Excerpts from E-Media's Ken McCarthy

The New Fillmore Newspaper - February 1996

By David Ish

The son of a corporate computer executive, Ken grew up all over, following his father's fortunes as they took him from Connecticut to LA to San Francisco to the Bronx to Montclair, New Jersey. While his family was living in Montclair he was bright enough to get into Regis High School in Manhattan, a tuition-free school run by the Jesuits.

His high marks at Regis earned him a slot at Princeton where he majored in Anthropology and also took senior level courses in Psychology, Music, and Religion. In his spare time he hosted a daily radio jazz show on WPRB, one of the few college stations in the country that operates under a commercial license. While still a senior at Princeton, Ken interned at the New York State Council on the Arts in their music division, reviewing groups applying for state grants. The division was headed by James Jordan, a cousin of jazz luminary Ornette Coleman. Ken met Ornette through James and wound up finding and arranging for the purchase of a building for Coleman on the Lower East Side of New York to house the jazz great's dream of a music school. Now, 16 years later, Ken is working with Ornette again, this time arranging to make the artist's work available worldwide on the Internet.

After graduating Princeton in '81 Ken hit the bricks in Manhattan looking for a straight job. It was an extremely tough job market that year, even for a Princeton grad, and one blisteringly hot summer day pounding the pavement in his one wool suit, he passed by the window of Paragon sporting goods and spotted a back pack for sale. He bought the backpack and, with $100 in his pocket, took off for a summer of hitchhiking in New England and Canada.

But when he returned to Manhattan he found the job market no easier than when he had left it, and after a brief stint at technical writing, he started his first company which he called "Optimal Learning" to teach people what he had learned at Princeton and on his own about how to learn and create with more confidence and speed. He plastered Broadway from 72nd Street to 96th Street with posters announcing his classes teaching speed reading and accelerated learning, and within a couple of years was lecturing on the topic at MIT and N.Y.U. and had become an adjunct faculty member at Columbia.

While teaching was prestigious, it was not wholly rewarding financially, so Ken turned his skills to Wall Street and joined an elite team of software engineers who were creating online trading systems for investment banks. One client, the foreign exchange trading desk of Bankers Trust, piped billions of dollars worth of transactions monthly through a system created by Ken and his colleagues. Ken was a communications bridge between the slow, careful, process-oriented engineers, and the fast-talking bottom line, results-oriented traders.

He made enough money that when the project ended he was able to invest it in a failing audio post production facility started by a friend, and turn it around. He brought in 17 thousand dollars in billings in his first three weeks and had the pleasure of editing and laying down the sound track for the first video footage ever taken of a then unknown model named Cindy Crawford. The company also later did the sound track for Like Water for Chocolate.

But just as Ken's fortunes were rising, he had a freak accident playing touch football, shredding the connective tissue around his neck and the base of his spine, a very serious injury which took him years to recover from. Unable to work and faced with mounting medical bills, he ran through his savings and found himself in the unenviable position of having to choose between having a roof over his head or continuing with much needed physical therapy. He gulped and chose the latter, sleeping on couches of friends while he traveled to Chinatown for special treatments.

Only partially recovered, he decided to move to California to see if a break from the stress and extreme weather of New York City might speed up his healing process. Coincidentally, a friend had just moved to Mill Valley and was having trouble getting his martial arts school off the ground. As he'd done with his other friend's audio post production business, Ken quickly turned the failing school around. After he got more on his feet, he moved from Mill Valley to his current top floor apartment on California Street overlooking Fillmore. He quickly created a new company from scratch using his marketing skills to conduct seminars and create educational materials for teaching direct mail to mortgage brokers. He also got involved in book development and promotion, encouraging a friend from New York, Bettina Vitell, who had also moved to the neighborhood, to write her own vegetarian cookbook, A Taste of Heaven and Earth.

Ken helped her write it, and then promoted it heavily. The book, Bettina's first, was nominated for the Julia Child Cookbook Award.

