Unimpaired road to success Honoree: Jamie Clark is being honored because he built a business despite a personal obstacle. But he says being deaf is what led him to an interest in computers in the first place.

April 14, 1997|By Dilshad D. Husain | Dilshad D. Husain,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Jamie Clark's journey on the information superhighway has taken him farther than he ever expected.

The founder and president of Clark Internet Services in Columbia will be honored as Maryland Small Business Person of the Year by the Small Business Administration Baltimore District Office at an awards breakfast May 2 at the Hyatt Regency in the Inner Harbor.

Clark, 34, exceeded all qualifications for the award -- growth in employees, improving financial situation, innovative products and service, community contribution, overcoming obstacles -- according to O. J. Phillips, the chief of SBA's business development division in the Baltimore District Office. It was the last quality that was the deciding factor, Phillips said.

"The committee that chose Mr. Clark was looking for that special someone who had to overcome something his competitors didn't," Phillips said. "Mr. Clark is deaf, and his company is thriving. That's a great thing."

Rather than being an impediment, Clark credited his hearing impairment with steering him toward an interest in computers, and said that it has not been a big handicap in starting and running the business.

"The Internet is such a special and universal world," Clark said through his interpreter, Debra Radcliff-Borsch. "You don't know if a person has a handicap over the Internet. It really doesn't even matter. The Internet is like the great equalizer.

"I believe I earned this award not because I'm deaf and I have a business, but because we really do have a great company. The morale is high, the customers are happy, we're expanding our reach and services. That's why I received the award."

Clark said he communicates most with his employees and customers through e-mail. "Being deaf is not that big a deal," he said.

Clark first got involved with the Internet in the summer of 1992 when he was working on a project for a course at Johns Hopkins University. He researched the requirements to set up a windowing interface -- a type of graphics program -- on the Internet, and discovered that no provider offered one.

Clark's subsequent experiences led him to believe that graphics was not the only thing missing from Internet service providers. Frustrated with the level of service and options he was getting, he decided to set up his own Internet service company.

"I hadn't a business contract, really no business sense," he said. "But I was in a do-it mode, so I did it."

Backed by a $35,000 loan from Columbia Bank, Clark set up shop in a barn on his father's diary farm. With a high-capacity 56k line leased from A SprintLink, he signed up his first customer on April 30, 1993.

Clark had only four part-time, deaf employees helping him in the beginning. He built a customer base slowly, relying mainly on the customer grapevine and computer fairs to spread the word. His company cleared a profit in its first year, he said.

Today, Clark Internet Services, known as ClarkNet, has 44 employees -- seven are deaf -- and turned a profit of $2.4 million in 1996. Its 6,000 customers can dial into 12 POP -- point of presence -- sites in Maryland, Virginia and Washington.

For all its success, though, ClarkNet has seen its business environment change dramatically. When it began in 1993, ClarkNet was Maryland's Internet pioneer. But the company now has some giant rivals, the biggest being Erol's Internet of Springfield, Va., which has about 195,000 customers.

ClarkNet finds itself designing new software and lowering its prices to keep up with the competition. Clark said he isn't worried by the pressure, especially as long as the company keeps landing big accounts, including The Baltimore Sun Co.

"We don't have the money to do big ad campaigns -- we rely more on radio, computer fairs and word-of-mouth. But our rate of growth satisfies us," he said.

"We're definitely not as big as other ISPs (Internet service providers)," Clark said. "But I do think we can corner our market if we continue to provide good customer service and specialized services. Those seem to bring in the big accounts and make Clark-Net different from other ISPs."

The company recently won a contract from the University of Maryland University College to be its Internet service provider. ClarkNet will be offering UNIX shell access to UMUC students for $13 a month, and could reach another 13,000 customers through the account.

ClarkNet has also launched KidzNet, an Internet service that controls access to adult-oriented Internet sites and news groups, bulletin boards and chat rooms.

In February, Clark donated total Internet access to the Maryland School for the Deaf.

Like many other Internet service providers inundated with Internet traffic, ClarkNet has its problems with busy signals, faulty connections and computer errors. But the company answers every complaint it receives, Clark said.

"Every single e-mail and every single phone call is taken care of. We have never ignored a problem or shoved it aside," he said.

"Growth and service are always hand-in-hand for us," Clark said. The company moved its offices from the dairy barn to its present quarters in a Columbia office building in September 1995. But the new headquarters are so cramped that the company will move in May to a bigger office across the street.

The networking operating center, with all the servers and connections, remains in the barn, to save money.

While Clark wants to become dominant in his own back yard, he says his first focus is on quality.

"Whether this company stays small or continues to grow as rapidly as it has," he said, "I want it to always provide the best range of Internet and customer services."

Pub Date: 4/14/97

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