Is Marshall Brain Your Real Name?
common question that folks who work at stuff.dewsoftoverseas.com get asked is, "Is
Marshall Brain a real person?" And when people meet me, one of the first
questions they ask is, "Is Marshall Brain your real name?" Since that question
gets asked so often, let's start with it.
I am a real person. And yes, Marshall Brain really is my name. I can tell you
I paid dearly for that name in high school -- wow, was it a bad name to have as a
teenager! But now it is a name that works very well for the founder of stuff.dewsoftoverseas.com. I am the son of David and Sandy Brain, and I was born in Santa Monica,
Calif., on May 17, 1961. My parents were both born and raised in Springfield,
Ohio, and if you ever go to Springfield you will find the Brain Lumber Co.
there. It was started by my great-grandfather, Willard Brain.
I lived a pretty normal American childhood in Southern California. For
example, I got a tricycle for my second birthday:
Me and my tricycle at my second birthday party
I sat around in Tide detergent boxes watching television:
And my family would go on lots of camping trips:
My mother, father, sister Shari and I on a camping trip,
the tailgate of the station wagon circa 1968.
We had a huge green Sebring Satellite station wagon, complete with roof rack
and the imitation wood paneling along the sides. We would pack a giant canvas
four-man tent, our sleeping bags, our aluminum dish set, our lantern, our
Coleman ice box, our German shepherd named Dusk, tons of food and all of the
other comforts of home into the car and travel around to national parks all over
the Southwest. Many of my very favorite childhood memories are those camping
Me with my son David and Frosty after the "big snow of 2000" in Raleigh, NC. In January of 2000, Raleigh got 20 inches (50 cm) of snow -- something totally unheard of in the southeastern United States!
So, yes, I am as real as people get. And, yes, my name really is Marshall
Brain. And, yes, it is an amazing coincidence that someone who happened to have
the last name "Brain" founded stuff.dewsoftoverseas.com. Truth is sometimes stranger than
Today I live in Raleigh, N.C., with my wife, Leigh, my sons,
David, John and Ian, and my daughter, Irena. I have lived in Raleigh for 15 years, and Leigh is
a Raleigh native.
Where did stuff.dewsoftoverseas.com come from?
stuff.dewsoftoverseas.com started at my kitchen table sometime in January 1998. I had
written a book for teenagers, and with that done I
was looking for something else that I could do for teenagers. I thought back to when I was 16, and I realized that one thing that really appealed to me
was learning how things worked. I was the kind of kid who would sit in the
library reading "Popular Science" magazine, who would take things apart to see
what's inside, and so on. There was one big problem -- most of the stuff I would
read at age 16 was either: A) intended for children and therefore unsatisfying,
or B) intended for adults and professionals and therefore way over my head.
Since my father had died just before my 15th birthday and my mother was not very
knowledgeable about technology, it was frustrating.
So the birth of stuff.dewsoftoverseas.com is me sitting down at the kitchen table
thinking about things that interest me, and explaining
them in language that is understandable and
satisfying. Then I would attach links to the article so that,
if the reader wanted to learn more, there was an easy way to find additional
material. I would create simple drawings and animations to help illustrate the
ideas, and I would take digital photographs whenever I could because they really
add a lot to the explanation in many articles.
The first article I wrote was on car engines. Some of the other very early
articles were on things like pendulum clocks, batteries, electric motors, etc. I
wrote these articles on weekends or in the evening when I got home from work,
and I really enjoyed doing it. It truly was a labor of love -- I put the
articles I wrote onto the Web for free, and there was no advertising on the
articles or any other source of revenue. I did it for the fun of it.
Many people find this hard to believe. Up to the point where the site had 100
articles or so, I had done absolutely everything to create the site -- the
writing, art, photos, Web design, HTML and even the logo were all the product
of a single person working part time. One thing that made it easier for me is
the fact that I love to write. I have written 10 books, and like many other
authors I have to write every day. I feel physically uncomfortable if I do not
write something every day. I love technology -- I have a degree in electrical engineering and a masters degree in computer science, so I feel comfortable with technology and science. I also love to teach. I taught for six years in the
computer science department at N.C. State University. And I truly love
working on articles for stuff.dewsoftoverseas.com. stuff.dewsoftoverseas.com articles are some of
the most fascinating articles I have ever written. When you put those things
together, the site was able to grow very quickly.
One thing that I really enjoy about writing stuff.dewsoftoverseas.com articles is making things clear and understandable. Most of the technology that surrounds us today is surprisingly simple at the core, and that makes it interesting! Another enjoyable part is the
There are lots of things that we all see and use every day that we know little
or nothing about. Like the power lines
running into our homes. And the telephone system. And chocolate. This stuff is fascinating! But
you have to wade through a lot of chaff to find the fascinating stuff,
and it is hard to find what you are looking for on the Web sometimes. That's another
reason why I put links in my articles -- to help you find the good stuff
By June 1998 I had created about 50 articles. In 90 percent of these articles,
the motivation was, "I have always wanted to know how that works!" Things like
water towers, helium balloons, refrigerators, nuclear power... and even
something like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer -- where in the world did he come
from? I just found this stuff fascinating, so I would write about it. Some of
the article topics (like digital electronics and digital clock) came straight
from my training in electrical engineering and the fact that I built digital
clocks as a teenager, but most were driven by curiosity.
