Living Bird, Autumn 2002
THE BUSINESS OF BIRDING
by Allison Childs Wells
Software designer and entrepreneur Peter Thayer
aims to make birding more enjoyable for everyone
Some people leave their
"day" jobs to spend time fishing on quiet ponds. Some tackle assorted
projects around the house. Others pour themselves into developing
top-rated birding software, creating birding web sites, and building a
Web-based business to serve anyone with an interest in birds.
only one person ambitious (or foolhardy?) enough to do the latter. His
name is Peter Thayer, the brains and brawn behind Thayer Birding
its debut in 1994, Thayer Birding Software has become a widely
respected name in the birding community. The fruit of Pete's labors
help make it easy and enjoyable to keep track of your birding records
and to learn more about birds, including their songs and calls. His software is highly acclaimed and has even won awards from PC Magazine.
This success is due largely to the fact that he is completely committed
to meeting the wants and needs of birders. In fact, the whole TBS
business was founded based on the demands of the birder he knows best:
began in the late 1980s, when a small bird Pete didn't recognize landed
in his yard near Cincinnati, Ohio, and hopped around, flicking its
tail. "After identifying it as a Palm Warbler, I found myself on the
road to rediscovering my childhood love of birdwatching," says
Pete. Soon, he had joined the Cincinnati Nature Center, was going
on local bird walks, taking tours to birding hotspots like Trinidad and
Tobago, and logging his observation records into bird-listing software.
Pete Thayer (above) has been an avid birder since the late 1980s.
He has traveled the world in search of birds, logging 2,830 species.
But as his birding
finesse improved, Pete grew increasingly frustrated with the software
then available, so he took matters into his own hands. After teaching
himself how to use a Microsoft Access database program, he created the
bird-listing and record-keeping program he had been looking for. "I
thought it was pretty cool," says Pete. "So cool, in fact, that I
worked with a company in Cincinnati to release a commercial application
of the product. They estimated it would cost $65,000. Well, $750,000
later, we were still working on it."
In addition to a fast and
painful lesson in what it takes to finance ground-breaking software, he
also quickly learned that what birders really wanted was a product that
included pictures and sounds of birds.. With none on the market, Pete
decided to make one. He demonstrated the beta version of Thayer's Birds of North America at the American Birding Association convention in Minot, North Dakota, in June 1994. It was there that he took his first order. "I was so excited, I kissed the guy!"
The product was
officially released in December 1994. It was the first CD-ROM to
feature all of the birds of North America, and the response from the
birding community was swift and strong. "The corporate offices were in
my home. My wife and I were in Antarctica on a birding trip, planned
and paid for a year in advance, so my three kids were left to answer
the phone. They were absolutely swamped with calls. They still have not
forgiven me for that."
That, as anyone who uses
birding software knows, was merely the beginning. Indeed, after years
of tweaking and testing, the end product now bears the name of the
ornithological institution Pete admires most, the Cornell Lab of
Ornithology. "The Lab is a truly unique place," says Pete. "'The staff
is doing extremely important scientific and conservation research, yet
they completely understand the birder mindset. Some of the staff
are considered among the best birders in the country. I'm both
flattered and thrilled that we are working together."
The Lab's initial
involvement was by way of bird song recordings, provided by the
Macaulay Library. Years later, following many phone conversations and
finally a face-to-face meeting between Pete and Lab director John Fitzpatrick, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Birds of North America was born, This was followed by the FeederWatcher's Guide to Backyard Birds, the state-based CD-ROM series Our Birds, and the soon to be released Birder's Diary, all under the Lab's name.
The Lab was impressed
that Pete was encouraging feedback from anyone who had purchased his
products and that upgrades could be downloaded online, free of charge,
as improvements were completed. Nonetheless, before getting the Lab's
seal of approval, the CD-ROMs were rigorously tested and repeatedly
tweaked by a select handful of Lab staff, all of whom consider
themselves advocates for the people who would be putting their faith,
as well as their dollars, in the products. In return for staff time and
expertise, the Lab receives a percentage of the proceeds, which help
fund vital research and conservation work.
But the rewards don't
stop there. "These CD-ROMs have tremendous educational value," says Lab
director John Fitzpatrick. "They are designed to help anyone,
regardless of age or background, learn more about birds. It's been
shown that as people learn more about birds, they become more effective
stewards of birds and the habitats they depend on. Yes, these are
commercial products, but more important, they are tools for citizen
Pete spends some quality time with a group of King Penguins in Antarctica.
