Charlie Crystle got his start in business selling snacks and sodas to his classmates in high school.
“My adviser would drive me down, I’d buy cases of Coke at 25 cents a can and sell them for 50 cents on the honor system,” the Lancaster native recalled.
“I broke even,” he added, “because the honor system was not really effective.”
In 1994, following college and some time as a professional musician, Crystle founded a PC sales and service business. That evolved into ChiliSoft, the company Crystle sold for $70 million to Cobalt Networks in 2000.
In the mid-1990s, the Internet was just beginning to evolve into the ubiquitous resource it is today. Netscape had gone public the year before. ChiliSoft realized desktop applications such as spreadsheets and databases would migrate to the Web and decided to develop the necessary underlying software.
“We saw it as an opportunity to play in that space,” Crystle said.
Crystle hired a talented programmer, Dave Weaver, and they set to work. The result was hugely successful — Microsoft was “blown away” by ChiliSoft’s work, Crystle said — leading to the Cobalt buyout.
Ultimately, the buyout ended up being somewhat less remunerative than the headline figure would indicate. Sun Microsystems acquired Cobalt five months later, Crystle said, but Sun’s stock dropped more than 95 percent in value over the next year as the Internet bubble deflated.
Still, “It was a pretty amazing time,” he said. “We were making it up as we went, and didn’t really know what we knew or what we didn’t know.”
He knows much more now about tech entrepreneurship, but said he’s still driven by the same passion to solve problems and improve lives.
“You lose some of the unbridled optimism,” he said, but insisted: “My character is the same.
“I want to hit a home run. I still get very passionate about things, and energetic, and I’m very tenacious.”
Since ChiliSoft, he’s been involved in politics, social work and education. He’s interested in economic development, and is mulling schemes for bringing manufacturing jobs back to Lancaster.
He’s also been involved in more software startups. In 2004, he founded Mission Research, based in Lancaster. Its main product is GiftWorks, considered the leading fundraising and donor management program for nonprofits.
Software is a “conduit,” not an end in itself, Crystle said.
“It’s something I get jazzed up about, and I need to pay the bills like everybody else,” he said. “So I’m trying to make the next big thing happen so I can pay the bills, and then maybe turn my sights toward something else.”
That next big thing he’s trying to make happen is Jawaya, a search engine that uses a social media approach to improve search results.
There are limits to how good Google’s algorithm-driven search results can be, especially when companies spend so much time and effort trying to manipulate them to their own advantage, he said.
Jawaya adds human expertise to the mix, he said. It allows users to identify which search results they found most useful, giving the next person with the same search a head start.
“This is about making the haystack smaller,” Crystle said.
Jawaya also will allow people with similar search histories to find each other, fostering the creation of online communities of like-minded individuals, he said.
Jawaya could become a $1 billion company, but that’s not the main goal, he said. The main goal is making people’s lives better — in this case, their lives online.
“The driving need for me is to reduce the amount of noise in digital life,” he said.
“It’s just a black hole, this Internet thing,” he said, chuckling. “It needs an off switch.”