Looking for ways to spread the word about Bettina's book Ken revisited the Internet, which he had first seen being used at Princeton by computer music students. In the process he reconnected with an old college friend and found he was living five blocks away on Vallejo Street! The friend, a bonafide computer genius, quickly brought him up to speed on the Internet and told him of a conference happening later that month on Computer Bulletin Board Services in Colorado Springs and, intrigued, Ken decided to attend. At the conference he met Internet guru and former peace activist Mark Graham, whose founding of PeaceNet and other achievements had landed him on the list of the 100 most important people in computing, and discovered that Mark lived five blocks away on Broderick!

In 1994 Ken, who had helped former Fillmore resident Hal Josephson promote a series of visionary conferences in the pre-commercial years of the now exploding multimedia industry, noticed that multimedia and the Internet were two industry groups which barely knew of each other's existence but had a lot to offer each other. In November of that year, with Mark Graham as one of the key speakers, Ken held the first interdisciplinary conference between these two groups. Marc Andreessen, another one of the keynoters at the conference and developer of the Mosaic graphic interface for the Web, has gone from being a $6.85 per hour technician at the University of Illinois three years ago to being a founder of Netscape today with a personal net worth of $100 million.

Ken was off on a wild ride, surfing a tsunami of the net wave, when in April of last year a bad chiropractic adjustment brought his old injury to the fore and he found himself once again painfully physically disabled, unable to connect with clients, draft proposals, or work at all. The time to get into the Internet business was now, and now was passing him by in a furious frenzy of activity while he lay immobilized.

He took to re-reading a book he discovered while browsing in Kinokuniya Books in Japantown, written by a maverick Japanese entrepreneur named Kuniyasu Sakai who keeps his companies from getting too bureaucratically hide bound by splitting them up when they get too big. Ken was so fascinated with this radical approach that he contacted the author's publisher in New York, Hiroshi Kagawa, who runs an organization called the Intercultural Group which works on opening U.S. markets to the Japanese, and Japanese markets to Americans. Their conversation led to the strong Japanese interest in-and ignorance of-the Internet, and Ken came up with sub career number-oh hell, I've lost count by now. In any event, Ken's book, The Internet Jissen Business Manual, translated by Kagawa, will be coming out in Japan February 6 and will be personally presented by Jonathan T. Kaji, California's Director of Trade and Investment in Tokyo to the Japanese trade official responsible for Japan's multimedia and Internet initiative. So Ken is back on the tsunami, this time, appropriately enough, headed for the Japanese market.

There have been so many different aspects to Ken's life -- jazz, film making, publishing, martial arts, computers -- he almost seems to be skipping from one thing to the next with no intuitive sense of underlying organizing principle. Is there a theme here? Not in the usual sense as there is in classical music. But looking more deeply there most definitely is a metaphor, and it has to do not with classical music but jazz , with improvisation, with catching the moment and bringing it home for dinner. He himself sees an underlying motif in his interest in both Ornette Coleman, the jazz great, and Kuniyasu Sakai the Japanese business maverick. "They both have tremendous respect for the creative potential that's within each person and they're both geniuses at helping others develop their talents. They can plunge into a seemingly chaotic situation and uncover new levels of order. I admire that, and tend to prefer the unfinished to the finished myself, and am definitely happiest when I'm in the middle of creating something new." he says. It is also clear that Ken, an anthropology major, thrives at cultural intersections, be they between computer programmers and foreign exchange traders, multimedia and Internet junkies, or American and Japanese markets.

As for the neighborhood, should fame and fortune beckon even more than they have, Ken doubts he will ever leave it for say, Seacliff or someplace. "I love this place," he says. "I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. It's all here." He's right around the corner, and can always be reached at ken@e-media.com.

David Ish, Editor
The New Fillmore

Back to E-Media articles || Home || Write

© E-Media, 1996. All Rights Reserved.