Max Metral says when people ask his occupation, he is not entirely sure how to reply. “I like to say programmer, but sometimes I say executive, or technology person, or developer. It never occurs to me to say entrepreneur.” At age 29, Metral already has co-founded two Internet companies and sold one to Microsoft, so whatever you call him, call him a success.
“We made more money than we ever anticipated, but we certainly didn’t start the company because we thought we’d make tons of money,” he says, adding the dream was simply to help more people get online –– those who could not afford it and those who had avoided technology because it was too confusing.
He was stunned to discover later the enormous financial reward that comes when you are focused not on yourself, or on getting rich, but simply on helping others.
Now, to thank those who helped him, he and his wife, Alexandra, recently gave MIT $155,000 to establish the Climaco and Carol Metral Fund, a gift to honor his parents and to celebrate MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). The program brings faculty and students together in research partnerships. It was his own participation in that program, he says, that is responsible for much of his success.
“It certainly is important to give back, not just out of the goodness of your heart but because it’s the best thing for society. The side benefit is showing appreciation to my parents and to MIT, but the real power of the donation is that a student interested in nanotechnology will discover work he enjoys and might go on to do great things.”
Metral earned an MIT degree in electrical engineering and computer science in 1993 and a master’s in media arts and sciences in 1995. Then he worked as a programmer at a California company where he created a Yellow Pages service for personal digital assistants. Soon after, he and others from MIT’s Media Lab co-founded Agents, Inc, in Cambridge, Ma., which later became Firefly Network. It was one of the first personalized Web sites and focused on music.
If you told the system you liked the Beatles, it would suggest that you might also like the Rolling Stones. Then it would connect you with like-minded listeners with whom you could chat online. Eventually, the company had four million users.
In 1997, the company was acquired by Microsoft. “I never expected that,” Metral says. “Not in a million years.”
He says a big part of his success was knowing intuitively what a mass audience wanted. He just knew in his bones what was popular and what was fun. Living on an Indiana farm as a child, he spent hours watching TV. Different Strokes and The Brady Bunch were his conduits to popular culture.
“I know it sounds silly, but TV helped me tremendously to know what society liked. We always needed to think of new things to put on the Web site. Knowing what people wanted was one of our biggest assets.”
In 1999, at age 27, Metral was ready for a new challenge. He co-founded PeoplePC, a San Francisco company where he is chief technology officer and which now has 75 employees. He lives in Boston with his wife, but he conducts business on the West Coast through Instant Messaging and video conferencing and travels to California for one week once a month.
Who knows what’s on the horizon for the future, he says. Starting a company is exhausting and he’d like some time out just now. One thing that’s on his mind, he says, is bioengineering, specifically reversing human aging.
“I’m not a biologist, but I’m interested in understanding how our bodies work. I suppose it is selfish, but I want to see if we can live to be 200. In many ways the body is like a computer. It has algorithms that it follows, and copying DNA is really the same as writing code. I find that interesting and think it might play a part in my next life goal.”
After all, he says, extending quality of life is really what life is all about.
“What I value most is the next generation. It’s the thing in this world that is most permanent. In absence of immortality, the only way you’re going to make the world better is by passing on something to the people who are left when you’re gone. And the best way to do that is to make sure you’re improving society in the future.” It is why, he says, he made the gift to MIT.
“If everybody wants a better life for the next ones in line, the whole world gets better with every generation. That’s what happens when a student gets an opportunity he didn’t have before. And if this gift will make one student’s life better, won’t that be fantastic?”