user-directed search engine that would build on previous searches. “The search engines weren’t harnessing the energies of millions of people doing searches,” Culliss said.

Undeterred by the demands of his second-year coursework at HLS, Culliss moved to make his idea a reality. In 1996, concept (and patents, of course) in hand, Culliss recruited a computer programmer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Then things took off.

Through the programmer, Culliss learned about the M.I.T. $50K Entrepreneurship Competition, in which the school awards a $30,000 first prize and $10,000 second and third prizes to emerging companies. In April 1998 Culliss was selected as one of six finalists out of a field of 86 applicants. The same month he secured a guarantee of $1.4 million from a California venture capital firm. The funding allowed Culliss to be generous when he won the M.I.T. competition in May, and he gave his $30,000 prize money back to be divided among the five other finalists.

“The prize money was really meant to help you raise money, and we had already done that,” Culliss said, stressing that respecting the spirit of the competition was important to him. “It was absolutely the right thing to do.”

Funding in hand, Culliss focused on expanding his company and taking it public, although building and maintaining a great product was more of a goal than cashing in on the Internet boom. However, when Ask Jeeves officials approached Culliss, he realized he might be able to do both.

Appreciating that the established company had more experience with search technology, Culliss was intrigued by the offer and further convinced to sell because Ask Jeeves agreed to retain most of Direct Hit’s 60 employees and to keep the company in Massachusetts.

Yet even with a successful $500 million buyout under his belt, Culliss made it clear that he has no plans to rest. After taking the month of May off to get married, he went back to work with a new online venture.

“People say to me, ‘So have you retired?’” Culliss said. “That’s ridiculous—you don’t do this to retire, you do it because you love it.”

Nancy Knapp

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