n Magazine, the magazine of naples, November 2001
Naturally high tech
by Tracy Jones
When he was the president of an investment firm, Pete Thayer managed a mutual fund that was famous for its stability and aversion to risk. For his post-retirement career, though, he chose a field where caution isn't usually an option. He created his own software company, Thayer Birding Software, and an e-commerce venture, WithoutBricks.com. [OnlineNatureMall.com]. Using the same slow-but-steady approach he brought to the world of finance, Thayer has built a thriving business even as flashier high tech ventures continue to fold.
"I forgot to spend two million dollars on an ad in the Super Bowl," he jokes when asked how he avoided the dot-com curse. More seriously, he credits his success to finding our what users want from his products before he creates them. "My favorite thing to hear is 'I love your software, but...' because then I know that I'm about to be given a fantastic idea."
Birdwatching at home in Collier's Reserve Roz and Pete Thayer in Borneo
Based out of offices in north Naples, Thayer Birding Software has a three-person permanent staff, including Thayer (when other Internet companies first started expanding rapidly, he grew his business from one employee to two, luring programmer Dave Diehl away from a firm in Cincinnati to work for the company full time). Thayer Birding Software produces the CD-ROM titles Birds of North America and Birder's Diary. Birds of North America is an exhaustive guide to more than 900 species, with pictures, audio, range maps and interactive quizzes. Not only do birders rave about it online and recommend it to each other at clubs and conventions, but it's been adapted by teachers from elementary to college level and is the only software endorsed by the prestigious Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It sells through Thayer's e-commerce business and at nature stores and preserves throughout the country. This Christmas, Thayer will introduce Backyard Birds, featuring the 125 most common species, and he hopes to secure shelf space for it with top mass merchandisers. In the future, he hopes to use the multimedia format he has established to produce guides on other topics like mammals or reptiles. "If I could figure out how to make butterflies sing, we would have done that one already," he says.
at Machu Picchu in Peru
He designed his first product strictly for himself. In 1994, while still president of Gateway Investment Advisors in Cincinnati, he decided to hone his computer skills by writing a program to track his bird sightings. When it was done, he realized that no other company had produced Windows-based software to do this. "That left a big opportunity for somebody," he says. After talking to other birders, he learned that most of them wanted a product that included audio and video. He assembled the pieces and took them to a multimedia authoring firm in Cincinnati, telling them that he thought he was 80 percent of the way to having a commercial product. "They nodded politely," he remembers. "In reality, it was maybe two percent done."
Pete Thayer with tribesmen on a birding trip to Papua New Guinea
By the time the hobby's big names, Peterson's and Audubon, had issued their first CD-ROMs, Thayer had sold his 54 percent share in Gateway, opting to retire while still in his 40s. He was eager to golf and travel but couldn't resist a little healthy competition. Although their products were slicker, he thought he had a clearer idea of what enthusiasts really wanted. He was right. After his Version 2.5 was released, they conceded the market to Thayer and did not release any more titles. "With their names, they could have had the market, and they blew it."
Pete Thayer has seen species on all seven continents, including Antarctica.
When Internet domain names were easily had, Thayer secured www.birding.com to promote his software, but when it began attracting general interest questions, he started running it as an educational site to attract new people to the hobby. Later he bought and developed www.wildbirds.com for the same reason. His e-commerce site, www.withoutbricks.com [www.OnlineNatureMall.com], also benefits nature-themed small businesses and nonprofits, who are encouraged to become affiliates to the site so that they don't have the expense of setting up their own online storefronts. About 150 groups, including the Michigan Audubon Society and the Friends of the Florida Panther Refuge, sell books, movies and other items through Thayer's site and collect the proceeds. "For fundraising, it makes a lot more sense than a car wash or a bake sale," Thayer explains.
All this activity, of course, doesn't leave a lot of room for his favorite pastime. "I did a lot more birding when I was president of the investment company than I do now," he says. Growing up in a small town in Wisconsin ("10,000 people, 11,000 cows," he deadpans), he received his first birding field guide when he was 11. Adolescence crowded out that hobby, though, followed by college, marriage, an MBA from Harvard and a stellar career, during which he was often interviewed for business shows and quoted in the financial press. It's only been within the last decade that he's rediscovered his childhood enthusiasm. Since then he's already seen 2,800 species on seven continents (by contrast, the average American has probably seen about 80 species and can identify no more than 30.) He's scouted for species in Borneo, Peru, Antarctica, Kenya and other remote places and next year will join tours of Ecuador and Cuba (the trip has the blessing of the U.S. government). Now that their three children are out of the house, his wife Roz sometimes accompanies him.
If she reads the trip description and it says things like, 'You'll like day 11—we have hot water' or 'The killer bees shouldn't be much of a problem this year' then she stays home," he laughs. Roz, who had been visiting friends here for years, was the impetus behind the couples move to Naples in 1998. Thayer was angling for an undisturbed trace of jungle in Costa Rica, but decided this was a good compromise. "I love it here," he says. "It's within an hour of three of the best birding spots in North America—the Everglades, Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge."
Pete and Roz Thayer at home
He believes that he is typical of the baby boomers who are settling here. "They wanted to save the world but they had to take 25 years off to raise a family. Now many of them are well-off and are looking for a hobby. Often it's something that takes them outdoors." He thinks that as more of these residents live here year-round, they will become involved with quality-of-life issues, finding a way to incorporate conservation into growth. There's only one easy way to solve such dilemmas: "I guess now that I'm here they should just lock the door behind me," he kids. "Seriously, it's a hard balancing act." He chose his neighborhood, Collier's Reserve, because of the sanctuary within it and believes that more real-estate developers will capitalize on nature as a selling point.
He also predicts that more boomers will found small, portable businesses as he has done. For them, his advice is three-pronged: "Find the right niche, stay small enough that Bill Gates doesn't notice you and run a first-class operation."