SAN FRANCISCO -- At age 30, Zachary Rosen has three startups to his name and thousands of miles logged on his bicycle. The serial entrepreneur founded Chapter Three, a web design consulting business, in 2006, not long after dropping out of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Chapter Three was barely off the ground when he began building Mission Bicycle Company, an independent bike shop in San Francisco's Mission District.
But his latest undertaking, Pantheon, is Rosen's largest project. Housed in San Francisco's Chinatown neighborhood, Pantheon, which has raised $28 million from investors, offers professional web designers a platform to build their websites. Pantheon takes care of the back-end technical requirements for running a website -- setting up the server, installing an operating system, building a firewall and keeping hackers out, managing traffic and making sure there aren't any bugs.
Rosen's tech career started with his love of politics. He was still a teenager when he dropped out of college to work for Howard Dean, who in 2004 was running a presidential campaign out of Burlington, Vt., where Rosen helped build one of the first Internet-driven political campaigns.
Rosen took a break from his three jobs and bicycle trips around San Francisco to talk with this newspaper. His comments have been edited for clarity and length.
Q Did you get involved in the Howard Dean campaign because you were a true supporter of him, or because you thought it would be a fun way to spend some time in Vermont?
A I was a true supporter. He was taking stances on issues in a very upfront, honest, direct and combative way, which I thought was right at the time. The campaign had a very simple premise -- he was an outside candidate and it was a long-shot campaign, and the only option to put Dean in a good position was via the Internet, and bypass all the $2,000 dinners and the traditional fundraising models. In my view, we kind of invented this low-dollar, broad-based Internet campaign model, which Obama used to great success.
I was 19. I can't imagine a more interesting place in the world to be at the time, because we were literally changing the way an industry works -- politics -- and we were doing it in 2004, during (George W.) Bush's reelection. It was an interesting time in politics overall.
And we were basically showing that you could pay for a campaign and you could find grassroots organizers and out-fundraise John Kerry, or other incumbents, via this new way of doing politics. The Dean campaign totally failed, but we proved a point, and the folks who went on to run the Obama campaign directly used the lessons that we learned and took them all the way to win.
Q What did your parents say when you told them "I'm dropping out of school to work on the Howard Dean campaign and I'm moving to Vermont"?
A They were very supportive, surprisingly. They made sure they really thought I knew exactly what I was doing. They sat me down and made me think hard about it. But they were really supportive, and they've always been very supportive. My dad is an entrepreneur and my mom is too. My dad started a few companies growing up, so they sort of understood.
Q How did you decide to start Mission Bicycle?
A Mission Bikes was the hobby that kind of got out of control. It was a passion project. I've never owned a car in San Francisco. I've always gotten around on a bike. I was really unsatisfied with the bikes they sell in bike shops. They're actually hybrid bikes, which are designed for trail riding on the weekend. So you have all this stuff on them you don't need, and they're not particularly reliable. Every one of my friends who biked around the city had either bought a bike on Craigslist, and stripped it down and rebuilt it, or was riding a bike that wasn't built for the job. It just made no sense to us that bikes weren't designed well for cities. So we designed Mission Bikes from the ground up to focus on city bicycling. We're trying to build the best city bikes for American cities.
Q You founded Pantheon three years ago, and what you're trying to do with this company is provide the architecture and services to help professionals build their own websites. Explain this.
A We are the back end for your website. Unlike a lot of self-service products, like GoDaddy, we're designed for political campaigns, nonprofits, companies and universities who have professional website developers. We basically turn your website into software-as-a-service, so you don't have to worry about servers and hosting, administration, developer tools, all this back-end server stuff. We just replace that with software. So developers and designers can spend all their time focused on the creative work of actually creating a website. We're replacing a lot of complex work with software, and overall we're much more efficient.
We have 70,000 websites and billions of monthly page views. Our long-term goal is to run 30 percent of the web. It's going to take us a long time to do that, but we're serious about that goal and making measurable progress towards it.
Q What's one mistake you've felt you made?
A I think I spent about a decade of my life, when I was a kid and just starting my career, being pretty flaky, and not realizing how much your word matters and just how much grit and work was required to do the kinds of things I wanted to do. I think it was a slow realization that, oh, this stuff is really as hard as people seem to think it is. It took a long time to learn all these lessons, and a lot of failures.
It just seemed so easy, that I could show up at the right place, right time, right moment in history; work hard, and boom, I'd have a huge impact. What I discounted sometimes was all the luck involved in arriving at the right moment in time, and all the other people's hard work required for me to be successful. And it's amazing how much failure your success can cover up. There are things you can control and things you cannot control. If the things you cannot control work out, then life is good. But it doesn't mean necessarily you did as good a job as you could have done, or that you've set the foundation for something that's going to be lasting.
Contact Heather Somerville at 510-208-6413. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.
Birthplace: Pittsburgh, Pa.
Position: founder and CEO, Pantheon; founder and owner, Mission Bicycle; founder and partner, Chapter Three
Education: Two years studying computer science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Residence: San Francisco
Other interests: bicycling, camping, hiking, dinner parties
five things you didn't know about zachARY rosen
1. Bikes up to 50 miles each week around San Francisco
2. Owns three bicycles, each custom made. He mostly rides a lightweight steel bicycle around the city.
3. About 10 of his employees at Pantheon ride to work on custom-built bikes from Mission Bicycle
4. When he was a kid, his parents, displeased with the local schools, attempted to start a new school for Rosen to attend. They eventually abandoned the idea.
5. Despite holding top-level positions at three companies, he limits his workweek to 60-65 hours