Parallel Entrepreneur

Richard MacKinnon

“Why do one good idea at a time when you can do several at once?” —Richard MacKinnon

During his SJSU days, Richard MacKinnon, ’89 BA, ’92 MA, Political Science, could be found out on Tower Lawn, practicing his juggling skills. (He was vice president of the Juggling Club.) These days, based in Austin, he’s proving himself to be a juggling wizard of a different sort. CEO of the mobile feedback service Mifft, CEO of the WiFi firm Less Networks, president of the nonprofit initiative that quashed “for pay” WiFi in Austin (Austin Wireless City Project), he’s also Austin’s transportation commissioner, BorgFest organizer (“to celebrate cyborgs and their fans”) and pulls shifts at a friend’s restaurant.

The road to multiplicity began for MacKinnon in the 1990s when he caught Silicon Valley start-up “fever,” quit his post at SJSU’s Student Outreach and founded Portal Software, working out of a house in Cupertino. Back when, the entrepreneur’s friends had trouble understanding a job that involved “talking to people who hung out and lived inside computers.”

Perplexity very likely turned to envy after MacKinnon’s third start-up acquainted him with wireless internet before its standardization and he was able to use his laptop “anywhere in the room without having a long Ethernet cord strung back to a router.” But it wasn’t until he founded Less Networks in 2003 that he hit upon a business strategy that suited his taste: no venture capital, no obeying investors and shareholders, he and his team totally in control of the “corporate fate.”

MacKinnon doesn’t have a work desk—anywhere. He has a laptop and a phone.

“I work naked from bed a lot because getting showered and dressed takes too much time at the beginning of the day,” he jokes. “If it wasn’t for meetings, I’d never get up!”

Envious much, fellow Spartans?

—Kat Meads

Web Extra

Read on for more about MacKinnon’s business savvy and government service.

MacKinnon has learned a thing or two since launching Portal Software out of a house in Cupertino in the early 1990s. For instance:

  • Raw intelligence isn’t enough to succeed.
  • An instinct for making money is crucial.
  • Chase after the people who are supposed to pay you and everyone else will find you.
  • Never underestimate the high school whiz kid. Don’t let preconceived notions of age and maturity restrict your ability to work together.
  • Venture capital is a formidable, tangible force. It will divide, shape and transform companies and partnerships, and make some (of the many involved) disproportionately wealthy.
  • Smart doesn’t necessarily mean convoluted. Respect straight-forward “simple” business models.
  • Always ask: Would a customer want to buy this? rather than Wouldn’t it be cool if we made this?
  • Starting up is easy; keeping going is hard.

Currently CEO of the mobile feedback service Mifft and of the WiFi firm Less Networks (his fourth start-up), MacKinnon started working in the high-tech biz when online communities and wireless Internet counted as the wild frontier.

Curious about what a frontiersman by trade sees as the next “disruption to the workplace”?

It’s the “end of the boss,” MacKinnon predicts, a development that “coincides with the end of ‘employment’ and the rise of the independent contractor and the entrepreneur. It will enable us all to become buyers and sellers of labor in the workplace and cut out the exploitive chutes and ladders bureaucracy.”

In serving as Austin’s transportation commissioner (since 2007) and Capital Metro liaison (since 2008), MacKinnon brings his entrepreneurial and network know-how to the government side of the table.

The government bashing currently in vogue? It’s based on the “misconception that government is an inefficient operation filled with incompetent people,” he says, adding: “the private sector is not filled with saints. One of the great things about Austin’s boards and commissions programs is that it enables people like myself to bridge the divide between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ As chair of the transportation commission, I can help members of the public understand how and why the government must act in certain ways, while also helping the government aspire to transparency, accountability, fairness and responsiveness.”

Fairness as a hallmark of government is a concept MacKinnon learned to recognize and value as a student in SJSU’s Department of Political Science, he reveals. And although he considers neither business nor the free market “fair … government can strive to be,” he believes, “if that’s what the people expect of it.”

His current government-side challenge is helping Austin wrestle with the Internet’s “disruptive effects on its highly regulated taxi industry.” That undertaking involves developing public policy for ride-sharing apps and determining whether those apps can (or can’t) co-exist with existing transportation services. In his succinct description: “AirBnB meets the transportation industry.”

Jody Ulate

Jody Ulate, '05 MA English, is editor of the Washington Square blog and printed alumni magazine.

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