New Careers - Harvard Business School Alumni Bulletin
A weekend hobby leads to a new path
IN HIS ELEMENT: Peter Thayer has spotted
nearly 3,500 species of birds...and counting.
Photo by MICHAEL PRICE
Peter Thayer (MBA ’73) didn’t recognize the little bird hopping about in his backyard outside Cincinnati. His parents had given him a field guide for his 11th birthday, but he hadn’t done much bird-watching since childhood. Thirty years later, however, the bird (a Palm warbler) rejuvenated Thayer’s interest — and would eventually lead to a career shift.
When that Palm warbler flew into his life, Thayer was president of Gateway Investment Advisers. As manager of a low-risk equity fund called the Gateway Fund, he invested millions of dollars for pension fund clients. In the early 1990s, Thayer taught himself a database program that he thought could be useful for shareholder accounting. As a test exercise, he used the database to keep track of his bird sightings and soon realized he had created something other birders might want to buy. Thayer hired a group of programmers to help him complete the project.
“I thought I was about 90 percent done,” he recalls. “In hindsight, I was about 2 percent of the way there. It turned out that what birders really wanted was a CD with pictures, quizzes, bird calls, and range maps.” Meanwhile, Thayer and his primary partner at Gateway had decided to part ways, leading Thayer to sell his majority stake in the firm. The financial freedom allowed him to focus full-time on what was beginning to look like a serious business proposition.
In 1995, Thayer Birding Software published its first title, Guide to Birds of North America. The week of that first CD-ROM’s release (the company now markets seventy titles), Thayer and his wife, Roz, were spotting penguins in Antarctica, leaving their three teenage children to answer the phone. “They have never forgiven me for that,” he laughs. “I thought there would be five calls, and we got close to five hundred. Who knew it was going to work?” The company now employs a staff of three.
Established names such as National Geographic and Peterson Field Guides dropped out of the CD-ROM market when faced with competition from Thayer. “We knew exactly what birders wanted, and we gave it to them,” he explains. “If you’re going to get into a tiny little niche, it helps to be passionate about the subject.”
Thayer definitely fits the bill, with a “life list” of birds spotted numbering just under 3,500 (there are about 10,000 known species in the world). A recent trip with his wife to Bhutan and India netted a few rare finds, including a Himalayan Monal, which Thayer describes as “a spectacular, pheasant-like bird that almost glows when the sun hits it just right.”
When he’s not birding, Thayer can be found at his office in Naples, Florida. Despite his full-time schedule, Thayer says that he doesn’t feel like he’s working. His advice to other alumni who are thinking of making a career change: “Do something you would be happy to do every day for free.”
— Julia Hanna