Pete Thayer is so
passionate about the Lab's mission that he donated part ownership of
his dotcom enterprise, WithoutBricks, to the Lab. WithoutBricks [now
OnlineNatureMall.com], perhaps even more than his
CD-ROMs, is a perfect example of Pete's entrepreneurial spirit and
commitment to birds and birding. It enables nature-based organizations
to sell products and receive 15 to 20 percent of the net sales.
To set up an affiliate store, an organization need do little more than
place links on its web site and fill out some simple online
forms. A template allows each organization to customize the look of its
store and select which items to carry, from more than 7,000 offered at
the WithoutBricks site. These include books, jewelry, bird-feeding
supplies, artwork, videos, and more, including the many audio guides
produced by the Lab.
In the true spirit of an
entrepreneur, Pete has teamed up with other like-minded business
entrepreneurs. Rather than carry inventory on all 7,000 store items, he simply makes them available through the shop. As customers place orders, an email is
sent to one of two distributors—Common Ground Distributor and Gold
Crest Distributing—and the items are shipped directly to the customer.
This is one of several features that allows products to be offered at
prices that rival those of that giant of all Web retailers,
Amazon.com®. "What better way for an organization to raise money than
by offering books and other items to members who would probable
otherwise buy at Amazon.com®, with no benefit to their organization?"
Pete points out.
Since its launch in 1999,
more than 175 organizations have set up affiliate stores, earning
much-needed funds to implement their missions. Among the many
nonprofits is the Lab of Ornithology itself. Thanks to its devoted
members and friends, the Lab's store
is the highest-grossing store after Pete's own shop. "The key to a
successful store is offering quality products and making it easy for
the customer to order from the web site. The Lab does both," says Pete,
"It has also taken advantage of the ability to completely customize its
store. The graphics and color scheme are branded to the main page of
the Lab's own website." He adds that the Lab staff has made suggestions that improved the entire WithoutBricks enterprise, making people's ability to shop for a cause easier at all affiliate organizations.
Given how completely Pete
has thrown himself into these cause-related undertakings, it's easy to
forget that he was a celebrity of a different sort in his past life.
For more than 20 years, Pete managed mutual funds and investment
portfolios for Gateway Investment Advisers, in Cincinnati. He spent his
days monitoring the options market, balancing equity portfolios,
traveling to meet clients, and writing articles for investment
magazines. His business savy landed him as a guest on many
finance-based TV show's, and he was featured in prestigious
publications such as Newsweek, Business Week, Money magazine, Forbes, and The Wall Street Journal. When he bid farewell as president of the Gateway Fund in 1995, it was among the top five best-performing low-risk mutual funds.
Pete's distinguished business career, backed with an MBA from Harvard Business School,
has been essential to his current role as founder and president of
Thayer Birding Software. But all those years of traveling for Gateway
also gave him a more complete experience with birds—just as crucial to
someone running a business tailored specifically to birders. "I was
often a speaker at investment conferences all over the world, so I
ended up at some great birding locations. My favorites were Palm
Springs and the Salton Sea, but I also enjoyed birding in Germany,
Norway, and Belgium."
Pete continues to travel,
but now strictly in birding mode. Kenya, Costa Rica, Panama, Papua New
Guinea, Bolivia, Ecuador, Malaysia, Cuba, Borneo— his "been there" list
includes countries on seven continents. With his world list currently
at 2,830, Pete is more than a quarter of the way to seeing all 10,120
of the world's known bird species. His North American list is hovering
at an impressive 630, but, he jokes, the way scientists keep splitting
birds, I might just stay home and wait for new splits to get me to
In addition to birding,
Pete spends his "free" time golfing, reading science fiction stories,
and—big surprise— working on web sites. One of these, birding.com,
has long been hailed as the ultimate web site for birdbrains like him.
The site features information about where to bird, tours and lodging,
bird checklists, bird organizations, rare bird alerts, classified ads,
and much more. It arrived at the cusp of the Internet revolution and
has only gotten better since.
Of all that he has
accomplished, Pete says his biggest reward is the feedback he continues
to receive about the CD-ROMs. "One gentleman wrote to thank us for
making the CDs, because now, for the first time in 20 years, he could
hear warblers again," says Pete. "I also love the fact that beginning
birders have this tool for helping them learn to identify birds all on
their own. And I've had grandparents tell me how much their five- or
six-year-old grandchild loves to play with the product. For kids, this
could very well develop into a lifelong passion, just as it did for me.
There is no bigger thrill in life than to be able to pass such a gift
along for generations to come."
Allison Childs Wells is the Lab's director of communications and outreach.