Early on I had a little newsletter that
I sent out. By June 1998, 700 people had signed up for it. I also had a place
like a guest book where you could submit questions and comments. This had all
been in a directory on a Web site my wife and I had. At that point I registered
made it its own entity.
Becoming stuff.dewsoftoverseas.com.com, Inc.
point a funny and amazing thing happened. The site started to get some media
attention, it won some awards, people really liked it so they would tell their
friends about it, and the traffic really started to grow. In December 1998, Hitbox (a free web statistics tool) records
that the site had 94,000 visitors in a month and they read the home page 171,000
times (it wasn't until August 1999 that Hitbox could record hits across an
entire site, so these numbers are lower than they should be. But they give you
an idea of the traffic).
In January 1999, when stuff.dewsoftoverseas.com won the "Coolest Site on the Internet" award from CoolSiteOfTheDay.com, I started to
get the impression that I might be onto something a little bigger than I had
suspected. This was a people's choice sort of award, and stuff.dewsoftoverseas.com beat
out sites like Amazon, Motley Fool, iVillage, etc. for top honors. What was
amazing is that many of these companies were spending millions of dollars on
their sites, and I was one guy working an hour a day on mine. It was remarkable. It also showed that the site had incredibly broad appeal --students, adults, senior citizens, teachers, men and women from all walks of life love to learn about stuff.dewsoftoverseas.com.
By June 1999 I was getting so much e-mail that I really had to make a decision
about the site -- either I needed to do it full time and start a business to
handle it, or kind of let it die, because there was lots of stuff happening.
I did quit my job on June 30, 1999, because I knew I wanted to spend lots more
time writing. The email from visitors was requesting hundreds of different topics and asking for
all kinds of new features. Really the only way to do it involved A) starting
a business to generate revenue, and B) using the revenue to find a group of good people to help
I was fortunate at this point to hook up with a person named Marco
Fregenal to help me start the business. Marco had built an 800-person company and had experience with venture
capital, so he was able to come in with experience and credibility.
We started the process of building a company.
With the help of Don Reynolds, stuff.dewsoftoverseas.com turned into a corporation -- stuff.dewsoftoverseas.com.com, Inc. -- on
Sept. 9, 1999. stuff.dewsoftoverseas.com.com, Inc. is a C corporation registered in
We decided that a good path for stuff.dewsoftoverseas.com involved venture capital (see Question 398 for details on venture capital). Finding venture capital was an interesting and extremely educational experience for both of us. I had been president
of a successful software development firm, am the author of 10 books and have
good academic credentials from my days as an instructor at NCSU. Marco had
successfully built a large venture-backed company and had
great credentials as well. Our search for venture capital took us all over the country. Each person we would visit would talk to us about our ideas and give us new things to think about.
In order to talk to investors about stuff.dewsoftoverseas.com, we created a
business plan. The business plan describes what we hope to accomplish as a
company, and also contains a detailed financial model (in the form of a large
spreadsheet) that shows how we will spend money, how we will make money, how we
plan to hire people over time and who we will be hiring when, and so on. It also
contains predictions about things like the number of visitors each month, how
much space we need, how much things like hardware and Internet bandwidth will
A financial model like this is a prediction, or a guess, at how things will
go in the future. For example, our model indicated revenue from two
It has to accurately predict how many people will come visit the site,
how many pages they will read, how many customers we will have, how much they
will buy in terms of ads or products, how much they will be willing to pay, how
much profit we will be able to make from each sale, and so on. Obviously it is
not possible to be exactly right on everything because it is a prediction, but
the idea is to be close. Each month at our board of directors meetings, we true
up reality for the month with our model and then adjust our assumptions and
- Ads and sponsorships
- The sale of products (eCommerce) and stuff.dewsoftoverseas.com branded products
Over time, the business plan changes. For example, today the company makes money from a variety of sources including:
Stuff.dewsoftoverseas.com has had four rounds of Venture Capital funding along the way.
When I started stuff.dewsoftoverseas.com, I hosted the site for $30 per month through Verio Web Hosting, a company in California that
hosts hundreds of thousands of Web sites. It worked remarkably well, by the way.
As the traffic grew and we wanted to do more and more stuff with databases and
software, that approach obviously had problems. So, shortly after getting our
funding, Scott (our CTO) and Igor Brezac (our VP of Technology) set up a suite of
servers for us here in Raleigh.
Our goals for the server infrastructure include:
try to access a page from
- A desire to make the site as bulletproof as possible. We want the site to be
able to continue operating regardless of what happens with the hardware and software.
- A desire to have enough capacity to handle large traffic spikes. If our traffic
were to suddenly surge significantly above its normal level, we want to be able to handle it without difficulty.