Berklee today is the official alumni publication of Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. It is a forum for contemporary music and musicians.
Issue link: http://berkleetoday.epubxp.com/i/780351
24 Berklee today Mike Cassidy has a résumé unlike that of any other Berklee alumnus. He is known by his business-world peers as a "se- rial entrepreneur" after establishing four highly successful Internet-based start-ups—each sold for a king's ransom. Over the past five years, his deep science background led him to serve as the director of the team developing Google's Project Loon. The ground-breaking initiative is part of an audacious plan to bring balloon-powered web service to nearly 4 billion people in the world's developing countries that currently have little or no Internet access. Growing up in Maryland, not far from Washington, D.C., Cassidy had high ambitions as he pondered his future and which college to attend. Like many of his generation, he was fascinated by space exploration, but having studied classical piano since the age of six and jazz during his high-school years, he also felt a tug to pursue musical studies. Ultimately, he undertook a mul- tifaceted education that has enabled his passions for science, music, and entrepreneurial business pursuits to cross and re- cross at multiple points throughout a much-heralded career. It Is Rocket Science Cassidy earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees in aerospace engineering at MIT and became an Air Force re- serve officer there, all while keeping music as a constant in his life. "I was in the MIT Festival Jazz band, which was a quality group that Herb Pomeroy used to direct," he recalled during our November conversation in a Google conference room. "I was also in few rock bands and took some composition and jazz ar- ranging classes at MIT." Later while pursuing his MBA at Harvard he continued his musical journey. "At Harvard, I had a rock band that we called Free Beer. When we'd put up posters for our gigs, we always got a crowd." Perhaps even then some of Cassidy's nascent marketing prowess was shining through. Before completing his MBA studies in 1991, he began working on what would become his first startup. Cassidy and his team built Stylus Innovation, taking five years to develop com- puter telephony software called Visual Voice that was acquired by Artistsoft for $13 million in 1996. With some money in his pocket, he took another look at music and enrolled at Berklee. "I wanted to become a better jazz pianist," he says. "I thought I was pretty good going into my ensemble placement tests, but I got pretty low scores. But that was fine. I learned a ton and found out why I was at a low level." He also took MP&E classes and got to know the ropes for record production. "In those classes you got to play all of the roles," he recalls. "One day you were the producer saying, 'That guitar player is terrible!' or 'Let's try a different song.' Then the next day you were the as- sistant recording engineer bringing people coffee and wrapping mic cords. Then the next day you could be mixing." By 1998 in the midst of the dot-com bubble, Cassidy got the itch to get into business again. "I loved being in music, but that was a boom time for the Internet," he says. "I felt I was standing on the sidelines while everyone was doing startups. I jumped in again and my second company grew to be worth $500 million in 500 days." That venture, Direct Hit, was an innovative Internet search engine that, among other things, brought Cassidy early contact with Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin during their salad days. "They were just beginning Google and we debated search engine architecture," Cassidy says. "They based Google on page rank, boosting sites because they had other websites pointing to them. Our engine was founded on click popularity. If a lot of people had visited a site, we'd boost it. We kept track and if someone spent only five seconds on a site, we'd penalize it. If they spent five minutes on it, we'd boost it." With help from venture capital funding, Direct Hit grew rapidly with MSN, Lycos, AOL, and other companies among its customers. Less than two years after the launch, Cassidy and company sold their venture to Ask Jeeves in 2000. A New Game Cassidy took another short sabbatical before diving into his third startup around 2002. That company morphed to become Xfire, a chat client that brought together like-minded online gam- ers from around the world. It facilitated making appointments to play others and saved screenshots of players' game progress among other functions. By 2006, after registering millions of us- ers, Xfire sold for $110 million. "MTV bought Xfire, and I spent a year at MTV," Cassidy re- members. "On my first day I met the guys in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I also went to the video music awards a couple of times, it was a fun time." Having success in business has enabled Cassidy to offer financial and other support to jazz and clas- sical music entities. He met Gerald Slavet just as he and Jennifer CAREER RETROSPECTIVES Modems, Music, and Moonshots By Mark Small Mike Cassidy '98, once an aspiring astronaut, indulges a youthful fantasy experiencing zero gravity. For Mike Cassidy '98, music has been a constant source of inspiration throughout a fantastic career in science and business innovation.